Of the flurry of moves made by the Dodgers last week, the underrated additions are probably the three players received from the Marlins in the three-team upgrade from Dee Gordon to Howie Kendrick. Of the three from Miami, Chris Hatcher figures to play a role in an improving Dodgers bullpen in 2015.
At the very least, Hatcher gives closer Kenley Jansen someone else to talk to in weekly meetings of the catchers-turned-pitchers club. Hatcher was drafted by the Marlins in the fifth round in 2006, but after not hitting for five years he switched to pitching full time in 2011, not long after Jansen.
Though unlike Jansen, Hatcher actually made it to the majors as a catcher. Hatcher had a cup of coffee with Florida in September 2010, catching four games and going 0-for-6 with two walks and five strikeouts at the plate.
"My greatest asset as a catcher was my arm," Hatcher told the Palm Beach Post in 2011. "I think I can convert that to a pitcher very well. I have a big advantage facing hitters as an ex-catcher because I've set up hitters, I know how to call a game. If I can just throw strikes, which is every pitcher's goal, I'll be ahead of the game."
But after putting up solid minor league numbers as a pitcher — 2.28 ERA, 3.11 FIP, 24.8 percent strikeout rate in Double-A Jacksnville and Triple-A New Orleans — Hatcher seemed to hit a wall. In parts of three seasons in the majors from 2011-2013, the right-hander had a 7.22 ERA and 5.23 FIP in 33⅔ innings, with six home runs allowed, 14 walks and 25 strikeouts.
Hatcher was designated for assignment in February then cleared waivers and was outrighted to Triple-A New Orleans, where he began a third straight season in 2014.
Things got even worse for Hatcher when he was suspended for five games by the Marlins in May for punching and breaking the jaw of Triple-A teammate Sam Dyson. More from the New Orleans Advocate:
The fight occurred at a Nashville bar on April 29 during the team’s just-completed eight-game road trip, a source in the organization said. Hatcher refused to disclose the reason for the fight.
"I’m not getting into that; can’t do it," he said Tuesday evening as the Zephyrs prepared for their game against the Iowa Cubs at Zephyr Field. "I’m suspended for conduct detrimental to the team. Unfortunately (the incident) happened, and I’m going to leave it at that."
But Hatcher on the mound was working on a very good start to his 2014 season, putting up a 2.01 ERA in 15 games, with 25 strikeouts and only six walks. On May 22 he was promoted back to the majors, just over three weeks after the incident which was surprising.
Per the Miami Herald:
"Pretty shocking -- wasn't expecting it," Hatcher said of being called up. "Having the roster guys down there -- [Arquimedes] Caminero, [Dan] Jennings, [Bryan] Flynn. [Andrew] eaney is knocking on the door. I was just trying to help that ballclub win and the last thing on my mind was being called up to be quite honest with you."
"I felt like I've become a better person because of it," Hatcher said of the incident. "Moving forward I know things like that can't happen, which I knew that before. But I put myself in a tough spot professionally and as a person and hope to move forward from it."
Hatcher stuck with the Marlins the rest of the year, and had his best season.
The 29-year-old put up a 3.38 ERA and a 2.56 FIP in 52 games, with 60 strikeouts and only 12 walks in 56 innings. Among 209 major league relievers with at least 30 innings pitched in 2014, Hatcher ranked 23rd in FIP and 20th in xFIP (2.56).
His effectiveness came from a style change, at least at the major league level.
From 2011-2013, Hatcher threw a sinker just 2.8 percent of the time, and a split finger 13.0 percent, per Brooks Baseball. But in 2014 he used his splitter 21.8 percent of the time and his sinker 18.9 percent, which complemented his four-seam fastball, which averaged 96.3 mph.
The result was a 47.5-percent ground ball rate, up from his 41.4-percent mark in the previous three years. Hatcher allowed only four home runs, two fewer than his first 33 innings in the previous three years.
Building a bullpen is one of the most difficult things to do in baseball, if only because of the volatility of the position. There are so few consistently good relief pitchers that its best to have as many viable options as possible to see what sticks.
Hatcher seems happy to be in Los Angeles:
Looking forward to playing for such a storied franchise. Excited and fortunate for the opportunity to wear @Dodgers blue.— Chris Hatcher (@handlebars41) December 15, 2014
Hatcher turns 30 in January, is out of options, and has one good season on his resume, so by no means is he a sure thing. But he certainly has the stuff to compete for a spot, and the best case scenario is potentially five seasons of a bullpen piece under relative cost control.
Look for him to pitch key innings in relief for the Dodgers in 2015.