Rockies reliever LaTroy Hawkins' unusual career path

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

After an extremely rocky start to his long career, Colorado's closer has gotten -- and continues to get -- better and better with age.

After a scoreless ninth inning in the Rockies' 8-5 win over the Diamondbacks on Monday, veteran closer LaTroy Hawkins is now 8-for-8 in save opportunities and boasts a very respectable 2.61 ERA through 11 appearances in 2014.

Those are great numbers for a closer, though certainly not unheard of. But what makes them special in this case is that Hawkins is 41 years old and is pitching in his 20th big league season.

And, his terrific performance this year is just an add-on to what has been a mind-boggling career path for the native of Gary, Ind.

Pitchers don't usually get better into their 30s (and in Hawkins' case, 40s). There is plenty of data to support this in Eno Sarris' wonderful piece for Sports on Earth that went up last week. In most cases, pitchers have their best velocity -- and perhaps as a direct correlation, their best peripherals -- in their early- to mid-20s. The velocity part was no different for Hawkins; he came into the league as a young fireballer with plenty of potential. But he didn't know how to pitch, and it cost him. Here are Hawkins' numbers from age 22 through 29:

IP ERA FIP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 K/9 K/BB
740⅔ 5.38 4.81 10.8 1.2 3.3 5.6 1.66

At a time when pitchers are supposed to be at their best, Hawkins was pretty terrible. He completely bombed as a starter for the Twins, though in all fairness, did so at the height of the biggest offensive-oriented era in the game's history. Those numbers include a pretty dominant age 29 season in which Hawkins posted a 2.13 ERA with 63 strikeouts and 15 walks in 80⅓ innings; before that, his career ERA approached 6.00 while his FIP was more than 5.00.

The transition to the bullpen treated Hawkins very well. Less exposure to his somewhat underwhelming stuff has proven very beneficial, and that was certainly visible by looking at his age 30 through 39 stats:

IP ERA FIP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 K/9 K/BB
563 3.23 3.62 8.8 0.8 2.4 6.5 2.68

Every single facet of Hawkins' game got better in his 30s. His fastball, while not in the category of pure heat, regularly averaged around 93-94 MPH and was consistently a valuable pitch, averaging around seven to eight runs above average each season. Meanwhile, his strikeout rate was up, his walk rate was down and he wasn't extremely hittable for a guy who was constantly around the plate.

Hawkins is now fewer than 100 innings into his 40s, but considering his career trajectory to this point, should it even be a surprise that he's gotten stronger? The answer, of course, is yes; he's not going to be a dominant reliever until he's 50, but Hawkins has put together quite a season-plus as one of baseball's eldest statesmen:

IP ERA FIP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 K/9 K/BB
81 2.89 3.18 8.8 0.8 1.3 6.7 5.00

Since turning 40, Hawkins has limited hits and home runs to the exact same tune that he did in the previous decade, but the veteran right-hander has added a new attribute to his game: limiting walks. Hawkins, while never extremely generous with the free pass, has become extra stingy in his old age. Despite still having that same pedestrian stuff, Hawkins has no problems attacking hitters. He still doesn't get them to punch out often, but the crafty 41-year-old doesn't seem fazed by getting himself into long, foul ball-laced duels with hitters before eventually getting them to succumb.

It won't stay that way forever. Sooner or later, that extra difference-making tick or two will erode off of his fastball and hitters will start turning those foul balls into hard hits. But for now, the 92-93 MPH area in which Hawkins sits with his fastball is just enough, and for whatever reason, hitters struggle to square him up despite the fact that he's still constantly all over the plate, just as he was in his 30s.

Just as it's fun to watch young fireballers -- as Hawkins once was -- blow away hitters with mid- to upper-90s heat, it's equally pleasing to see crafty vets like LaTroy their way through innings by attacking hitters 15-20 years younger with an array strikes and eventually forcing those hitters to get themselves out by being over-aggressive.

That's long been Hawkins' game, and it's suiting him -- and the Rockies -- well.

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