Around this time last year, we took an in-depth look at Courtney Hawkins’ hitting mechanics, attempting to determine why he was striking out at such a prolific rate. The 13th overall pick of the 2012 draft, Hawkins went three levels in his draft year, ending at Advanced Class A Winston-Salem as an 18 year old and posting a combined .284/.324/.480 line and striking out in a reasonable 22.5% of his plate appearances.
Then 2013 happened. At this point last year (in 70 plate appearances), Hawkins had stuck out a staggering 58.6% of the time. The reasons are detailed in the article as linked above, but the short version of the story is, he had all kinds of mechanical issues and an inability to recognize pitch types that contributed to his mighty struggles. The fact that (according to Assistant GM Buddy Bell) the athletic outfielder had already mentally checked out of A-ball and was making arrangements for his arrival in Birmingham may also have prevented him from making adjustments early on.
Take a look at the videos embedded in last year’s piece, and remember what you saw, as we explore what has, and hasn’t, changed in Hawkins’ approach at the plate.
THE REST OF 2013
As time went on last year, Courtney’s strikeout rates did decrease: 51.7% in April, 39.4% in June, 36.8% in July and 27.7% in August (he missed most of May due to a shoulder injury). Hawkins finished the year with a disappointing .177/.249/.383 line, though even with that decidedly low contact rate he still managed to hit 19 home runs.
I saw Hawkins in Winston-Salem last August, near the end of the regular season. Talking with some front office folks, and Courtney himself, I was told about some changes that the struggling teenager had made to his mechanics. He had moved up in the box, so that he wouldn’t be as far ahead of breaking pitches, see the ball better out of the pitcher’s hand, and be forced to not be as pull-happy. Supposedly he'd also quieted his approach a bit. Let's check this example video (we have others on our YouTube channel, but these are representative):
Hawkins ROE (could easily have been ruled a hit):
He's definitely up more in the box. His hands are a little quieter, and while he still has a leg kick timing device, he's removed the associated toe-tap. The swing itself is largely the same, though he isn't loading as heavily, which is helpful. Once going forward, the swing is pretty similar. These changes do help explain the dropping K rates.
But he also looks more tentative in these clips as he makes such large adjustments. The numbers told the story here too, as his power diminished as the year went on as well (7 HR in each of April and June, 4 in July, 1 in August). And then there are some things that hadn’t appeared to have changed. For example, he is still flying open early and dealing with that wicked elbow dip, as shown in the GIDP video above, causing him to roll over a pitch. This also will give him problems on inside pitches as he jams himself or whiffs as in the final video above.
The verdict at the time: Some progress was made, but he was still far from comfortable in the box, and some key flaws remained.
There was repeated word from spring camp in Arizona about Courtney Hawkins looking much better, but coming from the Sox, these image-primping statements are generally greeted with skepticism. Could be true, could just be words. And he didn’t get enough plate appearances with the big club to confirm or deny the existence of New Courtney.
What speaks more loudly than those words, are the numbers. Let’s look at April, last year versus this year (to the 24th):
2013 through 87 PA: .182/.253/.468, 8.0% BB/PA, 51.7% K/PA, .259 BABIP
2014 through 78 PA: .296/.333/.577, 6.4% BB/PA, 29.5% K/PA, .356 BABIP
Obviously the core results are dramatically better, increasing his OPS by nearly 200 points. The strikeout rate is also dramatically lower, though 29.5% is still higher than you’d like to see and is basically in line with his last month of 2013. But again, that combination is what is really different here - a better K rate, with very good core results. The walk rate is a little lower, but in this small a sample, perhaps not in a meaningful way. BABIP suggests he may regress some, especially since it is so much higher than last year. However, since Hawkins does have some speed and his IsoSLG indicates he's hitting the ball hard, there doesn't look like a lot of luck factor there.
Yet again, let's go to the tape. Here are a couple representative, full-at-bat videos, in this case from Nathaniel Stoltz of Fangraphs...
4/4: Take, Whiff, Home Run...
4/5: Whiff, Home Run...
First, note the changes in setup. His stance is more closed, which should help him be able to wait just a tad longer on outside breakers and perhaps cut down the flying open. His hands are lower, and quieter, so there's less timing noise. The leg kick and stride are less pronounced. His entire approach sets him up to be more able than last year to adjust mid-stream.
The swing is maybe a little shorter, and the load is less pronounced. Again, he's setting himself up to be able to wait just a smidge longer before letting loose, and the swing isn't as hard to control. In both videos on the home runs, you can actually see him hitch just a bit before the swing as he recognizes the breaking ball, and even with less load, he's strong enough to punch the pitch out of the park.
Of course, before each home run, you see him swing and miss in each at bat. In the first clip, he waves at a breaking pitch - just plain didn't recognize it, tried to slow his swing but he was already committed. In the second clip, he gets one zipped by him inside - he's still got a bit of the elbow dip and early-open problem. So not all is good news.
WHERE HAWKINS STANDS TODAY
The bottom line: Courtney Hawkins has clearly made a number of changes to his approach, last year and more so this year, that will help him improve his contact rate. That's not to say he's "cured" of course. Hawkins still isn't recognizing breaking balls as readily as you'd like to see, and he's still susceptible to inside heat causing him to open up too early. But we have seen, in the course of a year, a broad transformation of a hitter's approach, and the improved results echo those changes.
What is needed now, is time. One would hope the White Sox don't make the same mistake twice and rush him up to the next level. Courtney is just now showing repeated instances of recognizing unexpected pitches and adjusting to them, and he's still new to the mechanical changes. The young hitter needs reps with his new approach, and he needs to keep seeing lots of different pitchers, without increasing the difficulty level just yet. There is no need to rush a 20 year old to AA, shortly after being outmatched by A-ball pitching.
Hawkins will likely still go through cold spells this year. But all the indications we have to work with tell us that his offensive output thus far, while perhaps not fully sustainable, are supported by real changes. As long as he stays focused on his new methods, this should be a good year for Courtney.