New York Mets relief pitcher LaTroy Hawkins is 40 years old, in the twilight of a long major league career. Younger fans won't remember this, but Hawkins was quite the prospect back in the day, one of the best in baseball for awhile. His development as a major league pitcher was uneven but eventually he found his niche. Let's look at his career with a Prospect Retrospective.
LaTroy Hawkins was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the seventh round in 1991, from high school in Gary, Indiana. Mainly a basketball player in high school, he was extremely raw in the diamond, so raw that he literally never had a pitching coach as an amateur. He was a terrific athlete, though, and he had a good arm, so the Twins took up the challenge of molding him into a useable pitcher, teaching him a slider to go along with his 90+ fastball.
He wasn't great in rookie ball (4.75 ERA, 47/26 K/BB in 55 innings, 62 hits) but it was a start. He split 1992 between the GCL and Elizabethton in the Appalachian League with much better results, a 3.29 ERA with a 71/21 K/BB in 63 innings combined. That was the first time I became aware of him, as a rookie ball pitcher who had taken a step forward.
He took an even larger step in 1993, dominating the Midwest League by going 15-5 with a 2.06 ERA and a 179/41 K/BB in 157 innings, allowing just 110 hits. Note the large spike in innings pitched, although he handled the workload increase without trouble. He ranked fifth on the Baseball America Midwest League prospect list, the second pitcher (behind Ugueth Urbina).
Hawkins began 1994 with Fort Myers in the High-A Florida State League, posting a 2.33 ERA, a 4-0 record in six starts, and a 36/6 K/BB in 39 innings. That got him promoted quickly to Double-A Nashville, where he remained strong with a 2.33 ERA, a 9-2 record in 11 starts, and a 53/28 K/BB in 73 innings. The Twins kept him moving with a promotion to Triple-A Salt Lake. He made 12 more starts, went 5-4, and held his own with a 4.08 ERA. His K/BB deteriorated to 37/33 in 82 innings, reflecting the need to improve his secondary pitches, but overall it was a fine season.
Eddie Epstein gave Hawkins a Grade A in the first edition of the STATS Minor League Scouting Notebook. ranking him as the Number Five pitching prospect and the Number Twelve prospect overall.
Hawkins began 1995 in the major league rotation but was hit hard, with an 8.67 ERA in 27 innings and a poor 9/12 K/BB. He was sent back to Salt Lake, where he posted a 3.55 ERA with a 74/40 K/BB in 144 innings. At this stage, he was showing a really nice fastball but struggling with the sharpness of his breaking stuff. I took over the Minor League Scouting Notebook in 1996 and gave Hawkins a Grade B, writing that "he still has a bright future, but needs to refine the breaking ball before he is truly ready for the majors."
Hawkins split '96 between Triple-A and the majors again, improving for Salt Lake (3.92 ERA but a much better 99/31 K/BB in 138 innings) but getting clobbered again in Minnesota (8.20 ERA, 42 hits in 26 innings but a nicer 24/9 K/BB at least). Although he was past rookie limits, I put him in my 1997 book anyway, lowering his rating to a Grade B- and noting that Hawkins wasn't especially happy with the way he had been handled and that his future in Minnesota was unclear.
Despite that, the Twins showed faith in Hawkins and ran him out there as a starter in '97, '98, and '99 despite some really horrid results: he made 86 starts over those three seasons, posting a 5.90 ERA with a 23-40 record, a 266/168 K/BB, and an incredible 599 hits in 468 innings.
He had the 95 MPH fastball, didn't walk the universe, and he ate innings without getting hurt. But he had massive problems with his secondary arsenal, tinkering at various times with a curveball, slider, splitter, and regular change-up without consistent results. In the Scouting Notebook 2000, I wrote that "Minnesota has been exceptionally patient with Hawkins and will give him one more season to get straightened out. He continues to show flashes of strong pitching, but his career record is now 26-44, 6.16."
He never started another game. The Twins finally bowed to the inevitable and moved him to the pen, with good results (3.39 ERA, 14 saves) and he's been in major league bullpens ever since. As a relief pitcher, Hawkins has a career 3.34 ERA, 132 ERA+, 93 saves, and a 605/247 K/BB in 839 innings, a far cry from his struggles as a starter.
I linked to this earlier, but Fangraphs did a Q&A with Hawkins last fall when it looked like he might not have a job in '13. It's a really interesting interview. LaTroy talks about the constant adjustments necessary to last so long in the majors, and how blessed he's been to have such a long career.
"It’s a blessing from God. He’s kept me healthy and continued to let me throw strikes and get guys out. I haven’t always done a great job of that — I haven’t gotten everybody out — but I’ve gotten enough of them to stick around for a long time."