Prospects learning from struggles, bouncing back
Nimmo, Hawkins, Bauer among young players rebounding after tough 2013 seasons
Baseball, as is often said, is a game of failure. How prospects deal with that failure goes a long way in determining what kind of success they will have in the future. If the first month and change of the 2014 season is any indication, players like Brandon Nimmo, Courtney Hawkins and Trevor Bauer are proving they can use the lessons learned from adversity to turn things around.
Just about everything that could go wrong for Hawkins did in 2013. The '12 first-round Draft pick initially took the pro game by storm during his summer debut, making it to the advanced Class A Carolina League for the playoffs as a teenager out of high school. Perhaps that was Hawkins' undoing last season, as the powerful outfielder never could get going, finishing with a .178/.249/.384 line in 103 games.
"Maturity has a lot to do with it -- him learning he didn't have to be in a hurry to get to the big leagues," White Sox director of player development Nick Capra said. "In his mind, he thought he was on a fast track. He got ahead of himself."
Hawkins, currently ranked as the No. 5 prospect in the White Sox system, is the first to admit that Capra is right. If Hawkins struggled, he'd try to change his stance. He listened to everything people suggested to get him going. Hawkins went through the entire year thinking each at-bat would be the one to propel him forward.
"Last year, there were a lot of big expectations. I had big expectations on myself," Hawkins said. "I tried to do too much every time I came up there instead of taking what was given to me, what was called for in the situation. I was looking ahead. I was trying to get to the next level over and over. I was trying to get that callup, but you can't think that way."
Nimmo had similar issues with the mental side of the game, riding the highs and lows of his first taste of full-season ball and allowing it to impact him way too much. The 2011 first-round pick and the Mets' No. 5 prospect was guilty of what many young players do: thinking that he had things figured out when he was doing well and, like Hawkins, trying to break out of a slump with one swing every time up. Nimmo's overall numbers -- .273/.397/.359 -- weren't awful, but his monthly splits had a roller-coaster feel to them.
"Going through the ups and downs, there were some drastic ups and downs," Nimmo said. "I started out really well, saw what it was like to have success and how to deal with that success. I also dealt with the failures and pressure that comes with that, dealing with some rough valleys."
Bauer's 2013 season also had highs and lows, with his overall numbers not up to what most expected from the No. 3 overall pick in '11. In fact, many believed he'd spend the year in the Indians' big league rotation after joining the organization in December 2012 via a big three-way trade involving Cleveland, Cincinnati and Arizona.
Command was the biggest issue for Bauer, currently the Indians' No. 3 prospect and No. 67 on the overall Top 100. He walked 5.4 per nine innings in Triple-A in 2013, further amplifying an issue he's had throughout his career (4.5 BB/9 rate in the Minors). The problems, it seems, stemmed from changes Bauer attempted to make to his delivery and approach.
"He made a significant adjustment two years ago, right when we got him," Indians director of player development Ross Atkins said. "He worked through it for the entire season."
Bauer studies pitching like a philosophy professor studies Plato or an architect examines the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. After the season, he went back to the drawing board. Working hand in hand with big league pitching coach Mickey Callaway, Bauer came up with something much closer to what he used at UCLA and in the early stages of his pro career. This wasn't a rash "I'm going back to what worked before" kind of decision, but a plan that took some time to formulate.
"It was extremely detailed and specific," Atkins said. "He's driving it, but it's absolutely collaborative. It lends to greater consistency and better life and leverage to his pitches."
The results have been impressive. Bauer has a 1.10 ERA over five starts in Triple-A. His velocity is back to where it was when he first began his pro career, and he's shown four above-average pitches at times. As always, Bauer is tough to hit, with a .207 batting average against. But thanks to improved command (2.5 BB/9), he's been able to go deeper into his starts. Bauer was equally impressive in his one big league start, with more almost certainly to come.
Hawkins has also made some physical adjustments, along with the mental ones, to help his turnaround. He's lowered his hands and that seems to have helped him considerably. The 20-year-old has hit .268/.348/.546 over his first 27 games. Hawkins' 30 RBIs lead the Carolina League, and he's fifth in slugging percentage.
"Mechanically, we see some adjustments [Hawkins has] made that put him in a better position to hit," Capra said. "I think patience has a big role in how he's performing. There are a few things we think he's learned .... not only offensively, but defensively and running the bases also. He looks like a completely different ballplayer."
"When I lowered my hands, it was uncomfortable," Hawkins explained. "But I was going to stay with it because it worked. Now it feels comfortable because I've done it over and over. You have to be consistent with it.
"I didn't have the consistency last year. You have to find something that works for you and don't go away from it. Stick with your game plan. Once you get away from it, it'll hurt you. That's what happened to me."
Nimmo has used his uneven 2013 to fuel him with his move up to the Florida State League this season. He took notes during his struggles a year ago and will go back to them so he remembers what to do and, perhaps more importantly, what not to do. Nimmo is off to a .344/.484/.451 start in his first 33 games, leading the FSL in on-base percentage and ranking in the top 10 in batting average.
"There were a lot of things that I learned in those peaks and valleys that I can use this year and in years to come," said Nimmo, who will try to avoid a repeat of 2013, when he had a huge April but slumped badly in May. "There are going to be more valleys this year. You have to just learn from it. You can draw from those rough times, like last year for me. It's about being a student of the game. Anything I can learn, I'm going to try to retain."
Learning from mistakes is essential. Bauer, Nimmo and Hawkins now understand this on a personal level. Perhaps it was better to go through it at this stage of their careers rather than later on. It's clear they all have tried to put those lessons into practice on the field this season.
"Me having the year I had last year is what helped me think like I am now -- just go play the game," Hawkins said. "I was trying to hit the grand slam every time up. Now I'm just trying to do what the situation calls for. It's helped me so much this year."
"You have to keep the gas pedal on at all times," Nimmo said, explaining the most important thing he learned during his struggles. "Last year was tough to go through, but I'm glad I went through it."