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Twins Daily Awards 2015: Most Improved Player

At Twins Daily this week, we will hand out some more 2015 Minnesota Twins awards. As you know, we believe in recognizing achievement and that’s what we’re doing here. The Twins Daily writers, including the minor league writers, had votes in each category. Today we begin with a look at the 2015 Most Improved Minnesota Twin, Aaron Hicks.

Winning an award like “Most Improved” is one of those things that a player may never really want to win. By definition, it generally means that you weren’t really good the year before. However, it does mean that you were much better this year, and that’s obviously good.
Image courtesy of Bruce Kluckhohn, USA Today
Show of hands, Twins Daily readers… How many of you had completely given up on Aaron Hicks after his first two big league seasons? I’m sure we could do a quick review of the Twins Daily forums from 2013 through spring training of 2015 and find a few threads on the subject.

Aaron Hicks was considered a top prospect since the Twins made him the 14th overall pick in the 2008 draft out of high school in Long Beach, California. He was a Top 50 prospect in baseball according to Baseball America before the 2009, 2010 and 2011 seasons.

After falling out of the Top 100 for a year, he came in at number 72 before the 2013 season. That was following a 2012 season in which he was the Twins minor league hitter of the year. In AA New Britain, he filled up the stat line very well. He hit .286/.384/.460 (.844) with 21 doubles, 11 triples, 13 home runs and 32 stolen bases. He scored 100 runs and drove in 61. That offseason, the Twins traded two starting centerfielders, Denard Span and Ben Revere, opening the door for Hicks. He had a huge spring training in 2013 and won the Opening Day centerfield job.

In a meeting with the media before Saturday’s game, General Manager Terry Ryan was asked what a biggest misconception is about prospects. “Not all of them succeed. There’s no doubt about that. This is tough up here. No matter what you do in the minor leagues, you still have to prove it every step of the way whether you’re going from A-ball to AA, which is a pretty big jump. Then the biggest jump is from AAA to the Major Leagues.”

Hicks made the jump from AA to the big leagues and really struggled. That final jump to big leaguer is the most difficult. In 150 big league games between 2013 and 2014, he hit a combined .201/.293/.323 (.606).

The Twins reversed strategy in spring training in 2015. Though he had a solid spring, the organization decided it was best for Hicks to begin the season at AAA. In 38 games, he hit .342/.405/.544 (.948) with 13 doubles, four triples and three home runs. On May 12, he made his return to the big leagues.

He went on the Disabled List twice this season, but in 97 total games with the Twins, he hit .256/.323/.398 (.721) with 11 doubles, three triples and 11 home runs. He also stole 13 bases.

Just as important, he has greatly improved his defense. Consider his Defensive WAR (per FanGraphs) has gone from -5.7 in 2013 to -3.6 in 2014 to +2.1 in 2015. From year to year, that’s a significant improvement.

His Offensive WAR (per FanGraphs) has gone from -10.2 in 2013 to -2.8 in 2014 to -0.8 in 2015.

Often considered passive, Hicks incorporated a leg kick and a more aggressive approach. His walk rate dropped from 16% to about 9%. However, his strikeout percentage also dropped from 26% to about 17% Not only did he swing at more pitches, but he swung harder, looking to attack the ball rather than just put it in play.

Hicks told me over the weekend that he began to worry less about striking out, realizing it was just another out. As soon as he stopped worrying about it so much and having fun, his strikeouts dropped.

Hicks also gave a lot of credit to Torii Hunter for his and his team’s success. There are a lot of factors that can help explain Hicks’ improvement. Terry Ryan was asked about what he noticed in Hicks in 2015.

“His confidence level has taken a positive note. There’s no doubt that he looks like he belongs. I think he feels like he belongs. I think Torii (Hunter), Paul (Molitor) and Butch Davis and the people directly responsible for him should get some credit, but most of all, he ought to get some credit. There’s a chance that he felt (Byron) Buxton. Some of that stuff is always a piece, and he doesn’t want to see anybody go by him, I wouldn’t think.”

Ryan continued, “For the most part, we got some of that switch-hitting stuff out of the equation. I think he feels comfortable from both sides. It’s about his turn. What is he now, 26? That’s about the time you’re either going to make or break it. You get into that age area, do you want to be a guy or don’t you. It’s pretty much up to him. He’s had ample opportunity, I think everyone would agree with that. He’s done something with it. He’s had a nice little go here.”

Aaron Hicks took big strides forward in 2015, offensively and defensively. It was an important season for him. What is very exciting for Twins fans is that Hicks has the ability to continue to improve. There’s no question that with his athleticism and talent, he can be even better. The biggest thing he will need to do is improve his consistency over the course of the season.

Twins Daily would like to congratulate Aaron Hicks on his forward strides during the 2015 season.

Tell us what you think. Was Aaron Hicks the Twins Most Improved Player in 2015 or would another candidate get your vote. Below are the votes of each of our eight voters and the final results.


The Results

1.) Aaron Hicks 23
2.) Mike Pelfrey 8
3.) Eduardo Escobar/Kyle Gibson 6
4.) Trevor May/Tommy Milone 2
5.) Eduardo Nunez 1

The Votes

Seth Stohs: 1.) Aaron Hicks, 2.) Mike Pelfrey, 3.) Tommy Milone
Nick Nelson: 1.) Aaron Hicks, 2.) Mike Pelfrey, 3.) Kyle Gibson
John Bonnes: 1.) Eduardo Escobar, 2.) Aaron Hicks, 3.) Mike Pelfrey
Parker Hageman: 1.) Aaron Hicks, 2.) Mike Pelfrey, 3.) Tommy Milone
Jeremy Nygaard: 1.) Aaron Hicks, 2.) Eduardo Escobar, 3.) Kyle Gibson
Cody Christie: 1.) Aaron Hicks, 2.) Kyle Gibson, 3.) Mike Pelfrey
Eric Pleiss: 1.) Aaron Hicks, 2.) Kyle Gibson, 3.) Eduardo Nunez
Steve Lien: 1.) Aaron Hicks, 2.) Trevor May, 3.) Eduardo Escobar

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14 Comments

A very nice step forward for him. Hopefully he improves a bit more next season also. He has talent, he just needs to consistently harness it.
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HitInAPinch
Oct 06 2015 07:28 AM

When Hicks missed that fly ball near the wall in TX, I'm pretty sure I said something like "Hicks is dead to me". LOL

 

He's turned into a nice player, but really needs to continue to work on his hitting.

Congrats to Hicks!

The more concerning thing to me is Pelfrey who came in second (can't really argue with that)

 

If the Twins hope to take another step forward next year (90 wins), they will need multiple guys"improving" quite a bit next season. Buxton, May, Hughes, Nolasco, Arcia, Rosario, Mauer seem like some potential ones next season.

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KnutsonMatt
Oct 06 2015 07:49 AM
I'd have to agree with Hicks as being the most improved, but I'd have to put Escobar as No. 2. He really solidified the SS position. Kyle Gibson would be my No. 3. Trevor May No. 4. And Tommy Milone rounds out my Top 5. As a whole tho I think the whole team improved as the year went on. It was fun cheering for my Twins from Kansas!

How does Eduardo Escobar post virtually the same OPS+/wRC+ as 2014, in virtually the same number of games and plate appearances, and get votes for "Most Improved Player"?  His defensive metrics didn't change a lot overall at SS between the two seasons either.  I guess he did offset a modest drop in BABIP with a spike in power, which is nice, but he was a most improved candidate for 2014, not 2015.

 

Still a good player for 2015, and probably improved a bit further, but I just can't see him anywhere near "most improved."  He was already pretty darn good, it's not his fault the Twins buried him behind Danny Santana for awhile.

    • Mike Sixel, Dantes929 and MinnFan like this

I would never write a guy likeHicks off but did take the position that he would be best utilized as a platoon player given his splits.  I also said I would love to be proven wrong.  HIs 235/.302/.359 slash line from the left side does not prove me wrong but I think maybe sufficient to keep him out there full time for a while longer to see if he can improve upon it, especially with his defensive value..  His right side slash of .305/.375..495 would match up well with Arcia's .250/.322/..485 career slash line but of course for the defense. Anyway, I am glad Hicks performed well overall and hopefully continues to improve.

 

Just as important, he has greatly improved his defense. Consider his Defensive WAR (per FanGraphs) has gone from -5.7 in 2013 to -3.6 in 2014 to +2.1 in 2015. From year to year, that’s a significant improvement.

His Offensive WAR (per FanGraphs) has gone from -10.2 in 2013 to -2.8 in 2014 to -0.8 in 2015.

Just to clarify, these numbers aren't WAR (Wins Above Replacement), they are on a runs scale (where roughly 10 runs = 1 win) and they are actually runs above *average*, not replacement.  That is an important distinction, because Hicks was roughly replacement level in 2013-2014 (around zero WAR), and roughly average in 2015 (about 1.5 WAR in his partial season).  That's the Fangraphs "WAR" evidence of his improvement.

 

Also, note that these are counting stats -- his 2014 season really didn't indicate any "year to year significant improvement" in his game, particularly defensively.  His numbers just look better than 2013 because he had less playing time, but he was still pretty bad.  His UZR prorated to 150 games in CF was almost identically poor in both 2013 and 2014.  The first Fangraphs "WAR" evidence of his defensive improvement was in 2015 (and arguably the same for offense, although his 2014 was boosted by a crazy high walk rate).

Hicks is a great choice, as evidenced by his near-unananimous selection.  Gibson was improved too, although less dramatically than Hicks.  Milone obviously improved over his brief 2014 Twins debut, although his actual 2015 performance was more or less in line with his Oakland career.

 

Pelfrey obviously deserves some recognition for his injury comeback, although interestingly his rate stats (including innings per start) and FIP were pretty much identical to his 2013 Twins season.  But he finally got his run prevention to be a rough match for his peripherals, as he did in 2 of his 4 full Mets seasons too.

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bluechipper
Oct 06 2015 08:56 AM

Hicks has turned into a very valuable player for the Twins. A guy who is a very good defensive outfielder and who I believe has the capability to hit 20+ HRs with a full season is pretty special.

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weiss4twins28
Oct 06 2015 09:52 AM
Glad to say I never gave up on hicks. Torii was the part that our young outfielders were missing. Not just for his play, but for is presence in the growth of these young outfielders. Buxton might not of played well, but Rosario had a fantastic rookie season and Aaron is starting to actually look like a former 1st rounder. Glad that Aaron gave Torii credit. Going to be an even more exciting season next year!

How does Eduardo Escobar post virtually the same OPS+/wRC+ as 2014, in virtually the same number of games and plate appearances, and get votes for "Most Improved Player"? 

EE was severely underutilized in the first half of the season due to the lengthy audition at SS given to Danny Santana. Once EE was installed as a full-time starter, he allayed at least my concerns that he would wear down offensively. So the stats come out deceptively similar (he did increase his power by a smidgen) but I can go along with considering him to be much improved. Not that I wouldn't give the nod to Hicks.

 

How does Eduardo Escobar post virtually the same OPS+/wRC+ as 2014, in virtually the same number of games and plate appearances, and get votes for "Most Improved Player"?  His defensive metrics didn't change a lot overall at SS between the two seasons either.  I guess he did offset a modest drop in BABIP with a spike in power, which is nice, but he was a most improved candidate for 2014, not 2015.

 

Still a good player for 2015, and probably improved a bit further, but I just can't see him anywhere near "most improved."  He was already pretty darn good, it's not his fault the Twins buried him behind Danny Santana for awhile.

 

This is correct. I never even considered Escobar for Most Improved. First, he won it last year, and second, he put up very similar numbers last year. 

    • Dantes929 likes this
Hicks, May, Escobar. All three improved their value greatly. Hicks was the happiest surprise. Next he needs to put more jolt in his kick, get that bat waggle whippier, and let the rear knee brush past the front knee on weight shift. Bang.
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stringer bell
Oct 07 2015 11:53 AM
Eye test: Hicks is decent in center field, but not exceptional. He goes side-to-side and in very well, but isn't that good going back. I know he has a strong arm, but I wouldn't classify that part of his game as exceptional either.

Hitting: He looked like a big leaguer this year, still not an offensive asset. Certainly he's the most improved position player.

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