"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

A Piercing Eye on the Hawk

As frustrating as it might be to have my life overtaken every winter by Baseball Prospectus annual (I just edited what will be the largest and should be the earliest edition ever), I can’t say I was terribly upset to be otherwise occupied while Johan Santana trade rumors and Mitchell Report fallout were repeated and rehashed ad nauseam by media large and small. As far as I’m concerned, the only significant Yankee news I missed over the past month and a half was the LaTroy Hawkins signing, the departure of a few enduring (and fewer endearing) Quad-A staples, the announcement of a roster’s worth of non-roster invitees (whom I’ll address in my annual Yankee campers post when pitchers and catchers report in just over three weeks), and the early stages of the team’s arbitration negotiations. Here’s my take on the first of those:

The Hawkins singing seems rather pointless, but also relatively harmless. One could argue that the Yankees should have re-signed Luis Vizcaino instead, but with Kyle Farnsworth in the final year of his deal, there’s something reassuring about the fact that the Yankees refused to make a multi-year commitment to the overworked Viz, instead affecting what amounted to a cost-cutting trade that saw Vizcaino sign a two-year deal with the Rockies for $7.5 million with a club option for 2010, and ex-Rocky Hawkins sign with the Yanks for a single year at $3.75 million. Given that exchange, here’s a full list of Yankee pitchers who are under contract for 2009:

Mariano Rivera (2009-2010: $30 million)
Kei Igawa (2009-2011: $12 million)
Andrew Brackman (2009-2010: ~$3 million)

That’s it. Carl Pavano’s 2009 option will be bought out for $1.95 million. Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina, Kyle Farnsworth, and LaTroy Hawkins will be free agents at the end of the season. Everyone else remains under team control with only Chien-Ming Wang and Brian Bruney (if he lasts that long) having reached arbitration. Looking at things that way, the Hawkins deal allows the Yankees to build an entirely new pitching staff for 2009 around the young starters and relievers who are expected to emerge this season.

As for Hawkins himself, I spoke to him a few times while covering the Rockies’ NLDS games in Philadelphia for SportsIllustrated.com. I learned two things of significance about Hawkins from my brief post-game encounters with him. First of all, he is a genuinely nice guy. Admittedly, I caught him in a good mood following a pair of upset playoff wins, but of all the Rockies I spoke to in that clubhouse, Hawkins was easily the warmest and friendliest. If nothing else, he should serve as a positive presence in the pen, a veteran to help learn them youngsters a thing or two about taking their lumps in the big leagues and getting back up on that horse . . .

. . . the key lesson there has nothing to do with Hawkins, of course, and a lot more to do with how easily a sportswriter can lose his outsider objectivity when a friendly ballplayer is willing and able to give him a few choice quotes so the writer can turn in something worthwhile on deadline.

The more important bit of information I learned about Hawkins is contained in his quote in that story:

“After last year [with the Orioles] I was thinking about shutting it down. I definitely didn’t have any fun. I got the call from [manager] Clint [Hurdle]. He asked me about it, and I looked at the [Rockies’] defense and saw how good they were, and I decided that this is the place I wanted to be.” Adds Hawkins: “I saw the other day that we have the best fielding percentage in major league baseball history.”

Hawkins, who just turned 35, has had an interesting career. A minor league starter, he spent three years struggling in the Twins rotation and, by his 27th birthday, had made just five professional relief appearances. Since then, he hasn’t started a single game, has posted an ERA+ below league average just once (in his sophomore relief season in 2001), and has been significantly above league average in every other season save that soul-crushing season in Baltimore in 2006 (102 ERA+). His three best relief seasons came with the Twins in 2002 and 2003 and the Cubs in 2004, during which be posted a combined 2.22 ERA and 1.03 WHIP while striking out 207 men in 239 2/3 innings, good for a 7.77 K/9, which combined with his 1.65 BB/9 gave him a remarkable 4.70 K/BB.

That LaTroy Hawkins is but a memory. After averaging 80 innings over those three seasons, he was a different pitcher over the next three with the Cubs, Giants, Orioles, and Rockies. Over those last three seasons, Hawk has posted a 3.92 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 5.18 K/9, 2.88 K/9, and an exceedingly pedestrian 1.80 K/BB. Within each of those three-year periods, his performance was fairly consistent. Last year, however, he experienced an unexpected spike in his groundball rate. Entering the year with a 1.17 career groundball-to-flyball ratio, a mark from which he had seldom strayed far, never surpassing 1.34 as a reliever, Hawkins posted a 3.06 GB/FB ratio as a Rocky. That, combined with that record-setting Colorado defense led to a corresponding improvement in his overall performance. That performance is unlikely to be repeated with the Yankees as, even if he is able to maintain the increased groundball rate, he’ll give something back simply from having Derek Jeter take the place of Troy Tulowitzki and the assortment of Giambi, Duncan, and Betemit in place of Todd Helton.

All of that said, compare those rate stats for the 2005-2007 version of Hawkins to what Vizcaino did for the Yankees last year:

Hawkins: 3.92 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 5.18 K/9, 2.88 BB/9, 1.80 K/BB
Vizcaino: 4.30 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 7.41 K/9, 5.14 BB/9, 1.44 K/BB

Hawkins will give more back by returning to the tougher league, and he’ll be more consistently mediocre than Vizcaino, who fluctuated between periods of sore-armed ineffectiveness (10.19 ERA, 11/17 K:BB in 17 2/3 IP from April 19 through the end of May; 10.13 ERA in September) and live-armed dominance (1.31 ERA, 39/18 K:BB in 41 1/3 IP in June, July, and August). Hawkins will also max out at 60 innings, which is yet another reason that his signing suggests that the Yankees’ real hope in adding him is that their new skipper will display the flexibility of thought and approach that his predecessor lacked when it came to bullpen management and that, as a result, by mid-year, younger, better, cheaper arms that will help form the core of the 2009 pen will have emerged to push Hawk down the depth chart where his sort of unspectacular consistency will prove to be more valuable.

In other news, Jon Weisman has the full report on Don Mattingly’s departure from Joe Torre’s full-time coaching staff in L.A. Knowing that the Mattingly family is in good health, there’s a part of me that wants to believe that Donnie’s decision was based entirely on his inability to get comfortable in another team’s uniform.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver