Courtney Hawkins: Are 2014’s Improvements Enough?

About 16 months ago, I wrote this 3,000-word-plus diatribe about Courtney Hawkins, attempting to make sense of how a 2012 mid-first-round pick could collapse from a .284/.324/.480 line in his post-draft 2012 season (complete with reaching High-A at age 18) to an abysmal .178/.249/.384 mark in 2013 (complete with ghastly 37.6% strikeout rate).

For some, those numbers were grounds for Hawkins’ dismissal as a prospect; for others, his youth and level made that immediate, severe pessimism seem a bit over-the-top and premature; he did manage to slug nineteen homers in 103 games in the midst of all that whiffing, at least. The thought of this latter group was that Hawkins would repeat High-A in 2014 as a 20-year-old and that the tools that made him a first-round pick would again surface as he grew into the level.

A glance at the big outfielder’s 2014 end-of-season results shows that those who held out hope for improvement weren’t off base. Hawkins came through with a .249/.331/.450 line this past season, good for a .352 wOBA and 117 wRC+. He cut his strikeout rate to a more workable 27.8% while raising his walks from 6.8% to 10.3%. If his 2013 season didn’t exist, statistically-minded prospect-watchers would look at Hawkins’ age-20 campaign and declare it a solid success, or at least say he met expectations.

In this piece, I want to look beneath this superficial dramatic improvement and examine what drove Hawkins’ improvements, with an eye toward where his 2014 modifications might lead him in the future.

Raw Tools

First, let’s examine what raw talent Hawkins has at his disposal to potentially actualize.

The right-handed swinger’s carrying tool is his raw power, which rates as at least a 70 on the 20-80 scale. He regularly puts on impressive shows in batting practice and shows the ability to launch tape-measure shots in games as well. Furthermore, he shows the ability to generate plus power without selling out for it.

Beyond his power, Hawkins’ tools are somewhat suspect. Drafted as a center fielder, Hawkins moved to left in 2014. At 6’3″ and probably a few pounds over his listed 220, he gets future body comps like Carlos Lee and Dayan Viciedo from scouts; he’s not going to be a five-tool type like some imagined when he was drafted. Both his range and arm seemed to take a step backward from 2013 to 2014, and while Hawkins should be an adequate corner outfield defender, he’s unlikely to be particularly valuable on the bases or in the field.

If Hawkins is merely a 50-grade defensive left fielder with a 50-55 arm and 45 speed, that puts more pressure on his hit tool to rise from the ashes and give him something to work with aside from just raw power, and his results to date certainly don’t paint the hit tool as a strength. Let’s examine how accurate those results are.

Mechanics

Following his dreadful 2013, Hawkins and the White Sox brass recognized several mechanical problems in his swing.

Hawkins13

The above is an example of what a typical Hawkins cut looked like toward the end of the 2013 season. Note the pronounced bat load, which comes with a very high back elbow, a high legkick, and a lot of torque. Then, as he swings, Hawkins drops his back elbow, creating a loopy bat path; he also steps toward third base, pulling off the ball. The aforementioned torque helped produce power when Hawkins ran into a ball, but it’s easy to see how these mechanics would fail to produce contact numbers that came anywhere near average.

Given how glaring some of these deficiencies are, one would hope that the player and organization would make efforts to alter them; indeed, those efforts were readily obvious at the outset of the 2014 season.

Hawkins14-1

Even on an empty cut at a meatball from finesse lefty Jonathan Dziedzic, some dramatic differences emerge immediately here. Hawkins still hits with something of a high back elbow and there’s still some length, but he’s taking a more direct and even path to the ball. Further, his legkick is much reduced and he’s staying on the ball much better rather than bailing out to the third-base side. It’s not a swing that’s going to make anyone drool with excitement, but it’s a vast improvement over Hawkins’ 2013 mechanics, and there are plenty of players considered reasonable prospects who are at least this rough mechanically.

Hawkins had a stretch in May where he dropped his hands a bit further, which caused issues with getting jammed inside:

HawkJam

Later in the season, though, he seemed to have figured out that this did more harm than good, so he was back to something resembling his early-season mechanics:

HawkFinal

All told, it’s as much improvement as one could expect for Hawkins from 2013 to 2014. Bat speed has never been an issue for Hawkins, so now that he’s taking a reasonable path to the ball, he’s equipped to make at least a modicum of contact.

Pitch Recognition

Ahh, but here we get to the other issue, the one that made up the bulk of last year’s piece. And it’s the issue that, unlike Hawkins’ mechanical deficiencies, is still very present.

Two-plus years into his professional career, Hawkins simply shows no ability to read the spin of a baseball. That’s the only possible explanation for at-bats like this:

I could go on with piles of examples as I did in last year’s piece…but just trust me that they’re out there. Note, in particular, that Hawkins sees six offspeed pitches in the above videos, and he takes the two in the zone while offering at the four outside it.

One might note that in spite of this seemingly massive weakness, Hawkins managed to work an above-average 10.3% walk rate in 2014, up from 6.8% in 2013. If he didn’t improve at taking balls out of the zone, how could this increase happen? A few factors play into it. First, the shorter swing let him hang in and foul pitches off to lengthen at-bats. Second, pitchers were more careful with him because his power was more usable. Finally, Hawkins, as he learned from the 2013 struggles, appeared to take a more passive approach at the plate, in particular when he got ahead in the count.

This approach, however, was more Hawkins learning how to think along with the pitcher’s sequencing more than him learning how to actually adjust to the pitch as it arrives. Effectively, he’s a guess hitter who has simply dialed down the number of incorrectly aggressive guesses he makes–a good adjustment for a man with impressive raw power and previously exhibited hacktastic tendencies, but one that has probably used up all of its utility just to get him under the 30% K mark against A-ball hurlers.

In last year’s piece, I did note that somewhat paradoxically, Hawkins’ biggest strength in 2013 was hitting offspeed pitches that did merit swings. Sure, you didn’t have to wait long to see him swing weakly over the top of a 59-foot bender, but rarely was Hawkins caught out in front of the hanging curve. What was simply an interesting flicker of light in his dark 2013 has become a large bright spot in the more reasonable skill set of 2014, as Hawkins now regularly lays waste to offspeed pitches in the strike zone.

As with the flailing noted above, I could create an exhaustive list of examples if need be–I’ve viewed Hawkins enough times (as a result of Winston-Salem being my “home park” for all of 2013 and most of 2014) to know that my observations are not merely anecdotal. And thus, the following is a problem:

I have never seen Hawkins get an extra-base hit off of a fastball.

I’m sure it’s happened–I doubt all nineteen of his homers this year were off of offspeed pitches. But given that I’ve seen Hawkins play in some two dozen games since the outset of 2013, for him to show an inability to turn on quality heat is a significant issue. Again, he doesn’t lack for bat speed, and the swing is much improved now, so most of the blame for this issue has to again go to pitch recognition. Hawkins clearly was eaten alive by breaking pitches in 2013 and gets a very steady diet of them thanks to his reputation for flailing (and his power). He appears to be so focused on dealing with these pitches that he tends to react late to the hittable fastballs he does see, fouling them off or simply cutting through late.

Where Does This Leave Him?

It should be noted that, by all accounts, Hawkins is putting in plenty of work toward developing. Clearly, he’s worked hard on his swing, he’s trying to think along with pitchers (and doing it well enough to work walks ten percent of the time in High-A at age 20 with no ability to recognize spin), and he’s taken his significant struggles (and the accompanying criticism) in stride. On one hand, that bodes well, because players who have large holes to close, even at age 21, need to get to work quickly if they will have futures. On the other hand, the fact that he’s undergone a significant revamp and still couldn’t crack a .250 batting average with a hitter-friendly home park, still striking out almost 28 percent of the time, underscores how the weakness that may prove most damning is one that can’t be overcome through sheer learning.

If Hawkins can never learn to lay off the 2-1 curve in the dirt (let alone the 1-2 curve in the dirt) or find a way to get the trigger pulled a little quicker on the 94-mph heater on the inner half, he’s going to find it hard to succeed at the upper levels. He’ll never have the skillset to compensate for severe weaknesses in the batter’s box, so he’s going to have to find a way to make improvements in pitch recognition–which is possible but notoriously difficult–as profound as those that he’s made with the swing, if he is to go on to a significant career. He’ll get plenty of chances and put in plenty of work, but it’s hard to like his chances, even if it’s equally hard to dismiss them.





Nathaniel Stoltz is a prospect writer for FanGraphs. A resident of Bowie, MD and University of Maryland graduate student, he frequently views prospects in the Carolina and South Atlantic Leagues. He can be followed on Twitter at @stoltz_baseball.

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JLRC
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JLRC

I’m curious about where Chicago puts him next season. He could benefit from more time in Winston-Salem, but he’s approaching the point where he is not young for the league anymore – for prospects, at least. Chicago rarely seems to take into consideration things like a player’s high K% when promoting them. Look at Jared Mitchell’s career numbers and ask yourself whether he ever earned a promotion posting iffy overall production and >30% K rates.

Rational Fan
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Rational Fan

Difference with Mitchell is that Mitchell was a college player drafted in the 1st round. You can’t allow a college player to sit down in A ball for multiple seasons otherwise it was pointless to draft a college player. Hawkins is much more raw, despite Mitchell only playing baseball full-time once he joined the MiLB, and he has a lot more to learn. He’s a talented kid, but hitting a baseball is really hard. Being able to hit it far is important, but hitting it consistently is much more important.