A Quiet Pathbreaker
“One and one third, I think. Seven earnies. The Orioles. I do remember that.”
LaTroy Hawkins‘ first major league start on April 29, 1995 stuck in his memory and haunted him like a ghost. As the familiar narrative goes when writers introduce Hawkins, since that day in April 1995, no other Major League pitcher who became a regular starter had a worse ERA. We’re also in a different era of baseball analytics—one that uses advanced metrics to calculate player performance independent of their team—and we can contextualize that information alongside the cultural landscape to paint a new picture of players.
When we recalibrate Hawkins’ infamous beginning to his career using advanced metrics and then place it alongside his pathbreaking work in the bullpen, we see LaTroy Hawkins in a very different light than we’ve been previously told.
I argue that Hawkins is worthy of Hall of Fame discussion, perhaps not in the sense of pure stat accumulation, but in the sense that his career trajectory carved a new landscape of baseball.
Instead of Hawkins’ infamous start to his career becoming the burden that he carried into history, his shift into the bullpen was the vanguard of the movement towards the “set-up man,” or the pitcher who was brought on to “hold” the lead in the 7th and 8th innings for the “closer” to “save” the game. Fangraphs lists league-wide hold data beginning in 2002, when 1855 holds occurred in MLB. Holds peaked in 2018, with 2596 total holds. Following the advent of the 162-game season in 1998, the appearance of relievers has increased nearly 40% over the rate used in the 1990s. In the Covid-plagued 2020 season, starting pitchers carried less of a load than they ever had before.
Hawkins, then, was a trendsetter in what has become one of the most controversial changes in Major League Baseball: the utilization of the relief pitcher.
When Hawkins finished his career in 2015, he was tenth all-time on one of the most exclusive lists in MLB history: pitcher games played. With only sixteen pitchers in Major League history to top the 1,000 game mark, LaTroy Hawkins claimed a spot in the MLB record books. Even with the prominence of relievers in the modern game, we may not see another pitcher join that club again in our lifetimes.
On the occasion of LaTroy Hawkins‘ first Hall of Fame ballot appearance, let’s take a look back upon his 21 years in Major League Baseball.
From the Magic City to Minnesota
The 1991 Major League Draft is probably best known for producing Manny Ramirez, who went 13th overall to the Cleveland Indians. The Minnesota Twins, who were coming off a last-place finish in the AL West, drafted third overall and took David McCarty, who would go on to play utility roles in MLB for the next 12 years. In the seventh round, the Twins selected LaTroy Hawkins.
Born December 21, 1972, Hawkins grew up in the city of Gary, Indiana, just east of Chicago. Called the “Magic City,” Gary was a planned city for steel workers supporting the United States Steel Corporation that was formed at the turn of the twentieth century. The company city was attractive to immigrants and working-class black people who wanted a steady job in post-World War II America. Middle-class Americans and coastal dwellers learned of Gary through the song in the 1957 Broadway play, The Music Man. However, tension over access to jobs—and the question of who really ran the city—resulted in US Steel interfering with churches and striving to control the culture of the town. By 1950, Gary, Indiana, was described as the most segregated city in America. In 1968, Richard Hatcher was elected as the first black mayor of the City of Gary, which panicked the white elite residents, who were motivated to pull their industrial operations out of the city that they no longer controlled. In 1971, 34,000 steel workers in the region were laid off; at the time, the population of Gary was about 175,000. The next year, Time Magazine editorialized that Gary “sits like an ash heap in the northwest corner of Indiana, a grimy, barren steel town.”
The year Gary changed from the “Magic City” to the “ash heap,” LaTroy Hawkins was born into a dying town. But the fate of the city did not make the fate of the man.
Hawkins’ mother said her son “wanted to play sports, he wanted to play baseball. He didn’t want to be out there gang-banging or whatever it is kids are doing. He wanted to go to school, play baseball and be famous.” Hawkins was passionate about practicing, even though he didn’t have the equipment. In one interview, he reminisced, “We used to take a rim off a bike and nail it on the side of the garage and play [basketball] like we were in Chicago Stadium…Baseball? We didn’t have any bats. We used broom handles. I broke a lot of broom handles. And we made tape balls. Gloves? We didn’t get them until we got to Little League.”
Hawkins recalled the moment he was drafted, saying, “On draft day, I was in my government econ class, taking a final… and a young lady comes in, and she gives me this piece of paper and it had ‘Minnesota Twins, 7th round.’… I was so naive to the draft that… I thought when I got drafted by the Twins, I came straight to Minnesota to play in the Metrodome. I didn’t know we had this minor league system… I had no clue about baseball. I watched baseball on television, but that’s the only baseball I saw, was Major League Baseball. I didn’t know they had a minor league system.”
Hawkins struggled mentally in the minors, propelled by the knowledge that he would return home to Gary and see friends struggling to make ends meet. Hawkins looked at his baseball career as a means of income and a way to succeed, coming from a city that had eaten up so many others. He looked at the vesting goals in the MLBPA contract, and he aimed to stay in the Majors for ten years so he could be fully vested in the pension.
Recalibrating Hawkins’ Starts
LaTroy Hawkins made his MLB debut in the strike-shortened 1995 season, where the Minnesota Twins hobbled to a .389 winning percentage. There he sparked a friendship with Pat Mahomes (Senior) who was a relief pitcher with the Twins. In September 1995, Hawkins agreed to be the godfather of his teammates’ son, Patrick Mahomes II, who is now the Super Bowl-winning quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs. Hawkins, only 22 years old at the time, struggled at the major league level, although the same was true for most of the Twins’ lineup (which had below league average OPS+) and rotation (which had a league-worst ERA+ and FIP).
Now that we live in the age of analytics, it’s only fair to look back on the narrative that Hawkins was an abysmal starting pitcher for the first five years of his career. From 1995-1996, he was 22-23 years old, playing on arguably the worst team in the American League. The Twins had one of the youngest rosters in baseball and a brand new general manager. Hawkins had only two years of full-time Major League Baseball starting pitching — 1998 and 1999 — a time when the Twins as a team were abysmal. According to Fangraphs, the 1998 Twins were the worst hitting team in MLB and had a cumulative -4.5 team WAR, nearly 18 points worse than the 29th place Pirates. The 1999 Twins were just as bad, with a -3.2 WAR that trailed the Rockies by 18 points. By Fangraphs’ rankings, the 1998 Twins were the worst hitting team from 1985-2019, and they were nearly twice as bad as the 2019 Detroit Tigers. The 1999 Twins were the 11th worst team in that same timeframe. Hawkins didn’t have a stellar lineup providing him run support, and the 1998 Twins were the second-worst fielding team in the past 25 years.
So if we remove the awful team that Hawkins played on, how do his individual accomplishments hold up? If we look at modern starters (2018-2019) who threw comparable innings to Hawkins’ 1998-1999 period (364 IP) with a comparable cumulative FIP (5.04), we come up with Mike Leake, Reynaldo Lopez, Julio Teheran… and Dylan Bundy. Of course, they all had slightly better FIP. However, if we look at the 1998-1999 period and compare apples to apples, Hawkins performed about the same as Woody Williams, Pat Hentgen, Darryl Kile, and Tim Wakefield. He was marginally out-performed by Hideo Nomo and Andy Pettite. And if we look by Hawkins’ age during those years, there were only 11 pitchers in all of MLB that were 25-26 years old and pitching full seasons as a starter.
So, let’s rewrite history right now: Hawkins’ career began when he became one of the youngest regular starters in Major League Baseball, where he played on a decimated and rebuilding team that featured the worst hitters in baseball by an order of magnitude. The Twins’ defense was similarly atrocious. Inspired to continue in Major League Baseball by the threat of having to go home to one of the more dangerous cities in America, Hawkins persevered and amended his pitching repertoire such that he could work in the Minnesota Twins’ bullpen, where he became a part of the vanguard of setup men that now dominate the landscape of Major League Baseball.
Whew. It feels good to say that.
From Journeyman to Setup Man
Over the next fifteen years, while moving teams twelve times, no pitcher made more appearances than LaTroy Hawkins. At 943 games, Hawkins had over 80 more appearances than his next closest competitors Kyle Farnsworth and Francisco Rodriguez. At 946 innings pitched, Hawkins had 39 more innings pitched than Mariano Rivera. Although Hawkins wasn’t primarily a closer, he accumulated more saves than Jonathan Broxton, Carlos Marmol, and Octavio Dotel. He was third in holds during this time period, trailing Matt Thornton and Joaquin Benoit. He had a better FIP than Fernando Rodney, Kyle Farnsworth, and Jose Valverde. He pitched in 22 post-season games, including a World Series with the Rockies in 2007. He played with the United States team in the World Baseball Classic, too.
Most people overlook Hawkins because his pitching style didn’t match the typical high K/9 flamethrowers that eventually came to be used across the majors. In true 1990s/2000s Twins style, Hawkins developed as a pitch-to-contact fastball/slider guy who occasionally tossed a curve or changeup into the mix. He wasn’t the kind of pitcher that made highlight reels with the movement on his breaking pitches. His fastball was good: he finished his reliever career with 81 runs saved with his fastball, good for 7th among pitchers operating in the 2000-2015 timeframe. But he never had a second dominant “out” pitch. Additionally, Hawkins’ most dominant period — 2002 to 2004 — was overshadowed by elite closers like Eric Gagne, John Smoltz, and Mariano Rivera. Two of those players are now in the Hall of Fame.
Instead of having a long period of dominance, Hawkins had a near-unprecedented streak of being “pretty good.” As Hawkins’ Instagram profile states, “Competitors prefer the competition over the victory lap.” The question Hall voters will face moving into a new era where relievers are the norm — instead of the workhorse starters — is whether these “slow and steady” players like Hawkins are deserving of memorialization. With the proliferation of relievers in MLB after the year 2000, baseball writers will need to reckon with the changes to the game. If we don’t consider LaTroy Hawkins as viable for the Hall of Fame, then how do we memorialize and celebrate other relievers who have changed the game perhaps more than any other position player in the modern era?
You can find LaTroy Hawkins working now as a Special Assistant to Baseball Operations for the Minnesota Twins. Hawkins has also made himself available for public discussions of race relations, most notably appearing on a panel for The Athletic, and also appearing for local news stations and participating in camps and speaking to news outlets. At the time of writing, no Hall of Fame votes have been cast for LaTroy Hawkins.
(Photo by William Andrus/Flickr | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter))