USA TODAY has been recognizing the nation's top high school athletes for more than 30 years. As we prepare to unveil the 2014 American Family Insurance ALL-USA Baseball Team at the end of the season, we'll dig into the archives and check in with ALL-USA honorees from the past three decades. Today, we’re catching up with Winston-Salem Dash outfielder Courtney Hawkins. Hawkins was an ALL-USA player for Carroll (Corpus Christi, Texas) in 2012.
Courtney Hawkins may be the top prospect in the Chicago White Sox system, but he’s only 20, so he’s prone to wild career fluctuations.
On Saturday, the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Dash outfielder went 2-for-3 with a three-run homer and five RBI in a 7-1 defeat of Salem, Va. On Monday, he was ejected in the eighth inning when the benches cleared after he had words with Salem catcher Jayson Hernandez.
Still, Hawkins has come a long way from last season, when he had the first big slump of his career. While he hit 19 homers in 383 at-bats, his average dropped to a career-low .178 and he led the (high A) Carolina League with 160 strikeouts.
This season, he’s hitting .289, leading the league with 27 RBI and is second in homers and total bases. While he still strikes out a lot, he’s cut his percentage of strikeouts to at-bats from 41.7% to 30.1%.
“It’s just patience,” Hawkins said. “I was trying to do too much last year. Now, I’m learning to take what they give me.”
His senior year at Carroll, he hit .410 with 15 homers, 42 RBI and 17 stolen bases. Carroll coach Lee Yeager started a Twitter account to keep his team and baseball scouts informed.
“That way, I could notify the scouts of the days we were hitting and not have to email all of them,” Yeager said. “There were a bunch of scouts. … Courtney has been a guy who has freak power. He doesn’t have to do much and he can still drive the ball out of the park. He has some God-given ability that most guys don’t have.”
Hawkins was the 13th player taken in the 2012 June draft. Blessed with a strong arm (he had a 0.88 ERA as a pitcher his senior year), speed and power, he was seen as a five-tool prospect. In the 2012 season, he jumped from the Appalachian League (rookie) to South Atlantic League (low A) to the Carolina League, averaging .284 with 33 RBI in 289 at-bats.
His fast rise may have led him to look ahead in 2013, a mistake he doesn’t anticipate making again. Early last season, he was asked when his parents would next him play and he supposedly said they would catch up with him when he got to (Double-A) Birmingham.
“My mindset, this year, compared to last year, is to grind, every single day, every pitch, instead of, if I do this, this will happen next week or tomorrow,” Hawkins said. “Any time I got a pitch I could do something with, I did damage, with extra-base hits. I still swung the bat but I was also swinging at stuff that was out of the zone and I was getting myself out a lot.”
Hawkins turned to his father, Tim, who had played professional softball and his older brother Tim, Jr., as he always had, for advice.
“That was the first time I’ve had bad play,” Hawkins said. “It was good for me to have it. I finally went through it and now know how to overcome it. My brother and dad had to learn from it too because they had never seen me struggle. It was a learning experience for everybody.”
At the advice of White Sox assistant general manager Buddy Bell and Dash hitting coach Gary Ward, he’s dropped his hands and his anxieties.
“Don’t change your approach just because you get a pitch you weren’t looking for,” Hawkins said he was told. “Last year, I had a “so-called” approach. I don’t think it was an approach like I have this year. I would get away from it. I would get a strike called on me and would be in panic mode. Or, I would get two strikes and panic. This year, one strike or two strikes, I don’t panic.”
Yeager said that Hawkins has to realize, with his bat speed, that he doesn’t have to rush his swing.
“The last 90 degrees of Courtney’s swing is as quick as anybody’s I’ve seen at the high school level. He can wait longer and hit to the opposite field. That way, he can see the ball a little longer and deeper.”
Nick Capra, the White Sox director of player development, said that Hawkins’ improvement is due to better technique and patience.
“It’s probably a combination of those and the fact that he is maturing,” Capra said by email. “He is also in a much better position to hit. He is seeing the ball much better.”
Hawkins has always had a fun side. En route to the draft, he participated in a parody video, ‘Draft me maybe.’ After he was drafted, he did a back flip on the MLB Network. While he realizes baseball is a business, he’s enjoying himself again.
“I’m a jokester,” he said. “I play with my teammates, though you have to know who you can play around with and who you can’t, and I like to interact with the fans.”