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Hawk Lands In the Bronx

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On Monday, former Twins pitcher LaTroy Hawkins signed a one-year, $3.75 million dollar deal with the New York Yankees.

LaTroy Hawkins, who will be 35 for the 2008 campaign, will be one of the primary supporters for the wildly overpaid Mariano Rivera in the Yankee bullpen next summer.  The Hawk has been with four teams in the four years since he's been with the Twins; you can now make that five teams in five years.

For those of you who took the oppotunity to watch Colorado down the stretch and in the playoffs this fall, you probably noticed Hawkins has altered his delivery.  Instead of a fluid, fairly standard throwing motion, he now stops mid-windup.  Pausing on his driving leg, his right arm cocks at a ninety degree angle before he moves forward with his delivery.  In spite of this hitch he still manages to clock his fastball from 96-98 mph.

In his years with the Twins, Hawkins wasn't what you could call a strikeout pitcher, but at the same time his high-velocity fastball was an asset when A) it was used correctly, and more importantly when B) it hit the strike zone.  Particularly once Hawkins moved out of the starter and closer roles, his walk rates decreased dramatically, meaning that as long as he had one other pitch working for strikes his fastball was quick enough that it was a pretty decent weapon.  No matter how straight it was.  But the last two years LaTroy has gone from a pitcher who could strike you out, to a pitcher who probably won't strike you out.

But it isn't just the strikeout numbers.  Hawkins had a pretty successful season as a reliever for the Rockies in '07, and how he retired hitters is just as interesting as the decrease in strikeouts.

Year    IP   WHIP    K/9   BB/9    GB%   IF/F
2004  82.0   1.05   7.57   1.54   38.5   14.3
2005  19.0   1.32   6.16   3.32   45.8   12.5
2005  37.1   1.53   7.23   4.10   43.5   18.6
2006  60.1   1.46   4.03   2.24   44.2   12.0
2007  55.1   1.23   4.72   2.60   63.6    2.7

LaTroy's first year with the Cubs was fairly similar to his last two seasons with the Twins.  Since then his numbers have varied, but there's little doubt that '07 was his best statistical season since '04.  What's astounding is how he logged those successful innings.  That ground ball percentage?  Obscene.  Popup percentage?  Incredible.

What's more, it's not as though hitters weren't hitting the ball hard off Hawkins; the percentage of fly balls that went over the fence was above average (but really...only six homers allowed).  What worked to his advantage was that, in spite of virtually no pop-ups, very few strikeouts and hard-hit fly balls, almost everything else was hit on the ground which kept hitters largely to singles when the ball slipped between fielders.  Batters slugged just .393 off the Hawk last year.

For the Yankees, and for Yankee fans, what will be intriguing to watch next summer will be whether or not Hawkins can continue his new trend of retiring hitters.  It appears his days of blowing hitters away are largely over.  (Perhaps in part to his new mechanics.  I'm wondering if the new motion would have him tipping his pitches, because a vast majority of what I saw him throw last fall were fastballs.  But this is merely speculation.)  So for Hawkins to continue to be as effective as he's been without channeling more than his share of luck, it certainly seems he'll have to continue his trends of 2007.

Is that possible?  There are ground-ball pitchers, but considering LaTroy's history, can he shift the style of pitcher that he is to the point where inducing ground balls at this rate can become an attainable skill?  The Yankees have to be hoping so, because they just shelled out $3.75 million for a relief pitcher approaching sunset.  If it works out, however, and Hawkins can log 55-60 innings while replicating similar numbers to this last campaign, then the Yankees have made a valuable addition to their bullpen.

Godspeed, Mr. Hawkins.  It's hard to not have a soft spot for anyone who played for the Twins in the mid-90's.