LaTroy Hawkins might have pitched in his last big-league game. The right-hander was effective out of the Los Angeles Angels bullpen this season — with a 3.64 ERA in 48 appearances — but he isn‘t getting any younger. A veteran of 871 games in 18 major league seasons, he’ll celebrate his 40th birthday in December.
Drafted out of a Gary, Ind., high school by the Twins, in 1991, Hawkins spent nine years in a Minnesota uniform and has since played for eight other teams. He has never been a star, but he does have 65 wins and 88 saves during his career. Whether he’ll add to those totals will remain to be seen, but it’s been a long journey.
Hawkins talked about the evolution of his career during an August visit to Fenway Park.
Hawkins on his early evolution as a pitcher: “When I broke into pro ball, I threw a fastball and a slurve, which was a high school pitch I had learned. My pitching coach got rid of it the first week I was in professional baseball. He turned it into a real slider. I didn’t have much command of it, but he told me that I would over time. He said that if I kept practicing it, it would get better. He always told me that. In high school, I threw a one finger up. I had one finger on the ball — one pitching finger on the ball — but I think the bigger change was maturity.
“Over the next couple of years, I got bigger and stronger and was pitching on a full-time basis. I was pitching from spring training until October. I had only pitched a little bit in high school and a little bit in the summertime. I never had any extensive time on the mound, or instruction. Actually, I didn’t have any instruction. The first time I ever had a pitching coach was in professional baseball.
“I had to learn about things like arm speed and understand how the ball came out of my hand. What do you do with your wrist? I had to get the feel for pitching.”
On basketball and release points: “My pitching coach broke it down in terms of… this was when I started to turn the corner. My first years in the minor leagues were OK, but I just didn’t feel it. He broke it down into basketball terms. I was a big basketball player growing up. He was like, ‘You averaged 18 points a game and had some 30-point outbursts. How did it feel when the ball was coming out of your hand — the release point of your jump shot?’ I said it felt like it was going to go in every time. He said, ‘Well, what you need to do is bring that feeling into baseball.’ He said that once I got that feeling in my hand, there wouldn’t be too many pitches I won’t be able to throw, and that I’ll always be able to throw it where I need to throw it. I was like, ‘Really?’
“It took a long time. I chewed on that awhile and slowly tried to transfer the concept of how I felt on the basketball court when I was shooting my jump shot. I worked that into my delivery — my arm angle and my release point. I think that was the key for me, having him translate it into basketball terms. The ball coming off your fingertips when you’re shooting a jump shot isn’t all that different from delivering a pitch.
“You need to have feel for pitching, but the mental part is probably even tougher. That’s why you don’t see all that many major-league ballplayers. How many have there been? Maybe 19,000, if that. How many have been drafted and in the minor leagues? I can’t even imagine how many. So there is definitely a learning curve, and who can get over that learning curve? Who can progress?”
On when he went from being a thrower to a pitcher: “I still haven’t reached that point. [laughs] You know what? I’ve had to change so many things over the years, just to stick around. Arm angle a little bit, mechanics a little bit, where my hands start and finish a little bit. As the game caught up to me, I always had to make that adjustment. At the end of the day, baseball is a game of adjustments and about who can make adjustments the fastest. That’s what I’ve been able to do over time. I’ve mixed in some bad seasons where I’ve gotten all messed up with mechanics, and things like that, but I’ve learned from them. I’ve learned to take out the positives and roll them over to the next season.
“My repertoire has never changed much. I’ve always been a fastball-slider-curveball guy. Over the years, the biggest thing I’ve improved on is the command of my fastball and slider. I’ve also been better at throwing my breaking pitches when I’m behind in the count, as opposed to the early part of my career when I was basically just a fastball pitcher.”
On his fastball: “I probably had my best fastball from 2001 to 2004. They say that your prime is around 28 to 30, and I was in my prime. I didn’t have too much success starting, so I moved to being a reliever. When that happened, I took the mentality that I didn’t have to save anything for the fifth, sixth or seventh inning. I could just let it all hang out, and that’s when my velocity came. That’s when I started to fly a little bit.
“Velocity isn’t everything, but it definitely helps. Kirby Puckett used to always tell me that you want to throw above the speed limit, or below the speed limit, but you don’t want to throw the speed limit. The speed limit is 87 to 91. Every major league guy can hit those fastballs. You don’t get the luxury of making mistakes within the speed limit. If you get to 93, 94, 95, and so on, you can make a few mistakes and have guys just miss pitches.”
On if he is surprised to have pitched this long: “Completely. I started out a kid from Gary, Ind., and never thought I’d be in the major leagues for one year. I just went over 16 or 17 years, so I’m definitely surprised. 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.”