LaTroy Hawkins blew the game yesterday and bears the responsibility of that loss, there's really no other way to look at it. Adam Ottavino and Boone Logan did well working through the heart of the Cubs' lineup to set him up. All he had to do — I use that phrase in the context of being a professional baseball player of course, given that nothing at that level is simple or easy — was sit down the next two batters.
In case you missed the game or the hubbub in the community following the game, here's a quick rundown of what happened last night. The Rockies played pretty poorly, but despite a number of mistakes were up by two heading into the ninth. Adam Ottavino came on in the seventh, striking out Travis Wood before Jonathan Herrera fouled out. Dexter Fowler reached on a rare error by DJ LeMahieu, but Anthony Rizzo went down looking on a 3-2 pitch. Ottavino got Jorge Soler to fly out before being replaced by Boone Logan in the eighth, who got both Matt Szczur and Starlin Castro to groundout. Logan was kept on to start the ninth, whiffing Miguel Montero before being replaced by LaTroy Hawkins. Hawkins would go on to walk Arismendy Alcantara on four straight balls after a first-pitch strike. Alcantara advanced to second on a pitch in the dirt before Mike Olt struck out swinging, but a Welington Castillo single plated would plate him. Castillo would then cross the plate after Dexter Fowler sent an awful 0-2 pitch deep. Hawkins struck out Anthony Rizzo to end a very disappointing inning.
There's been a lot of vitriol directed at Hawkins lately, and while I'm not one for singling out individual players, I can't deny that a decent portion of that is deserved. I've seen a lot of people say Boone Logan should've been kept in the game, which is a fair point. He'd only thrown 16 pitches and had looked good thus far. There's a ton of different aspects of the whole closer discussion. Is having a designated closer really that important? Does having one limit our flexibility? You can look at Walt Weiss' decision to replace Logan with Hawkins in a number of different lights. Alcantara, albeit in a very limited sample size of just over 300 plate appearances in the majors, has hit lefties for .232 while going .183 against righties. Obviously, Weiss couldn't be certain who the Cubs would have pinch-hit for Neil Ramirez who was up to bat after Alcantara, but Mike Olt and Welington Castillo were the most likely options to come in. Both have hit lefties better than righties, with the former hitting .172 against lefties and .151 facing righties and the latter going .305 and .241.
Many members of the community are big proponents of having Weiss and the front office look into underlying statistics to make more informed decisions rather than relying on intangibles like loyalty, tradition, etc. I'm a member of this contingent, but the thing is, I think you need to stay consistent or at the very least not ignore the sabermetric stance. If Walt and the rest of the coaching staff were thinking about splits and thinking that Hawkins wouldn't have an issue facing Alcantara and one of Olt or Castillo, then I think the decision to bring in Hawkins was a defensible one. If, however, he was only brought in because he's our "closer" and the coaching staff thinks that means he has to be brought in for save situations, then that decision is a bad one. If you're playing the splits, then I can understand removing Logan. And remember, while Logan has looked terrific this year, he did have his far share of meltdowns last year. At the moment, I don't believe there is anyone in the bullpen who is a "sure thing" with exception of Adam Ottavino.
Two things I'd like to discuss are the calls for LaTroy's head after last night and then a more general look at the position of closer as relates to the Rockies.
Put Away the Pitchforks, Please!
Look, I too was disappointed and upset by Hawkins' performance last night. There's really no excuse for giving Dexter Fowler that good of a look with an 0-2 count. Heck, Fowler shouldn't have gotten any sort of a look given the situation. One second, I'm watching the game and hearing about how it'd be a great time to get Dex with a back-foot slider and the next second my head is in my hands as Fowler rounds the bases after launching one into right. Let's get this out of the way first — Michael McKenry was exploited defensively, with the Cubs taking liberties on the base paths all afternoon, but he didn't call for a pitch right down the pipe as I saw some say.
I apologize for the poor quality of my screenshots, but here's how McKenry set himself as LaTroy began his delivery.
This is a fine spot to call for a pitch; down and inside. Take a look at Dexter Fowler's hot zones as provided by ESPN. I've set the data to be from the 2014 season when he faced righties and was behind in the count.
It may be a bit tough to tell from the screenshot, but it looks to me that McKenry is calling for a pitch right in that lower inside zone. According to his performances last year in this situation, it looks like that's a great call. Here, however, is where LaTroy's pitch ends up.
Here's where the ball ended up, more or less. I apologize for my lack of decent photoshop skills, but that purple blob is the ball. That's right down broadway, folks. When facing a guy who just recorded two triples against you the previous game, is this really where you want to be throwing the ball?
There's no defending that. It is what it is, which is an awful pitch. For that, LaTroy deserves the blame for the loss. What isn't warranted, however, is calls for him being cut. Cut? Really? A guy whose been around as long as he has and performed the way he has over a long career deserves much more of a leash than that. Would I be worried if his age was really showing? Sure, but he's still hitting 95 MPH. Furthermore, just a year ago Hawkins posted an ERA- of 77, putting him ahead in that category of guys like David Robertson, Adam Ottavino, Steve Cishek and Trevor Rosenthal. His K/9 was slightly lower than his career average, but his BB/9, HR/9, ERA, FIP, and WHIP were all better than career averages for him.
Nothing pops out to me as being indicative of a guy whose age has finally caught up to him. There are two main reasons why wanting Hawkins cut is misguided.
The first is a combination of the amount of goodwill he's accumulated over his career, there being no sign of age making him a useless player, and the very limited sample size we have thus far. RIRF put it well:
Does Hawkins get any
He hasn't had an ideal start to the season, but calling for him to be cut is too much. Hawkins is a respected player, not just because he's a genuinely good guy, but because he's been so solid for so long. Everyone hits a rough patch. It was pointed out in the comments section, but do you hear Giants or Dodgers fans calling for the heads of Madison Bumgarner or Clayton Kershaw? The former lasted just three innings and gave up five earned runs on ten hits, while the latter went six and a third giving up five earned runs on ten hits and three walks. I realize Hawkins isn't in the same league as them, but the principle is the same. Guys who've accumulated goodwill have done so for a reason and deserve some slack. Everyone is going to make mistakes, it's what makes baseball what it is.
As of right now, there's no reason to believe that this is a trend. Unless he makes a habit of poor performances like this one, I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt and calling this an isolated incident. Furthermore, given the Rockies' injury woes and lack of stability in the bullpen in recent years, is it really wise to cut a guy whose been a steady contributor over his entire twenty season career. When he's still throwing 95 MPH in his twenty-first season and had as solid of a year last year as he did, how is he a guy we should be cutting from the team? Holly (holly96) put it well:
Way too early to say he's done or call for him to be cut.
With all our bullpen issues the past few years, the Rockies should not start cutting relievers after two bad outings (one of which was largely unlucky).
What's in a Name, Anyways?
Every team has a guy who is ostensibly their closer, a guy they bring on in save situations in the ninth to shut the door and preserve the win. I look at the position, however, as something more akin to that of the opening-day starter. In other words, I think its more of an honorific than anything really meaningful. I realize that may not be how the players, fans, and management feel, but that's just my opinion. I want to see the best player in for the highest leverage situations. The ninth inning is often not one of those times. Eric, Ryan, and a number of other staff and community members have been saying this for days now, but just to reiterate, pegging a guy like Ottavino to the closer role really limits the flexibility you have with employing him. I don't know why there even needs to be a designated closer, but since that's how baseball currently operates and given what the role entails, I don't want Ottavino to be our closer. I want him to be the guy we can put in to face the opposing team's toughest hitters in the most important innings, whether that be the seventh or the ninth. I saw three commenters make great, pithy statements that echo my sentiments and I wanted to highlight them here — I combined two of RockedUp's comments just to have them together and edited parts of all of the comments, just as a side note — because I think the summarize what I'm trying to say well:
Hawkins is still a useful 6th or 7th inning guy. No reason to dump him. Just put him in a better place to succeed.
Lots of times, the 9th inning is a lower leverage situation than the 7th inning.
So, it should depend on the situation.
Let’s not panic yet about Hawkins. He’s old, but I’m sure he can be reasonably effective.by RockedUp
Have good pitchers get difficult and important outs, instead of bad ones. Forget about what inning it is. You can't win in the top of the 9th if you’re trailing in the bottom of the 8th.
I also reached out to the staff for their thoughts on the matter, and Carolyn had a great response:
I'm also not set on having solidly defined roles in the bullpen. They've all looked pretty good, go with appropriate match ups rather than an assigned 8th or 9th inning guy. I will say that LaTroy's tendency for traffic isn't ideal for a closer. It's like 2010 Brian Wilson but without the up side.
The takeaway is that who our closer is shouldn't really matter. Instead, we should be putting in the best guy for a given scenario. If that means Ottavino pitching in the seventh and Hawkins taking the ninth, or vice versa, then so be it. It's all about making the best use of the resources you have at hand.
Where Does This Leave Us?
I also asked the staff what they saw as the solution to the situation going forward. Bryan suggested what I believe many of us believe, that Hawkins should be used in lower leverage situations and in those scenarios that play to his strengths:
Re: Hawkins, get him out of the closer role. He doesn't miss enough bats over the course of a season to be a worthwhile option there, especially if his velocity is going to be back below 2013-14 levels. Use him as a guy to come in and get a right-handed batter to ground into a double play. Allowed just a .597 OPS vs. RHBs last year.
Ryan identified a factor I hadn't looked at, which is pitch selection:
I'm wondering why Hawk has almost completely abandoned his slider this year. It's down to 5.3% usage compared to 16.1% last year and 17.3% for his career. I personally would love to see Betancourt get a shot in the 9th inning, but I'm also gonna try not to freak out over the ultra SSS we have from Hawkins right now.
Going forth, let's play smart and put our guys in the best situations for them to succeed. Let's also remember to keep things in perspective, even when in the heat of the moment we're pissed off and upset. I was right there with some of you last night, but let's be supportive of our players. No one is feeling worse about that blown save than LaTroy Hawkins right now. You know he's a clubhouse leader who cares deeply for the game and takes pride in his work.
Lastly, thanks for the read! I know it's a long article, but it's something I really wanted to get out. Wouldn't have been possible without the conversations had by the community, so I really appreciate that as well. I included three commenters' thoughts, but there were a ton of people who had great points to make as well. Go Rockies!