A Look Aaron Hicks' Progression Towards Becoming a Respectable Major League Outfielder
"Will Aaron Hicks ever play for the Minnesota Twins again?"
That's an actual question I asked someone back on March 28th, shortly after Hicks had learned he did not make the team out of spring training. At the time, I thought the answer to the question would be yes, but there was at least some doubt about whether that was true.
Fast forward to August 14th, and Hicks is hitting leadoff for a.500 team, and he owns the third-highest fWAR on the team. How in the world did this happen?
The answer: a combination of several important factors. Let's dive into those and see how Hicks has become a quality starting outfielder in the big leagues on both the offensive and defensive end.
The reason this is such a surprise is that Hicks really couldn't have struggled much more than he did in his first two Major League seasons. That doesn't mean he came without hype.
Prior to the 2010 season, Hicks was the 19th-ranked prospect by Baseball America and 26th by Baseball Prospectus. He was playing down in A-ball after being a first-round pick the previous season.
This made his debut in 2013 much-anticipated. The Twins had traded away both @Denard Span and @Ben Revere, leaving the center field job Hicks's to win. He did so, but spring training would be the high point.
Hicks finished the 2013 campaign with a -0.6 fWAR, posting a .192/.259/.338 slash with eight home runs and nine stolen bases in 313 plate appearances. He was eventually demoted to Triple-A, forcing Hicks to hit the reset button for 2014.
The reset button was broken. Hicks did increase his fWAR to 0.1 (small steps), but his slugging percentage sagged down to .274. Basically, it just wasn't working, making his demotion to Triple-A at the beginning of 2015 not-so-shocking.
Hicks as a Defensive Force
When he initially got brought back to the bigs in May of this year, Hicks' stick was still speaking softly. But his defense made lil dude a valuable member of the squad.
Through his first two seasons, Hicks posted UZR/150's (where zero is average and the number is scaled based on 150 games played) of -11.0 and -8.2 respectively. No bueno. But this year, he has upped that all the way to 18.8 through his first 550.2 innings. For perspective, if Hicks had enough innings to qualify, he would rank second in the league among all center fielders behind Kevin Kiermaier at 22.1. This means he would be ahead of the likes of Billy Hamilton, A.J. Pollock and Lorenzo Cain, which is not too shabby of a group.
The best part about this, from a very selfish perspective? Dude makes highlights. That's cooked into his UZR/150, but, honestly, it's also just fun to watch.
— Minnesota Twins (@Twins) August 13, 2015
— 120 Sports (@120Sports) July 7, 2015
Do these sweet, sweet catches matter in the long run? Nah, bruh. But they sure do make me smile. Thankfully, his offense has done the same as of late.
The Offense's Progression
Like I said, things didn't quite click for Hicks from the get-go this season, but his defense still made him valuable. Ever since he came off the disabled list in July, though, homie has been a machine.
Entering yesterday, Hicks had a .325/.384/.545 slash in 138 plate appearances with six home runs and 13 total extra-base hits. No other Twins are even in the top 75 in the league in position-player fWAR since the All-Star break, but Hicks entered yesterday in 19th place. For a guy who couldn't even crack the opening-day roster, that'll work.
The interesting thing about this for Hicks is that, though his slash numbers won't stay as high as they have been, his improvement seems sustainable. His strikeout rate since July 3rd sits at 15.2 percent, well below his 24.9 percent mark last year.
Additionally, Hicks has cut down on the soft contact. His soft-hit rate since being reactivated is at 14.4 percent, down significantly from a gross 21.8 percent mark last year. He's slapping line drives 26.5 percent of the time with a 39.2 percent rate, so the increase in slugging percentage appears to be no joke.
All of this production is big for the current-day Twins, especially when he's at the top of the lineup. Of Brian Dozier's 24 home runs, 16 have been of the solo variety. Why? Because he had been hitting leadoff, and nobody would get on base in front of him. Hicks has the ability to both get hits and draw walks, meaning Dozier in the two hole can better utilize his pop. That should excite all y'all daily fantasy players as it gives both Hicks and Dozier a significant boost in the peripheral categories.
What This Means Moving Forward
Overall, the Twins have a bit of a crowded outfield. But with how Hicks has hit, you really can't take him out of the order. Once Byron Buxton is ready to roll, his recall should not come at the expense of Hicks.
This also has big implications for the team moving forward. First, an outfield with both Hicks and Buxton would cover a bonkers amount of ground. Second, with the outfield depth the Twins have both in their system and in the majors, Hicks's contributions could allow them to do some wheeling and dealing over the winter. That may not have been the case had he not come on as he has here this season. If this means can upgrade at catcher, shortstop or in their pitching staff, the Twins could be a salty little team as soon as 2016 or 2017.
Thankfully, Hicks made me look like an idiot. Again. If he can sustain his recent success, he'll be a positive contributor to a team stocked full of young talent. It may be too late to make a run in 2015, but Hicks and this team clearly have their focus far beyond that point.