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LaTroy Hawkins has no stomach. At least that’s how
things sound in Chicago right now as Cubs fans and media lament the
failure of Hawkins to succeed when donned with the “closer” label.
Taking things at face value, it sounds like Hawkins’ esophagus runs
directly to his small intestine, a genetic trick leaving him without
the
ability to finish games he enters when his team is up by three or fewer
runs, when the tying run is on deck, or if those three innings happen
to
be the last three innings of the game. Otherwise, he’s great.

The idea, as always, is that it takes something special to pitch in
save situations. So far in 2005, Hawkins has three saves and two blown
saves. The first blown save was April 8 against Milwaukee where he
allowed a single to Junior Spivey and a double to
Lyle Overbay after getting the first two outs in the
ninth. The Cubs eventually lost the game in 12 innings.

The second was against Pittsburgh this past Saturday where, after
Greg Maddux pitched eight solid innings, the Cubs took
a one-run lead in the bottom of the eighth only to watch Hawkins
surrender a one-out home run to Jason Bay. Pulled
after
giving up a single to Craig Wilson, Glendon
Rusch
allowed a triple to Freddy Sanchez,
scoring Wilson. Since Hawkins had allowed Wilson to reach base, the run
counted against him and he was credited with the loss when the Cubs
failed to score in the bottom of the ninth.

In his three games previous to last Saturday, Hawkins pitched very
well and recorded three straight saves, maintaining two two-run leads
and one one-run lead. But one misplaced pitch to Bay and the screamers
came out in force, buoyed by Hawkins’ reputedly shaky performance in
2004. Though he notched 25 saves last year, doubters pointed to
Hawkins’
nine blown saves, not his 82 innings of 2.63 ERA. Of his nine blown saves,
eight came with the tying run at the plate when Hawkins entered the game.

Looking at those totals, it’s easy to speculate that Hawkins is
shaky
in tight situations, a closer who’s unstoppable with a three-run lead,
but unreliable with less. But when Hawkins entered the game in 2004
with
the Cubs ahead or behind by a run or with the game tied, he pitched
37.2
innings at a 3.34 ERA. While that figure is higher than his season
total
of 2.63, it’s significantly better than league average and it’s in the
top half of Cub relievers last year. But if you’re going to be a
“closer,” that’s just not good enough.

Instead, let’s look at things in a slightly different way. In Baseball Prospectus
2005
, Keith
Woolner
unveiled the new pitcher reports in his essay on Win
Expectancy. One of the more interesting metrics that arose from that
gaggle of symbols and numbers that may only pass for communication if
you went to MIT was a stat called “Leverage.” Leverage is defined as
“the impact on the probability of winning the game from scoring (or
allowing) one additional run relative to a run scoring at the start of
the game.” Leverage is thus centered at one with values higher than one
indicating the situation has a greater effect on the outcome of the
game
whereas values below one indicate situations less deterministic on the
outcome of the game than before the game began. Keith further
points out that “leverage is not a measure of a pitcher’s actual
performance, but rather a measure of how he was used.”

This last point gets to the heart of the argument about “closers”:
is
leverage independent of pitching performance? Three
weeks ago
, I mentioned the idea of context independence: the theory
that a batter’s performance is independent of the context in which it
takes place. Essentially, a batter is just as likely to hit a home run
with no one on base and down by 10 runs as he is with the bases loaded
and down by a single run.

We can quickly check Hawkins’ usage and performance for the last few
seasons to see if perhaps his performance declines as his leverage
increases. To do so, we’ll break up leverage into five different
strata,
setting the ranges as to yield an equal number of innings pitched by
all
relievers into each stratum. Then we can look at Hawkins’ performance in
the last few seasons in each of those five strata. Here’s how he fares
in each level in RA:


Pitcher        Year   Low  MedLow Medium  MedHigh High
-------        ----   ---  ------ ------  ------- ----
Latroy Hawkins 2004  4.95   1.35   1.89     1.26  4.14
Latroy Hawkins 2003  0.00   2.88   2.88     2.79  1.89
Latroy Hawkins 2002  0.45   4.05   6.30     1.53  0.00
Latroy Hawkins 2001  5.94   6.03   5.40     6.21  6.12
Latroy Hawkins 2000  4.41   2.25   5.04     3.87  2.52

While Hawkins had a rough time in 2004 in the high leverage
situations, he also did in the low leverage situations, instead
excelling in the three middle tiers. But look at his 2003 and 2002: in
both Medium High and High leverage situations, Hawkins had RAs that
would make Bob Gibson jealous, going so far as to put
up a 0.00 RA in High leverage situations in 2002. There’s a small
sample
size issue in 2002 (Hawkins only pitched 17.2 innings in Medium High
and
11.0 in High), but in 2003 he pitched 19.3 in Medium High and 28.3 in
High leverage situations.

Now let’s see how Hawkins compares to all relievers who threw at
least 50 innings in a season over the last few seasons:


Year  Low   MedLow  Medium   MedHigh  High
----  ---   ------  ------   -------  ----
2004  4.29   4.55    4.01     4.03    3.93
2003  4.37   4.00    4.05     4.21    4.02
2002  3.87   3.95    3.86     3.93    3.88
2001  4.00   3.98    4.05     4.32    4.23
2000  4.61   4.53    4.56     4.67    4.19

Before we discuss those numbers and their bearing on Hawkins,
remember that there is an inherent selection bias in this group. Unlike
a batting lineup, managers can select when to use pitchers later in the
game and thus, in situations perceived to be high leverage, pitchers
who
are perceived to be better are likely going to see more action. Thus,
as
opposed to the context independence espoused when looking at Hawkins’
numbers, when looking at league totals, we should instead expect the
numbers in higher leverage situations to be higher because teams will
pitch their best pitchers in those situations.

On a very broad scale over the last five seasons, the higher the
leverage of the situation, the lower RA becomes (though 2001 was an
interesting exception to that trend). But this is most likely a result
of the fact that teams are more properly deploying their available
talent than those monkeys and their stock picks. Among the top 30
relievers in save totals last year, only 11 have an RA in High
leverage
situations lower than their RA in Low Leverage situations. On average,
the top 30 relievers in save totals in 2004 had an RA of 3.51 in High
Leverage situations and a 3.33 RA in Low leverage situations.

Getting back to Hawkins, his 4.14 RA in High Leverage situations in
2004 is enough to make even Jose Mesa fans cringe, but
looking at his numbers back through 2000, that 4.14 looks like an
outlier. Hawkins proved in 2002 and 2003 that he has the stomach to
pitch with a higher degree of success in High Leverage situations than
the best closers in the game. That he didn’t in 2004 isn’t any measure
of his lack of makeup, but rather an unlucky year combined with the
newly focused media spotlight that comes with that “closer” label.

Based on this information, can we definitively say that there isn’t
some mysterious psychological component needed to be a closer? No, but
we can say that Hawkins–for all the hand wringing over his troubles
last year and this month–has proven that he can succeed to the same
degree as the bullpen royalty when the pressure is on. What might be
most hilarious in this entire escapade is that all this is coming from
a
team that hasn’t had a player lead the team in saves two seasons in a
row since Randy Myers in 1994-95. The biggest lesson
isn’t that Hawkins is a good reliever and could close as well as most,
but that the faith of Cub fans takes years to build and minutes to
destroy.

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