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  • Aaron Hicks and Rebounding

    Most Twins fans will recall that Torii Hunter was a vital part of Minnesota's turnaround and success in the 2000s, from his breakout season in '01 through his departure in '07.

    It's a little tougher to remember the beginning of Hunter's major-league career, which was far less glamorous. After drawing a handful of appearances with the Twins in 1997 and '98, Hunter made the full-time leap as a 22-year-old in 1999. During his first two seasons, he hit .267/.313/.393 with 14 homers in 234 games. He was demoted back to Triple-A in his second year. He looked overwhelmed.

    Hunter rebounded after returning from his demotion in 2000, raising his OPS from .543 in late July to .726 at season's end. Since then, he has never finished with a mark below .762. He's been above .800 nine times (so far) and appeared in five All-Star games (so far).

    In other words, Aaron Hicks shouldn't get too dispirited over his rocky big-league debut in 2013.

    To be fair, Hicks' numbers (.192/.259/.338) are much uglier than Hunter's during his initial rough patch. However, Hunter was playing in a stronger offensive environment, so in context the difference is not as vast as it might appear (Hunter's OPS+ was 76; Hicks finished last year at 65).

    Both Hunter and Hicks entered the majors as athletic young center fielders with great promise. Both exhibited the type of tentative plate approach and proneness to mistakes that are typical of inexperienced rookies. So Hunter's ability to endure and put together a hell of a career should serve as an inspiration for Hicks and a placation for disenchanted fans.

    Then again, while the situations are similar in a general sense, there are certainly more red flags in the case of Hicks.

    Whereas Hunter was a visibly raw specimen who had struggled at times with controlling the strike zone in the minors, Hicks was touted as a polished product. But during his initial stint in the majors, his plate discipline -- a calling card throughout the minors -- was nowhere to be found. The rookie struck out at a much higher rate last year than Hunter has at any point in his career.

    In addition, Hicks did not respond as well (or at least as immediately) to his demotion. When Hunter was sent down in 2000 following a poor start to his sophomore campaign, he absolutely raked in Triple-A, putting up a 1.130 OPS in 55 games to earn a recall. He hit far better in the second half with the Twins and the rest is history.

    Hicks didn't experience the same kind of success following his demotion last year. He went to Rochester, hit .222/.317/.333 in 22 games, was not recalled in September and then skipped winter ball. It was about as bad a season as one could possibly imagine, and it left a sour aftertaste.

    But the bottom line with Hunter, and countless other players, is that early struggles at the highest level are hardly a death knell. That's especially true when you're talking about a 23-year-old who skipped Triple-A on his way to the bigs, as Hicks did.

    Patience is key. Yet the Twins can't and won't exercise endless patience. By this time next year, Byron Buxton may already be entrenched as the long-term center fielder, and there are plenty of emerging contenders to fill the corner spots. If Hicks is unable to bounce back quickly and reestablish himself as an organizational fixture, he could easily be passed up by other outfielders in a crowded system.

    That will make him one of the most intriguing players to keep an eye on in the early part of the 2014 season.
    This article was originally published in blog: Aaron Hicks and Rebounding started by Nick Nelson
    Comments 68 Comments
    1. cmathewson's Avatar
      cmathewson -
      Quote Originally Posted by Willihammer View Post
      Hicks was among the most passive hitters in baseball last year. He swung less than 40% of the time. He struckout looking 1 out of every 10 times he came to the plate. He has to become more aggressive, not more passive. The pitching is too good at this level to take a lot of strikes
      I would add that the strike zone was different, which affected him most in the first 10 days. I'd like to analyze all of his at bats with Pitch FX and see how many called thirds he got that were outside the strikezone. My faulty memory says it was a lot. Welcome to the majors, Mr. Hicks. Don't let the ump take the bat out of your hands.
    1. cmathewson's Avatar
      cmathewson -
      Quote Originally Posted by jay View Post
      Well, no. Those who understand that MiLB performance can't be used to translate directly to MLB performance would say it is "hardly likely", although certain within the realm of "possible".

      Hicks could become that >.350 OBP hitter, but do you think the odds of that are significantly greater than 50% (aka, likely)?
      Sorry, meant to quote it. Yes, it is better than 50/50 considering age and level. BTW, "likely" means better than 50/50. "Highly likely" means "significantly greater than 50%." I wouldn't say it's highly likely, just likely.
    1. jay's Avatar
      jay -
      Quote Originally Posted by cmathewson View Post
      Sorry, meant to quote it. Yes, it is better than 50/50 considering age and level. BTW, "likely" means better than 50/50. "Highly likely" means "significantly greater than 50%." I wouldn't say it's highly likely, just likely.
      23 guys accomplished that in the AL last year. Only 3 of them had a K rate >20% (as Aaron has throughout his career) -- Chris Davis, Napoli, and Kipnis. Kipnis is the only one even close to similar. He was closer to a 17% K rate in MiLB and has more power.

      Point being, I think Aaron will strike out too much in MLB to consistently reach a .350 OBP. I'd be happy to be wrong.
    1. cmathewson's Avatar
      cmathewson -
      Quote Originally Posted by jay View Post
      23 guys accomplished that in the AL last year. Only 3 of them had a K rate >20% (as Aaron has throughout his career) -- Chris Davis, Napoli, and Kipnis. Kipnis is the only one even close to similar. He was closer to a 17% K rate in MiLB and has more power.

      Point being, I think Aaron will strike out too much in MLB to consistently reach a .350 OBP. I'd be happy to be wrong.
      I don't tend to look at K rates when assessing potential OBP. I look at BB rates. Guys who walk a lot tend to strike out a lot. It's part of the discipline of taking pitches that you get called out on strikes more than the average player.
    1. jay's Avatar
      jay -
      Quote Originally Posted by cmathewson View Post
      I don't tend to look at K rates when assessing potential OBP. I look at BB rates. Guys who walk a lot tend to strike out a lot. It's part of the discipline of taking pitches that you get called out on strikes more than the average player.
      Absolutely, BB rate is extremely important. I don't think you can ignore K rate though. You have to do increasingly well on the balls that are put in play the higher the K rate goes.

      We can set a few minimal parameters to find comparisons to Aaron's profile if he's a .350 OBP regular:
      At least 1000 PAs over the 2011-2013 seasons, total SB > 10 (to eliminate pure sluggers), BB% > 9%, K% > 20%.

      Here's the full list of who qualifies with a .350 or greater OBP:
      Mike Trout
      Shin-Soo Choo
      Paul Goldschmidt
      Matt Kemp
      Dexter Fowler
      Jayson Werth
      Carlos Gonzalez
      Chase Headley
      Giancarlo Stanton
      Justin Upton
      Alex Rodriguez
      Brandon Belt

      Those guys do pretty well on the balls they put in play. I'd say that's pretty lofty territory, no? Jonny Gomes and Austin Jackson are the only other players over .340.
    1. cmathewson's Avatar
      cmathewson -
      Quote Originally Posted by jay View Post
      Absolutely, BB rate is extremely important. I don't think you can ignore K rate though. You have to do increasingly well on the balls that are put in play the higher the K rate goes.

      We can set a few minimal parameters to find comparisons to Aaron's profile if he's a .350 OBP regular:
      At least 1000 PAs over the 2011-2013 seasons, total SB > 10 (to eliminate pure sluggers), BB% > 9%, K% > 20%.

      Here's the full list of who qualifies with a .350 or greater OBP:
      Mike Trout
      Shin-Soo Choo
      Paul Goldschmidt
      Matt Kemp
      Dexter Fowler
      Jayson Werth
      Carlos Gonzalez
      Chase Headley
      Giancarlo Stanton
      Justin Upton
      Alex Rodriguez
      Brandon Belt

      Those guys do pretty well on the balls they put in play. I'd say that's pretty lofty territory, no? Jonny Gomes and Austin Jackson are the only other players over .340.
      I don't think you are looking at the right guys, except for Jackson, who doesn't walk as much as Hicks, but who strikes out about as much and has a similar ISO. Trout is not a good comp at all because he hits a lot of balls where they can't catch it. I wouldn't look at corner guys in general for the same reason. We're looking for center fielders, who get on base and use their legs. Power is a plus, but not a necessity.

      I look at Span, for example. He has a career OBP of .351. He doesn't strike out as much as Hicks, but he also has a higher GB rate, which leads to a lower BABIP. He had an OBP of .340 as a 22 year old in AA and .323 as a 23 year old in AAA. As he matured, he was able to develop a more selective eye at the plate. That's the kind of progression we can expect with Hicks, with a little higher power ceiling.
    1. Willihammer's Avatar
      Willihammer -
      Quote Originally Posted by cmathewson View Post
      I would add that the strike zone was different, which affected him most in the first 10 days. I'd like to analyze all of his at bats with Pitch FX and see how many called thirds he got that were outside the strikezone. My faulty memory says it was a lot. Welcome to the majors, Mr. Hicks. Don't let the ump take the bat out of your hands.
      Umpiring aside, the improvement to BB%, K%, and OPS all corresponded with 2 things: Moving down in the order, and swinging more.

      Through Apr 13, he OPSed .155 with 20 Ks against 3 walks in 46 PAs. His swing profile looked like this:


      From Apr 15 on, when Gardy moved him down in the lineup, he OPSed .597 with 21 walks and 64 Ks in 267 PAs, and his swings/pitch during this time was:
    1. jay's Avatar
      jay -
      Quote Originally Posted by cmathewson View Post
      I don't think you are looking at the right guys, except for Jackson, who doesn't walk as much as Hicks, but who strikes out about as much and has a similar ISO.
      That was exactly the point. He doesn't match up with the guys on that list and therefore is going to have a hard time consistently reaching .350. If you want to believe he'll OBP .350 with a BB > 9% and K > 20%, those are the guys doing it today.

      Span has some similar tools, but K's at < 12% and can't be used as a comp for OBP.
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