Courtney Hawkins - Deconstructing Two Outcomes

Outfielder Courtney Hawkins was taken 13th overall in the 2012 draft by the White Sox, and immediately became the organization’s top rated prospect.  Despite being a raw 18 years of age, he went three levels in his draft year, ending with a brief stint in High-A ball.  National publications put him as high as 55th on their MLB prospect lists.  The strike out rates were a little high, but nothing to be alarmed about, especially for an 18 year old at such challenging levels.   He posted a .983 OPS in A ball (Kannapolis), followed up with .882 in a very brief stint in High A (Winston-Salem).

That was 2012.  12% of his hits were home runs, and 22.5% of his plate appearances resulted in strikeouts.  Remember those numbers.

Here in 2013, Hawkins has opened the season looking to become the poster child for the two outcome hitter – home run or strike out.  In 70 plate appearances (as of Friday), Courtney has hit safely 11 times – 6 of which are home runs (55%).  He’s also struck out 41 times, for an astonishing 58.6% K/PA rate.  Even more dramatic: 41 of the 51 times he’s recorded an out, it has been a strike out, good for more than 80%.  He has more hits, than outs in play.  No one in any league in minor league baseball is whiffing at the rate Hawkins is.

What is wrong?

What could cause a hitter, even a raw 19-year-old, to strike out at such an alarming rate?  Was his assignment to High-A (where he is the third youngest player at that level) too aggressive?  Did his mechanics change?  Are his struggles mental, physical or both?

We can’t get into Courtney’s head, so… let’s check the tape (courtesy of Nathaniel Stoltz of Beyond the Box Score).  First let’s get a good look at his approach in this clip:

One of the first things you’ll see is, he’s got a lot going on.  Busy hands, shoulders in motion before the pitch is thrown, a double-toe-tap on stride, and a pronounced bat load before swinging.  That combination (along with a fairly long swing) will put him behind the fastball from harder-throwing pitchers, like the one in this case (Nate Hyatt) who is 92-97 on the fastball, and blows a couple by him.

He can compensate by starting earlier, but then he’ll be out in front on the off-speed stuff and unable to compensate, as you’ll see in the first couple strikes in this clip against Mark Pope (who is more upper 80s-to-90 velo, but has a collection of offspeed stuff he relies on):

And finally here, we have the the full picture in one video – we get to see the good and the bad in one plate appearance.  Check out his last two swings in this clip:

Pitch one is inner half, the back elbow dips in hard which puts a loop in his swing, and he jams himself into a ground ball foul.  Pitch two is on the outer half, he’s able to extend his arms and level his swing, and he laces a base hit to left.  Basically, the long swing and pre-contact routine don’t allow him to stay inside the pitches on the inner half.  This particular pitcher, Ronan Pacheco, throws more upper 80s and has control issues and left that final pitch out over the plate to get hammered.

So to recap, with Hawkins’ mechanics as they are now, he’s going to have trouble with pitches on the inner half, trouble with high-velo fastballs, and trouble with pitchers who mix in off-speed stuff well.  That doesn’t leave much room for situations where he will succeed.

Can he be cured?

The good news is, the issues we can see in the videos are fixable, physically.  The busy timing devices and bat load will likely need to be cut back, and that’s the type of adjustment that can usually be done with relative ease.  Shortening the swing, and allowing him to cover the inner half better, is often harder to accomplish – but he’s still only 19.  Sox fans can take some solace in the fact that he is still drawing some walks (he has as many of those as home runs, making his OBP .068 higher than his AVG), the bat speed still looks awfully impressive in those videos and his head is nice and quiet during the swing.  The 6 home runs are nothing to sneeze at either.

Of course, as with most prospects, it takes more than being physically able to adjust.  Is Hawkins coachable enough to make these sorts of adjustments?  Is his hitting approach such that it can be altered without losing much bat speed?  Will he even be willing to make the necessary changes?  Those are questions that no one has the answer to right now.

Where to go from here:

Hawkins got two consecutive days off last week, which staff from the Dash referred to as a “mental break.”  Some people have suggested that Hawkins be demoted to Kannapolis.  But is that a good solution?  If he’s not getting the guidance and instruction he needs, then demoting him to A ball or even a rookie league affiliate (when they open play in early June) may only reinforce bad habits while he feasts on inferior pitching.  It seems at this point there are two viable options.  Option one is: pull him out of regular play, and back to extended spring training in Arizona for work in the instructional games, where he can get lots of direct attention and make the necessary adjustments before facing tough pitching again.  Then there is option two: keep him right there in High-A, but give him regular coaching to make the necessary changes.

With either option, this is a tactical action.  In a few months, a decision will be needed as to where he gets assigned/moved, based on how he handles things.  A demotion may be necessary at that point, but right now, it doesn’t appear to provide any positives.

The Sox undoubtedly see many of the same things we do, and that is the final confidence-booster here.  They should act, and likely will (if they haven’t already).  But do Sox fans have The Will To Wait on Hawkins?

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