Dissecting Courtney Hawkins’ Strikeout Problems, Potential

A few days ago, I wrote a post looking into some players who were putting up fairly pedestrian numbers but remained quite intriguing due to being young for their levels. I didn’t include White Sox outfield prospect Courtney Hawkins on the list, but I suppose I could have. Nobody would say Hawkins doesn’t have tools–he was the 13th overall pick in the 2012 draft for a reason–but he sure is struggling in High-A Winston-Salem this year. I mean, sure, he’s second in the Carolina League with 19 home runs, and he’s slugging a quite respectable .452–the elephant in the room is the strikeout totals.

Courtney Hawkins has struck out 132 times in 79 games. He’s whiffing in a whopping 40.9% of his plate appearances, which is easily the highest rate of any qualified hitter in full-season ball. And it’s not like he’s some Adam Dunn/Jack Cust type who balances strikeouts with tons of walks–he’s got a 132/21 K/BB this year. It’s ugly. As such, he’s hitting .194 with a .254 OBP. It’s really quite the feat that he’s slugged .452 given the weaknesses in other areas that he’s shown.

That all sounds really bad, but we shouldn’t forget that Courtney Hawkins has been pushed at a nearly unprecedented pace. He started his first full season out of high school in High-A. Name any highly-touted high school prospect of recent years; almost none of them did that. Not Bryce Harper, not Mike Trout, not Manny Machado, not Alex Rodriguez, not Byron Buxton, not Eric Hosmer, not Jason Heyward, not Justin nor B.J. Upton, not Prince Fielder, nor almost anyone else. In recent years, I can only come up with two names: Daniel Fields in 2010 and Addison Russell this year.

With so few guys being assigned so aggressively, it’s really difficult to judge exactly how troubling Hawkins’ problems are, since there are so few comparable career paths to his so far. Today, I want to examine Hawkins’ issues and look at what sort of potential he holds following such extreme difficulties.

I have seen Courtney Hawkins come to the plate 33 times this year across eight games. In those 33 plate appearances, he’s gone 8-for-31, hitting .258/.303/.548 with a double, a triple, two homers, two walks, and 14 strikeouts. While that triple-slash is certainly better than his overall season output, the whole array of plate appearances pretty much encapsulates his skillset–he’s struck out a ton (42.4% of the PAs I saw, 40.9% overall), rarely walked, and gets extra-base hits at a high rate when he does connect (just 22 of his 57 hits this year have been singles). I haven’t just seen Hawkins flail, nor have I only caught his good games, so I (and you) can feel somewhat confident that my evaluation isn’t based on a skewed viewing sample.

Obviously, Courtney Hawkins is going nowhere if he keeps striking out over 40% of the time. He’s probably going nowhere if he keeps striking out over 30% of the time, really. The strikeouts are what everyone’s talking about, and they’re understandably the biggest issue at play. So first, we need to diagnose what’s causing them.

Hawkins is, of course, a young hitter with prodigious power. By this point in the year, word has long since traveled around the eight-team Carolina League that Hawkins a) strikes out a ton and b) can hit a mistake a long way. And what would you do if you were facing a hitter who you know strikes out a ton and can damage a mistake? You’d probably throw him a lot of breaking pitches, right? Look at how the Wilmington team pitched him just a week ago on August 1st.

Kellen Moen starts the at-bat with a fastball on the outer half, but Hawkins doesn’t see another one after fouling it back. Instead, he gets two curveballs way out of the strike zone and bites on both of them. Three pitches, three strikes, no chance. And Moen didn’t deviate from that strategy the second time around:

That’s seven pitches for six strikes. Five curves, five strikes, even though four of those curves were in the dirt. Now, granted: Moen’s got a nice curveball, but it’s not like he’s Bert Blyleven, being a 25-year-old with a 5.68 ERA as a High-A swingman. Those two strikeouts were the only two he got that night, and he was hit around for six runs on eight hits in 3 2/3 innings. But he knew Hawkins couldn’t lay off that breaking ball, so all he needed to do to breeze through those two confrontations was to go to that pitch again and again. Moen was relieved by Cody Fassold that night, and Fassold exploited the same weakness:

So through three at-bats that night, Hawkins saw just ten pitches, and only two fastballs. He saw eight breaking balls, seven of them clearly out of the zone, and swung at all seven balls while taking the one strike. If you want to create the “Hawkins can’t hit breaking balls” narrative, the above sequence is one hell of a trail of evidence to start with.

It’s not just Moen and Fassold that are exploiting Hawkins’ hackery on bendy offerings, of course. Let’s take a look at another three-at-bat sequence, this one against Matt Purke and Greg Holt of Potomac on July 8.

Purke does some token establishment of the fastball to start out and then throws a changeup in the dirt that Hawkins lays off, but then we can again see the now-familiar sight of the slugger chasing two straight breaking pitches that are well below the knees. And, like Moen, Purke came back in the second at-bat and just kept throwing curves:

Hey, Hawkins finally laid off of a curve outside the zone! It only took us ten of them to get there. But another issue presents itself here, as Hawkins ends up blown away in this at-bat by a pedestrian Purke fastball. As with Moen, this was not Purke’s best night, as he was shellacked for nine runs on eleven hits in 3 2/3. Like Moen, he just managed two strikeouts in the outing, and you just saw them.

Hawkins, you may notice, has complicated hitting mechanics. He has a pronounced bat load that artificially lengthens his swing and tends to drop his right elbow hard, causing him to loop underneath pitches. Both of these problems actually come into sharper focus against fastballs than breaking pitches–the swing length makes it tough for Hawkins to get around on quality heat, but he can manage to get the bat through the zone on offspeed pitches. Likewise, it’s tougher to swing underneath a ball that’s breaking than one that’s going something in the vicinity of straight.

So, while you might see the above videos and go “Hawkins can’t hit a breaking ball,” that really isn’t the right conclusion to draw. After all, the only breaking balls in those videos that anyone really can hit were the two in the strike zone that he took for called strikes. The others would be a challenge for even Mike Trout or Miguel Cabrera to do much with.

What we have seen so far is that Courtney Hawkins cannot lay off a breaking pitch, a weakness that likely stems from a combination of plate discipline and pitch recognition issues. We have also seen that his swing mechanics have some flaws and that he is also susceptible to swinging through fastballs. As a result, there are a lot of ways to get Courtney Hawkins out, provided that you establish the presence of a breaking pitch. Moen and Fassold just went with almost exclusively breaking stuff; Purke pitched Hawkins forward once and then pitched him backward the second time. Greg Holt followed Purke by doing this:

Here, Holt starts Hawkins out with two changeups, which Hawkins again fails to lay off, then went high with a fastball and nearly got the strikeout. Up 0-2 and having established both of those pitches, he then had an easy strikeout on his hands: all he had to do was throw a chase slider and Hawkins’ fate was sealed. And that brings up yet another way to retire Hawkins without much fear of retribution: because he chases so many breaking pitches, pitchers can usually turn to the chase-pitch breaker with two strikes, provided they’ve established other pitches. Look at Zach Jadofsky striking out Hawkins here:

On 3-2, Jadofsky doesn’t bring his slider anywhere near the strike zone. That’s a clear sign of a significant lack of respect for Hawkins’ ability to lay off that pitch, especially since Jadofsky had thrown five fastballs and one bad slider to that point to set it up. And it really underscores Hawkins’ problems–he wasn’t behind in the count there, and all he had to do was take that pitch to get on base, but instead he made himself look silly on a ball that was well into the lefthanded batter’s box. Credit to Jadofsky for breaking off a nice pitch there, but anyone who can’t lay off that pitch on 3-2 is going to have a lot of trouble.

It should be quite clear by now how Hawkins ends up taking so many slow walks back to the dugout. I now want to turn your attention to another pitcher’s approach to dealing with Hawkins. Here’s his first at-bat against Lynchburg righty Jarrett Miller from August 5:

Miller starts this sequence off with a curveball in for a strike, then just misses with a couple of fastballs before blowing one by him at all of 88 mph. As you might expect, Miller returned to his big curve with two strikes, but it just barely stays in the bottom of the zone, and Hawkins is able to stay back, adjust, and line the ball to the opposite field even though he bails out slightly toward third base. Again, his swing mechanics aren’t any less conducive to hitting breaking stuff than they are to hitting fastballs; it’s the matter of picking the right ones to swing at that’s causing so many problems.

We saw Hawkins struggle with an 88 mph fastball there but hit a 74 mph curve, so the next time these two faced off, Miller didn’t even bother with the curve:

Courtney Hawkins has to hit that last pitch. He has to. Look at where catcher Shawn McGill sets up for it–Miller missed his spot by about a foot, and what was supposed to be a 90 mph fastball on the outside black became the biggest meatball a hitter could hope for…and Hawkins swung right through it. Miller had just thrown him three fastballs, so there’s no excuse for not timing it, and it was in about the best location a hitter could want it in, so there’s no excuse for swing over or under it. None. He has to hit that.

So we have now established two things Courtney Hawkins absolutely must do to become a major league baseball player. He has to lay off breaking pitches that are outside the zone at something resembling a reasonable rate, and he has to make contact on fastballs in the zone at a somewhat reasonable rate. To do this, he’ll have to improve his pitch recognition and plate discipline and refine his swing mechanics to quite down the noise and excess motion and establish a more compact and consistent path to the ball.

That’s a lot to ask, of course, but what did you expect–the guy’s striking out over 40% of the time! It would be quite strange for me to conclude that Hawkins didn’t have many weaknesses, wouldn’t it?

Of course, the question then becomes, does he have any strengths? I did say he’s hit .258/.303/.548 on my watch, so it’s not like all he did was chase breaking pitches and swing through meatball heaters.

One thing he’s fairly well-equipped to do, as I’ve already indicated, is hit breaking pitches in the strike zone. All four extra-base hits I’ve seen him collect have come off of breaking stuff. That night against Wilmington where Moen and Fassold threw him almost nothing but breaking pitches stretched beyond just the three plate appearances I showed earlier; in his fourth AB, Hawkins came up with the bases loaded and one out in the ninth and promptly grounded a Fassold slider into a 5-2-3 double play, sending the game to extras. His fifth time up, he faced short-arming near-sidearm righty Andrew Triggs, who was giving righthanded batters fits with his moving fastball and slider up to that point, and did this:

That walkoff double was a pretty fun ending to a game in which Hawkins saw 12 breaking pitches out of 14 total. Even though that’s clearly a hanging slider from Triggs, Hawkins deserves credit for hanging in with Triggs’ deception and not getting fooled. Further, his back elbow is a little more stable in that swing, keeping the path to the ball a bit more direct while still clearly packing punch. And that’s not the only example I’ve seen of Hawkins jumping on a first-pitch slider with big results:

Again, he’s able to get around on the pitch here without being caught way out in front of it, and the natural loft in his swing skies the ball up on a high enough trajectory to ultimately clear the short porch at BB&T Ballpark (Jake Skole’s impressive wall-climbing attempt ultimately proving futile). Fun as it was to see him clear the fence, that hit paled in comparison to the one he had his next at-bat:

Again, he’s late on a couple of fastballs early (though he nearly gets an opposite-field extra-base hit on one) and finally sees a breaking ball from a righthander that’s far enough outside that even he won’t swing at it, before Randol Rojas comes back with another middle-away and Hawkins drives it some 400 feet or so almost to dead center. With both this and the opposite-field single off of Miller earlier, he does show a willingness to use the whole field and an ability to reach balls on the outer half, as well as good hand-eye coordination to react to those pitches.

Another thing I want to mention is that since so much of Hawkins’ problems stem from an inability to hit breaking stuff running away from him, one might expect him to do significantly better against lefthanded pitchers than righties. Indeed, this is the case. Hawkins is hitting .219/.333/.594 against lefties this year and just .187/.230/.413 against righthanders. While 22.9% of his plate appearances have come against lefties, only 19.7% of his strikeouts have, whereas 47.6% of his walks, 36.8% of his homers, and 28.6% of his overall extra-base hits have. Lefties have a tougher time jamming Hawkins inside with heat, and he’s not as susceptible to breaking stuff running in on him as he is with stuff moving toward the lefthanded batter’s box, so he’s able to exercise better plate judgment and seems to see the ball better. Take this at-bat against Ryan Hinson from last night, August 7:

Watch Hawkins adjust over the course of the at-bat. The first pitch is a slider down and in that makes him look silly. The second is another slider down and in, but it’s on the edge of the zone, so he’s able to at least get out in front and pull it foul. Then he watches a fastball outside before rolling over another down-and-in slider, then managing to check his swing on yet another one, this one down in the dirt. Finally, Hinson throws the slider a fifth time, but he catches a bit of the plate and Hawkins launches it. Note that the load on that particular swing is a bit reduced, allowing him more time to pull his hands inside the ball and drive it. Ryan Hinson struck out nine batters yesterday, most of them with that slider…and none of them were Courtney Hawkins.

What we’re left with is a player that does have a skillset to start with. He can hit breaking pitches in the zone. He can hit lefties. He has huge power when he connects. He’s a solid baserunner, though not a huge basestealer. He should at the very least be a plus defender with a plus arm in right field, and may be able to become an average defender in center.

But Hawkins has been rushed. His issues are common in 19-year-olds, but almost all of those 19-year-olds are playing in some variety of short-season ball. Hawkins played in the Advanced-Rookie Appalachian League last year after being drafted and hit all of .272/.314/.401 with a 37/7 K/BB. Those numbers don’t exactly portend doing much in High-A the following campaign, do they? But Hawkins happened to catch fire in two weeks against a watered-down Low-A South Atlantic League at the end of the season last year, hitting .308/.352/.631 in 16 games (17/4 K/BB), so the White Sox organization seemed to be convinced he was ready for more. Really, he probably wasn’t even ready to spend a full year in the SAL. Frankly, he probably should’ve been put with the other White Sox Advanced-Rookie team, Great Falls of the Pioneer League, this year to work on his issues.

If that sounds like damnation, it isn’t. Consider that the Royals picked Bubba Starling fifth overall in 2011 and put him in Advanced-Rookie ball for his first full year of pro ball last season. He didn’t sniff the Low-A level until this year. And Starling was over three months older when he was drafted than Hawkins is. Putting Hawkins on the Low-A-in-his-second-full-year track wouldn’t be a quick progression, but it would hardly be excruciatingly slow either. After all, he’ll be just 20 for all of the 2014 campaign, the equivalent of a college sophomore.

I think if Hawkins was in Great Falls instead of Winston-Salem, we’d all view him quite differently right now. That’s not to say that a demotion would magically wipe away his problems, but it would give him an environment where he could learn those lessons in less discouraging dosages. Hawkins remains a player with significant natural talent, and while his problems are extensive and far from guaranteed to lessen, let alone disappear, he’s at too strange a level/development discrepancy to be totally fairly projected, and he’s far too young to be written off. His fall down prospect lists following his helium run of late 2012 is certainly understandable and deserved, but there are skills to build on, and the problems aren’t as damning as they could be. After all, I’d rather have Hawkins struggling to lay off breaking pitches than struggling to hit the hittable ones. I’d rather have him have flaws in his hitting mechanics than just lacking bat speed or hand-eye coordination. Discipline and mechanics can be worked on, but the more natural athletic elements are far more difficult to repair, and those are rock-solid here. Until he falls behind players of his own age and development level, Hawkins remains an intriguing prospect, not a punchline.

We hoped you liked reading Dissecting Courtney Hawkins’ Strikeout Problems, Potential by Nathaniel Stoltz!

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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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This was awesome. Really liked the in depth analysis.