Apr 8, 2015; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Colorado Rockies pitcher LaTroy Hawkins (32) pitches in the ninth inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. Hawkins picked up the win as the Rockies beat the Brewers 5-4 in 10 innings. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
The Colorado Rockies are starting the season with LaTroy Hawkins as their closer. There are a lot of good things about that, and one bad one: he doesn’t miss bats.
I wrote a post yesterday morning predicting LaTroy Hawkins’ 2015 season. I stand by it; nothing in my mind has changed after his performance Wednesday night, where he allowed four hits and two runs to blow a save in Milwaukee.
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The Colorado Rockies won the game, so all is forgiven, right?
Besides, everyone will have bad days and blow up out of the bullpen a time or two (yes, kids, even Adam Ottavino is going to give up runs… eventually).
As we all intuitively know the Rockies won’t go 162-0 (well…), we also must know one bad outing does not a closer make.
But, one bad outing aside, there is something that should concern you about Hawkins, and I wrote briefly about it yesterday: he doesn’t miss bats.
That doesn’t matter as much for Kyle Kendrick, or Jordan Lyles, who need to fill up the strike zone as starting pitchers and get ground balls so they can get 18+ outs pretty much every start.
But for Hawkins – and every late inning reliever – runners are going to be on base, the Rockies will be up by one run, there will be less than two outs, and the team needs a strikeout instead of a ground ball.
Look at last night’s game. Hawkins had a chance to close it despite giving up a few weak ground balls, when he faced Ryan Braun (and then, Carlos Gomez) with two outs.
18 of the top 50 saves leaders in 2014 more than doubled Hawkins’ K rate. That’s a lot of strikeouts, many of which came in tight games with runners on base like what Hawkins saw Wednesday.
Both made weak contact, to be sure, but it was placed well, and a 4-2 game became 4-4.
If Hawkins had struck out either Braun or Gomez, the game ends in the ninth and Wilin Rosario doesn’t play hero in the tenth.
The Rockies got away with one despite Hawkins failing to miss bats when he needed it the most Wednesday night, but the club won’t always be as lucky.
To understand Hawkins’ contact problem, let’s look at closer data from last season.
Of the top 50 closers in baseball last year (based off number of saves; some teams used multiple guys to save games), LaTroy Hawkins had the second-worst strikeouts per nine innings rate in baseball, only ahead of Matt Lindstrom of the Chicago White Sox (and Lindstrom only saved 6 games in 35 appearances).
Hawkins only struck out 5.30 batters per nine, and no full-season closer was anywhere close to as low a rate as Hawkins. Neftali Feliz, who only got 14 save chances for the Rangers (Hawkins had 26 for the Rockies), was the only other closer under 6.0 K per nine innings, at 5.97.
In fact, eighteen of the top 50 saves leaders from a year ago more than doubled Hawkins’ strikeout rate. That’s a lot of strikeouts, many of which came in tight games with runners on base like what Hawkins saw Wednesday.
Now, let’s look at contact percentages among closers in the NL West from 2014. Contact percentage, for those unfamiliar, is, well, the percentage of contact made by hitters when swinging.
It’s a good stat to capture how “unhittable” a pitcher can be. The lower the percentage, obviously, the harder it is to make contact. Closers ought to have some of the lowest contact percentages for reasons exactly like what we saw happen to Hawkins Wednesday night.
Jun 14, 2014; San Francisco, CA, USA; Colorado Rockies relief pitcher LaTroy Hawkins (32) pitches the ball against the San Francisco Giants during the ninth inning at AT&T Park. The Colorado Rockies defeated the San Francisco Giants 5-4. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
Los Angeles Dodgers
Kenley Jansen – 68.8%
Addison Reed – 83.3%
LaTroy Hawkins – 88.3%
Hawkins has the highest contact percentage by a significant margin.
When you can’t strike batters out, and you give up lots of contact, the door opens for seeing-eye ground balls and weird stuff to happen sometimes in the ninth… like what we saw Wednesday night.
Does any/all of this mean Hawkins is a bad closer? No! You shouldn’t bring out your pitchforks (yet), and considering how good the Rockies’ infield defense is, Hawkins is probably more well-positioned than most closers to get away with pitching to contact and striking out only 5-ish hitters per nine innings.
But it does mean that Walt Weiss should probably consider an occasional platoon in the ninth inning depending on various events: the score, the venue, the order (and handedness) of hitters due up, if/how many runners are on base already, etc., etc.
The Rockies have at least two guys (Ottavino and Boone Logan) who are going to rack up a ton of strikeouts this season. If Weiss can use them – and Hawkins, and Rafael Betancourt, and John Axford, and even Brooks Brown – appropriately as he navigates late innings this year, the team will survive.
Qualitatively, Hawkins does bring a lot to the bullpen as a veteran. I know, stat-heads hate the “intangibles” talk, but what I tweeted last night during the two-run ninth inning is true:
There is value (that’s difficult to quantify) in having Hawkins in tight spots. He won’t get rattled and he’ll slow the game down when younger pitchers would speed it up and compound mistakes with more mistakes. But there’s also value in playing the numbers when the club needs a strikeout instead of a ground ball.
Don’t go calling for Hawkins’ head just yet. If anything, if this keeps happening, start calling for Weiss’ head if he consistently fails to put Hawkins in a position to succeed.