By Jon Weisman
He was a top Dodger from August through October, but did you notice?
It’s OK if you didn’t. Chris Hatcher understands.
After spending the middle two months of the season on the disabled list with an oblique injury, the Dodger reliever had a 1.31 ERA for the rest of the season, striking out 26 in 20 2/3 innings while allowing 20 baserunners.
Hatcher topped that off by pitching 3 2/3 hitless innings in the National League Division Series against the Mets, retiring 11 of the 12 batters he faced.
Considering all the grief he took for his subpar first half (6.38 ERA, 1.52 WHIP), you might think Hatcher would feel cheated for attention over the final three months. But in a phone interview last week, I stepped to the plate with a question about that second-half success, and he whiffed me.
“I wouldn’t really call it success,” Hatcher said. “I would call it doing my job. Obviously, I didn’t do it several times this year, (though) I did it more so than not.
“You look at great teams in the big leagues, they have a great closer, they have a great setup guy and they have a great starting pitching. Most of them have pretty darn good middle relief. I look at it as we had elite starters, we had an elite closer, we had a decent middle relief corps but times when we struggled getting the ball to Kenley (Jansen). So, I don’t look at it as successful, because there were a couple of games that I blew, and I cost us games.”
Still, only twice in his final 26 games (counting the playoffs) did Hatcher allow the tying or go-ahead run to score. For the NLDS in particular, Hatcher was particularly zoned in.
“It was my first time in the playoffs,” he said, “so I’ve never had three or four days to prepare for a certain team that you know you can face up to five times in a row. So you do your due diligence and you do your scouting reports, and you have to have confidence and trust in that scouting report. Having three or four days to prepare for a single team, that’s huge. Then all you have to do is go out and execute.”
For any second-half star, the question is whether he can carry his progress forward into the following season. What’s noteworthy in Hatcher’s case is that he believes confidence created that progress, rather than the other way around.
What’s even more noteworthy is that he was able to manufacture that confidence while on the sidelines.
“You have at least a month where you can’t do anything with an oblique, so I just sat there,” he recalled. “I didn’t feel sorry for myself or anything like that. It was just, ‘What can I do to get healthy, and what can I do to be better when I get back?’ Obviously, I wasn’t very good before I got hurt. I think it was just finding the confidence to go out (with my) best stuff and throw any pitch at any certain count.
“I just went out there and pitched rather than avoiding contract. I went out there and let myself play.”
Hatcher said he was never one to stew for long after a setback, but he had fallen into bad habits in the first half of 2015, before he went on the DL in June.
“I think early on in the year, I sat there and overanalyzed what I was doing,” he said. “But at the end of the year, it was more, ‘Give me that ball. I’ll move on. If I give up one, give it to me tomorrow.'”
The pinnacle of that approach came August 31. Nursing a 3 1/2-game lead in the National League West, the Dodgers had used six relievers by the time Hatcher entered in the top of the 12th inning, with the score tied at 4. Rosters were a night shy of expanding, so he was in for the long haul or until the Dodgers scored.
Hatcher wasn’t perfect. He gave up a two-out single in the 12th, hit the leadoff man with a pitch in the 13th and allowed two singles in the 14th. But he stranded them all, fanning Marlon Byrd on his season-high 45th pitch. Then the Dodgers won the game in the bottom of the 14th, keying the three-game sweep that propelled them to the division title.
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“I think I had turned the corner as far as my season goes before that,” Hatcher said, “but going out and getting three big innings and keeping us in the ballgame with a chance to win … I think it was more confidence building.
“We didn’t have anybody behind me at that point — the bullpen was pretty taxed. … When you go more than one inning, you have to go out there to pitch, you have to pitch to contact, you have to try to get outs in less than three pitches.”
Asked what he’s working on this offseason, Hatcher was able to answer in one word: refinement. He turns 31 in January, and five years after having begun his conversion from catcher to pitcher, he has the best of two worlds: a veteran’s maturity, with the arm of a pitcher years younger.
“Physically, I actually feel stronger (than in 2011),” he said. “I’m able to repeat my delivery better, which in turn helps where your pitch is going, helps velocity. I actually just looked at my charts the other day, and my velocity has gone up every year. So that’s a good sign. I think it’s more (that) I never really pitched, so I have been learning the past five years.”
Statistically, Hatcher had four saves in 2015, but that’s not a number he worries about. He just wants outs.
“Quite honestly, I look at it every time that I step on that mound as a reliever as a save situation,” he said. “I’m coming in to hold the team where they are. If that happens in the seventh inning, if it happens in the eighth, if it happens in the ninth, I try to put myself in a moment where every one is a save opportunity.”