2022 Independent Player Of The Year: Courtney Hawkins (Lexington Legends)
Being released is never easy for a baseball player. But like many before him, Courtney Hawkins found that being let go was a key part of his development.
It provided the impetus for him to rework his swing. Maybe more importantly, it provided a chance to revitalize his love of the game.
“When you first get released, you’re kind of lost,” said Hawkins, whom the White Sox drafted 13th overall out of high school in 2012 and released early in 2018 after a slow start at Double-A. But there was a light at the end of the tunnel for the 29-year-old left fielder.
“Going to indy ball brought the fun back to baseball,” Hawkins said. “You get to put it out on the field. (Sugar Land manager) Pete Incaviglia started that for me. He’s an old-school, hard-nosed dude I love and respect. He told me to let it rock.”
Hawkins latched on with Sugar Land of the independent Atlantic League in 2018 and returned to the club in 2019 and 2020, working around stints in affiliated ball in the former and the pandemic in the latter.
Beginning in 2021, Hawkins found a new level of prosperity with Lexington of the Atlantic League, now a designated MLB Partner League. He teamed up with the Phillips brothers—three-time MLB all-star second baseman Brandon and his younger brother P.J., the Legends’ manager.
The Phillips brothers helped Hawkins rework his swing and his mindset. Hawkins decided to swing for the fences. If he struck out, then so be it. He went into at-bats focused on being an impact hitter.
In 2022, Hawkins tied the Atlantic League and independent/MLB Partner leagues single-season record with 48 home runs. That standard had been set by Ozzie Canseco in 2000.
After hitting .298/.399/.655 with 125 RBIs in 127 games, Hawkins is our Independent/MLB Partner Leagues Player of the Year.
Hawkins tied the home run record in dramatic fashion in his final at-bat of his team’s final inning of its final game of the season.
He came into the final three-game series of the season sitting on 47 homers. In the first two games he went 1-for-4 with a single and five walks, two of them intentional to lead off the first game.
In the season finale, Hawkins struck out, popped out twice and then singled in his first four at-bats. In his last trip to the plate, he hit a 442-foot, no-doubt home run to tie the record.
“He should have hit 60 home runs,” Lexington manager P.J. Phillips said. “The last two weeks of the season, he was getting nothing to hit. He hit eight home runs in just a few days. After that, people weren’t pitching to him.”
That sounds like hyperbole but is anchored in truth. In one five-game stretch beginning Aug. 28, Hawkins hit eight homers to put him just five away from tying Canseco’s record with 18 games to go.
Hawkins specialized in hitting no-doubters. Of his 38 homers that were tracked, 16 were hit 107 mph or harder and six were hit harder than 110 mph.
That’s because Hawkins now has a swing that allows him to get to his power more consistently and hit the ball hard even if his timing isn’t perfect.
That’s a credit to Hawkins’ diligence. When he got released in 2018, he set about breaking down his swing and understanding his mechanics. He picked elements he liked from each organization and coach he had worked with.
“It was about getting (my swing) to be on path from behind as long as I possibly can,” Hawkins said, “where before I was too downhill. Too choppy.
“My room for error was very short. Now my room for error is from behind me to out in front, because I’m staying compact and letting my hands and my body do work in the zone. Now when I start struggling, I know how to get out of it on my own.”
Hawkins hit just three home runs in April before averaging nine per month from May through September.
“You knew if he got a pitch to hit, he wasn’t going to miss,” Phillips said. “It was like watching Sammy Sosa. He wanted to break that record, and he was helping us win at the same time.”
After the season, Hawkins traveled to Japan to try out for Fukuoka of Nippon Professional Baseball. If he is able to latch on with the Hawks, he will follow the lead of last year’s Independent Leagues POY, Adam Brett Walker.
In his first year abroad, Walker bashed 23 homers in 124 games for Yomiuri and ranked third in NPB with a .515 slugging percentage.
That’s the type of impact Hawkins hopes to make in 2023.