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  • Put Him in Coach? Aaron Hicks is Ready for Center Field

    When the Minnesota Twins unloaded Denard Span and Ben Revere in one offseason, they envisioned Aaron Hicks being the bridge in center field to their super prospect, Byron Buxton. The torch, for the time being, was being passed along from Kirby to Torii to Denard to Aaron.

    “I would love to be the next in line,” he proclaimed in the Twins’ clubhouse on Opening Day last year before everything went awry.

    Perhaps in hindsight it was unfair of the Twins to lean on a kid fresh off a Double-A season and expect him to fill the integral role of leadoff hitter while manning a vital up-the-middle position. Certainly on paper the idea appeared tantalizing, particularly in the batting order. With his plus speed, switch-hitting capabilities and the tendencies to draw walks in the minors, he had the pedigree of a top of the lineup guy. On the field, this theory quickly devolved when he was obviously overmatched and overwhelmed.

    This season, however, the Twins expect things to be different for the center fielder.

    “I think he has a lot less pressure on him than he did last year,” Twins assistant GM Rob Antony said after news that Houston had claimed his competition Alex Presley off the waiver wire. “I think everything went so well for him in the spring that when the [2013] season started, that he just expected for it all to continue and went it didn’t he went ‘uh-oh, what am I doing wrong, what can I do differently?’ I think he’s a little calmer and I don’t think he’s getting too wrapped up with everything.”

    Improving the approach

    Hicks said he spent a significant portion of the offseason and spring working on his offensive weaknesses from the left-side -- driving the ball the other way and focusing on a game plan.

    Last year, the latter issue involved constantly finding himself at the mercy of the pitcher rather than attacking the ball in hitter’s counts. When he was up in the count, Hicks hit a very good .295/.396/.659 versus right-handed pitching. On the other hand, he was a .124/.140/.188 when he was behind in the count. The biggest difference was that he was ahead in the count in just 54 plate appearances and behind in another 114.

    As far as the former goes, Hicks believes if you watched closely this spring, you have seen a change in his style.

    “Typically, in the minor leagues, I pulled a lot,” he said. “If you looked at my spray charts, sure, but this spring training has been everything to left.”

    Though he managed a handful of hits while slashing the ball to left field in 2013, it rarely came with a punch. Of the 47 balls he hit the other way, only two were considered well-hit by Inside Edge’s video scouts. This spring he has seen a few more balls ripped that direction, including tagging one against the St. Louis Cardinals in Jupiter, only to be thwarted in his efforts by a diving Stephen Piscotty.

    Hicks said this progress has been made with hand-bleeding amounts of front-toss work and trying to react to pitches on the outer-half of the zone -- a factor that will be crucial for success if right-handed pitchers implement the same strategy as they did last year. According to ESPN/trumedia’s stats, 56% of the total offerings Hicks saw in the left-handed batter’s box were on the outer third of the zone.

    As a switch-hitter, he says he has a different approach from each side.

    “This offseason the focus was on the left and now I’m starting to do both, gotta get both ready for the season,” Hicks said. “Right-handed I tend to swing more, lefty I’m more patient. I try to look for a pitch. I tend to have more of a plan because I’ve had so much more at bats from the left-side, where as right-handed I get 100 at bats a year so I kind of just come out ready to swing.”

    It is amazing, too, the difference in how southpaws approach him versus the righties. Last year, right-handed pitchers threw the ball in the zone 47% of the time while the left-handed counterparts breached the zone 55% of the time.

    Physically, he’s added weight. The good kind, not the kind you acquire by sitting around and eating Cheez-Its. After finishing the year under 200 pounds, Hicks bulked up and added 15 pounds of muscle which will hopefully translate into bigger power numbers.

    Making the routine and remote

    But Hicks is slated to play a position in which the emphasis is on the defense and not the offense. The Twins are betting he can cover ground or “go get it”, in Ron Gardenhire nomenclature. He had a penchant for making highlight reel-type plays but missed on too many balls he should have had.

    Last year, Inside Edge’s data available at Fangraphs.com shows that Hicks was very adept at make the difficult or “Remote” plays -- those a center fielder has a 1%-10% chance of making, such as robbing home runs, like he did to Carlos Gomez in Milwaukee. He converted on 66% of these types of plays, the highest rate among center fielders with a minimum of 600 innings. At the same time, he converted on just 98% of plays that were considered “Routine” -- 90%-100% chance of conversion -- the lowest mark in that category.

    Hicks said there was a learning curve coming into the league from his days in the single-tiered stadiums of the Eastern League and having millionaires launch rockets into the night sky.

    “The biggest difference is guys hit the ball harder and, in a way, it gives you more chances to rob a ball because guys hit the ball higher,” Hicks observed, explaining why he found it easy to make those difficult plays at the wall. “Gives me more opportunities to run underneath it and more opportunities to make more plays.”

    ‘Million dollar arm, ten cent head’

    If you hang around the grizzled old-timers at a baseball diamond, those dugout lifers in the game, you may hear the phrase “million dollar arm, ten cent head.” This label does not pertain to Hicks’ intelligence, rather it might apply when he chooses to air out his arm, attempting to nail a lead runner at home or third, rather than play it safe and hit the cut-off man and keep the trailing runner from advancing into scoring position.

    Hicks has a great arm and he hasn’t been afraid to show it off this spring -- to mixed reviews. In the game where he went 4-for-4, he overshot his cutoff man which led to another Phillies’ run -- a valuable one considering the Twins lost that game 5-4.

    "The guy who hit the ball went to second and scored on another base hit. So there you have it -- the fifth run, and we end up losing the game by a run," Gardenhire said to reporters after the game. "Throw the ball down. He had no chance to throw the guy out at home, I don't care how strong his arm is. We hit the cutoff man, keep the man on first, who knows what happens?"

    Most people who have seen Hicks’ snap off a bullet from the outer reaches of the playing field will agree the man has an elite arm. In fact, he was hitting 90 on the gun as a pitcher prior to his draft and several teams were interested in him on the mound rather than as a position player. Online onlookers at Fangraphs.com have cast their scouting grades in the website’s Fan Scouting Reports and found that Hicks’ arm strength comes out at a 78 out of 100, the third best among center fielders last year.

    There were times the game was going too fast, he acknowledged, and leaning on his strength (his arm) was likely one way try to slow it down. Instead, sometimes it spiraled out of control.

    ***
    There are thousands upon thousands of players who have struggled in their introduction to the big leagues -- the aforementioned Torii Hunter being a recent example. The Twins are betting Hicks' approach and abilities have matured and that the game has come down to his level, as opposed to rushing past him, and that his sophomore season will put his career on the right path.
    Comments 43 Comments
    1. JB_Iowa's Avatar
      JB_Iowa -
      Great Article, Parker. I have a bit of a hard time seeing how he has a "lot less pressure on him" this year. I guess I can see less pressure from hitting down in the order but I'd appreciate a better understanding of why the pressure is so much less.
    1. Parker Hageman's Avatar
      Parker Hageman -
      I guess I can see less pressure from hitting down in the order but I'd appreciate a better understanding of why the pressure is so much less.
      I think the idea from the Twins and Hicks' perspective is that he has seen what the highest level of baseball is about and he has had the opportunity to work on the things that should prepare him to play at that level. That's the "slow the game down" mentality. There may certainly still be the pressure to live up to expectations -- that never really goes away until you do.
    1. Physics Guy's Avatar
      Physics Guy -
      I would say "less pressure" might come from the fact that he has a better idea of what to expect this year.

      Edit - Oops, forgot to refresh. Parker said what I was thinking, although more eloquently.
    1. Physics Guy's Avatar
      Physics Guy -
      I am greatly hopeful that Hicks can show some of his promise as a former top prospect this year. Improvements from Hicks, Arcia and Plouffe are reasons I'm not as down on the Twins chances on offense as many others are. I also think Dozier figured things out the last half of 2013. I think he will show improvement from his 2013 numbers.
    1. TKGuy's Avatar
      TKGuy -
      I think batting 8th to start the season and having some experience at this level will mean he will really be improved this year
    1. LaBombo's Avatar
      LaBombo -
      Good article. It's difficult not to be a little cautious with the optimism after what happened last year, but there are definitely some encouraging things in there, without it being a Twins puff piece.
    1. cmathewson's Avatar
      cmathewson -
      Great article. It is a clear statement about my optimism for the kid. It's interesting that guys who come in and play well right away tend to slump in their sophomore seasons. Conversely, guys who struggle in their debuts tend to play better the next year. Some of this is simple statistical regression. In Hick's case, I think it's also improvement. You articulated the improvement part very well.
    1. pierre75275's Avatar
      pierre75275 -
      I am excited go see Hicks play. I think he will do wonderful. At least I hope so. I have high hopes fof him
    1. JB_Iowa's Avatar
      JB_Iowa -
      Thanks for the responses. I'm anxious to see how he does this year. He has looked more mature at the plate (from what we've seen so far) and he definitely looks more mature physically --- if he comes up to bat and I'm not thinking about who is up in the batting order, I'll think "who is that big guy" until I see his face.

      He can be spectacular in the field at times (and make you shake your head at other times) -- but that isn't so unusual. And part of maturing seems to be to get that to all come together.

      Seems like his head is in the right place.
    1. cmathewson's Avatar
      cmathewson -
      I had not heard the thing about how the large stadiums affect the flight of the ball, or how hard it is to pick up the ball off the bat with a full second deck. It makes sense that there would be a learning curve. In the first couple of months, he was tentative, especially on balls hit in front of him. He looked like he was not picking up the ball very well. But I saw improvement last year on the routine plays. If he cleans that up, he could become an elite fielder.
    1. tobi0040's Avatar
      tobi0040 -
      Quote Originally Posted by cmathewson View Post
      Great article. It is a clear statement about my optimism for the kid. It's interesting that guys who come in and play well right away tend to slump in their sophomore seasons. Conversely, guys who struggle in their debuts tend to play better the next year. Some of this is simple statistical regression. In Hick's case, I think it's also improvement. You articulated the improvement part very well.
      I think the Twins made the right call with Hicks here and you almost wonder if cutting Presley wasn't done to take pressure off Hicks a little bit. In any event, I think he is a guy that will walk 7-8% of the time, given 500 AB's should hit 12-15 HR's, and has plus range and a plus arm in CF. Given that, he only needs to hit about .250 or .260 to have an OPS north of .700. That is a pretty good CF.

      One slight correction to the write up. I remembered Hicks had a lot more velocity than 90 as a pitcher. I looked and his BA write up said he was in the 92-94 range and touched 97.

      14. Minnesota Twins
      Aaron Hicks, of, Wilson HS, Long Beach, Calif.
      B-T: B-R. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 175. Age: 18.

      Scouting Report

      A magnet for scouts since his sophomore season, Hicks is the finest prep outfielder/pitcher prospect in the greater Los Angeles area since Daryl Strawberry in the early 1980s. He most resembles Adam Jones, who was a first-round talent as both an outfielder and pitcher. As an outfielder, Hicks projects as a five-tool player, and his arm grades out to near 80 on the scouting scale. With his plus speed (6.6 seconds over 60 yards), Hicks is a daring and aggressive baserunner. His speed, easy range and arm mean Hicks will begin his career as a center fielder. Prior to the 2008 season, many scouts had reservations about his hitting ability. A switch-hitter, he's shown improvement by lowering his hands. His hitting mechanics and lightning reflexes permit scouts who believe in him to project him as an above-average hitter with above-average power. As a pitcher, Hicks' fastball sits in the 92-94 mph range, and in a mid-May start he was at 94-97. His curveball shows wicked movement and he adds a hard cutter and a change. Clubs were split on whether Hicks would pitch or hit, but either way, he's expected to go in the middle of the first round.
    1. gunnarthor's Avatar
      gunnarthor -
      I've always liked Hicks and, at the end of the day, he has some real talent. It'll show up eventually.
    1. MileHighTwinsFan's Avatar
      MileHighTwinsFan -
      I am not sure if it exciting or depressing to think that a guy who hit below .200 last year is being relied on to be a key bat for this year's team. Besides Mauer, he is the only guy who has shown any signs of life at the plate. Let's hope it translates when the games count.

      A successful year from him will be the main reason to flip on the TV or radio every night this summer. I am hoping for the best.
    1. savvyspy's Avatar
      savvyspy -
      I like Hicks.

      He has less pressure on him because the only other player that the team is willing to put in the outfield is Jason Bartlett and I would only call him an "outfielder" if you made air quotes every time you said it.

      Plus now that the bar for making the team is batting .078 I think Hicks will clear that hurdle with ease.

      Hicks has the talent to be a very solid major league player. Hopefully they run him out there everyday all season.
    1. iTwins's Avatar
      iTwins -
      Hicks has a great deal of talent. It appeared in (all too infrequent) flashes in 2013 - but you could see the potential there. Hopefully after taking his lumps last year, he's ready to adjust and improve. The Twins certainly could use another bright spot in the lineup.

      I'm having a good feeling about Hicks this year. (Of course, I had that feeling last year too...so that isn't exactly a ringing endorsement).
    1. halfchest's Avatar
      halfchest -
      I was in the send him down to AAA camp at the beginning of the spring. I'm more than ok with this plan. I'm hopeful that taking the winter off helped him clear his head and work on the fundamentals of his game. Hopefully its a case of him figuring out the difference between AA and MLB pitchers and now he has a better idea how to adjust and get rid of the holes in his swing.

      I liked watching him defensively and given the reports of his defense from the minors I'm confident he can be an above average to top ten centerfielder and eventually a top 5 defensive corner guy. He just will need the bat to back it up.

      Hoping for a September 2014 outfield of Arcia, Hicks, and Buxton.
    1. strumdatjag's Avatar
      strumdatjag -
      I'd like to hope Hicks will become a star and a longterm solution for lead-off (Line-up Hicks, Buxton, Mauer, Sano . . . ), but think it will ultimately be Buxton at leadoff/CF. More realistically, I think we'll be accepting Hicks as a .250 to .275 hitter, at best, taking a role in the #7 or #8 spot with light power but decent speed - playing left field (maybe right if these reports on his arm are correct). There is enough talent in our system and with Mauer as #3 for a few more years, that this type of contribution should be satisfactory, but not dazzling.
    1. tobi0040's Avatar
      tobi0040 -
      Quote Originally Posted by strumdatjag View Post
      I'd like to hope Hicks will become a star and a longterm solution for lead-off (Line-up Hicks, Buxton, Mauer, Sano . . . ), but think it will ultimately be Buxton at leadoff/CF. More realistically, I think we'll be accepting Hicks as a .250 to .275 hitter, at best, taking a role in the #7 or #8 spot with light power but decent speed - playing left field (maybe right if these reports on his arm are correct). There is enough talent in our system and with Mauer as #3 for a few more years, that this type of contribution should be satisfactory, but not dazzling.
      If Hicks hits .250-.275 he can definitely play in LF or RF. I put his OBP around .330 to .350 and his OPS around .720-.750. Probably about average for that spot and that would make him about the best defensive OF in the league for a corner spot. Not bad for a guy under control for a long time.
    1. halfchest's Avatar
      halfchest -
      Quote Originally Posted by tobi0040 View Post
      If Hicks hits .250-.275 he can definitely play in LF or RF. I put his OBP around .330 to .350 and his OPS around .720-.750. Probably about average for that spot and that would make him about the best defensive OF in the league for a corner spot. Not bad for a guy under control for a long time.
      Me and a buddy were just discussing how odd it was that Hicks was as bad as he was last year. One thing that has been pretty consistent for him is IsoD and I also understand this generally translates very well up the chain. If he can get anywhere near his career IsoD of .112 in the minors he will be just fine in a corner position. An all star? no, but a very solid contributor for years.

      If you add in the fact he should be a top defender in a corner spot and provide backup CF flexibility, allowing for an all bat no field corner guy as your 4th OF, he could be very useful. I'm a huge fan of having a guy in the corner that can handle CF so you don't need a pressley/Tyner/etc. type on your bench.
    1. Dantes929's Avatar
      Dantes929 -
      I am really rooting for him not so much for what he can contribute for this year but to prove we can rely on him for the future. An outfield of Hicks, Buxton and Rosario could truly be elite defensively. I never really appreciated elite outfield defense until I saw a series at home against the Rays a couple years back. We lost the series instead of sweeping it because we didn't get to balls we should have and they got to balls I thought they had no chance at. What a difference it makes! There will be games where there are 2 or 3 extra base hits that are turned into outs. When Denard Span moved to right field a few years ago he showed the impact of having speed in the corners as well as center field. I can definitely see Hicks being a superior corner outfielder.
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