Aaron Hicks' New Swing Paying Dividends
Well, message received. Hicks obliterated the International League to the tune of a .336/.415/.561 batting line over 27 games, essentially forcing the hands of the Twins brass to get him back up here and see what, if any, changes he had made and if they’d stick. Of Hicks’ 36 hits in those 27 games, 16 had gone for extra bases, and he’d also stolen a couple bases without an unsuccessful attempt. In short, it was time.
Hicks made his debut in Detroit, and through four games hasn’t gone hitless yet as a drastically-altered approach and mechanics seem to have taken hold, at least in early returns. From both sides of the plate, Hicks has adopted a pronounced leg kick with lots of hand movement as he prepares to load for his swing. Both elements were evident on Friday night as Hicks poked a 1-1 pitch from Tampa Bay starter Jake Odorizzi into left field for his only hit of the game in the seventh inning, just two pitches before Danny Santana tripled him home with the tying run.
Where did this all come from, though? Hicks said that, funnily enough, the change boiled down to him and a few of his guys messing around in the batting cages in the offseason. They were taking turns mimicking the leg kicks of established hitters like Yasiel Puig, Robinson Cano and Hanley Ramirez when before long, Hicks realized there might be something more than just a little goofing off to break up the winter doldrums.
“I started to like it,” Hicks said. “From then on it was kind of a point where I was just like, you know what, I’m going to try this. We were just having fun in offseason hitting, and it just kind of led to me being comfortable with it and taking solid swings.”
The change, which Hicks says has been key in terms of timing, having power and staying consistent, really took hold in spring training, where he had some help in the tinkering to fine tune it.
“I came to spring training with the leg kick,” Hicks said. “Torii helped tinker it for me as far as what I needed to do to be able to get my foot down in time. There was tinkering all through the spring.” Hicks added that it didn’t really sink in that the change was permanent until the end of spring, when he was in minor league camp.
Twins general manager Terry Ryan said before Friday’s game that players experiment with leg kicks quite frequently, and that the organization doesn’t have an issue with it as long as the hitter thinks it will help, and the manager and hitting instructor agree. In Hicks’ case and everyone else’s, Ryan said that the kicks typically evolve, based on comfort level and where exactly the evolution of that adjustment takes them. Ultimately, the club hoped Hicks would trip the trigger a bit from a passive hitter to a bit more aggressive — aggressively patient in Hicks’ own words — and in the mind of the hitter, that’s already happening.
“I feel like with the leg kick I’ve been more aggressive,” Hicks said. “Swinging early in counts and being able to make contact early, and not missing pitches.” Hicks again hearkened back to spring training for when he felt the adjustment taking hold, as he went into spring camp with the idea that he wanted to get in as many swings as possible, which could potentially (and did) lead to fewer walks, but also more opportunities to get hits.
Foundationally, a drastic change like this can need time for it to ‘take’ so to speak, especially with the amount of movement in his setup and the need to keep his head still throughout. Hicks said that hasn’t been too much of an issue, as he’s actually been more worried about a different part of his swing; one that’s more close to the issue at hand.
“I think for me it’s more important to have my hands ready all the time to be able to fire them whenever I need to,” Hicks noted. “A leg kick is going to generate my timing mechanism so I need to have my hands ready.”
In short, it’s a young player looking to make adjustments to not just be a guy on the team, but one of the key contributors. “To stick is the most important part,” Hicks said of his third trip to the big leagues. “Being able to play the way I know how to play and to help this team win games. That’s the most important thing. Producing is key. I want to be here long term. Not just to stay here, but be a guy who can help this team win.”
Manager Paul Molitor stopped shy of endorsing Hicks as in the big leagues to stay, but heaped effusive praise on some of the aspects in his center fielder’s game that had fallen shy in the past and likely led to his demotion to open the 2015 campaign. “He’s done well,” Molitor said. “His at-bats across the board have been better. What I’ve tried to watch so far is that he’s seemed very engaged in the field defensively, in the dugout watching, trying to gain an edge. Those are the things that he needs to do to be a consistent player here.”
Molitor didn’t stop there, as he said he’d like to see a continued evolution from Hicks as a player in all facets. “He has to understand that he’s the kind of player that can go 0-for-4 and still influence a game, whether it’s defensively, or he gets on base with a walk and steals a base and creates a run-scoring situation. Just to become more complete in the way he goes about his game, and realizing what he can bring to the team to help them win on that given day.”
It seems as though Hicks has received that message. His outfield defense has been smooth — a sight for the sore eyes of the Twins faithful — and though he hasn’t taken his first walk — history tells us those will be coming soon in ample supply — it appears as though he may be on his way to influencing games in a number of ways, just like you’d expect someone you used a high first-round pick on.
Ryan said that he senses a different air about Hicks; that he’s more confident and it’s for good reason. “He held up his end of the bargain (at Triple-A),” Ryan said. “He went down there and got to work. Consequently, he got promoted and rewarded.”