Michael Baumann, of Crashburn Alley fame, wrote an article for Grantland that I thought was perfect to tie into this piece today. In his article he talks about how we need to display just a little patience with prospects that have great springs and flail around during their first taste of big-league pitching the way that Aaron Hicks of the Minnesota Twins and Jackie Bradley Jr. of the Boston Red Sox have.
And so it came to pass that a player 18 months removed from being drafted, with only 271 plate appearances above Class A, was installed not only as Boston’s Opening Day left fielder, but as scion to a legacy that includes Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, and Manny Ramirez. Shocking as it is to find the Boston media overreacting wildly to something, Bradley's is not a unique case in baseball.
The same thing is going on in Minnesota, where another young outfielder, Aaron Hicks, was rushed to the majors after a great spring. While Bradley has since been sent down to Triple-A, Hicks has literally been setting records for offensive futility, starting his career going 2-for-48 with 20 strikeouts, though he was spared the fanfare of Bradley’s flameout by playing in the relative anonymity of the Upper Midwest.
Hicks is still in Minnesota, for god only knows what reasons, and as of Monday morning, he’s brought his slugging percentage up (UP!) to .132.
Since we’re taking a look at the poor performers let’s look at Aaron Hicks since he’s actually still in the major leagues with the Twins. In 21 games and 83 plate appearances so far this season, Hicks has a batting line of .113/.229/.127 with 26 strikeouts and 11 walks. That’s certainly not the way Hicks, or the Twins, had envisioned him starting off his big league career after the dominant spring he had but that’s the way it goes for rookies, and veterans even, sometimes.
The first thing I want to point out is that Hicks has a BABIP of just .174 which tells me two things: 1) the balls he is making contact with aren’t finding holes, which isn’t surprising given his 46.7% ground ball rate and 2) he’s not hitting the ball very well when he does make contact, or as Ken Woolums calls – Well Hit Balls.
Other than improving his WHB skill and not hit nearly as many ground balls, what can Hicks do to improve his performance at the plate?
One area in which he’s already begun to improve is his overall plate discipline. Over his last 32 plate appearances he has walked five times and struck out just six times, helping him to a .231/.344/.269 batting line over that time. That’s far from mind blowing but it is a major improvement from where he was at during his first 51 plate appearances.
Hicks' 37.9% swing rate, which is tied for the tenth lowest in baseball, is concerning to me because I believe he’s being a bit too passive at the plate, especially for a guy that I don’t view as turning into some supreme on-base machine. In addition, the pitches he does swing at make me wonder if he’s allowing himself to get into a poor hitters count because of his seemingly passive approach, thus forcing him to swing at something that could qualify as a garbage pitch in some cases.
Looking at the PITCHf/x profile on him from Baseball Prospectus you can see that he swings at a high percentage of pitches up in the zone, down and on the inside corner of the zone, and below the zone (which isn’t unusual for any hitter really), but you can also see he has difficulty resisting those pitches well inside that would jam any hitter.
To further illustrate his issues let's take a look at his whiff rate, which is only 9.2% on the season so far but it's the pitches he is swinging and missing on that he should try to refrain from.
Looking at this PITCHf/x profile we can see that he doesn’t make contact with anything up and out of the zone , nor would he because they’re up and out of the zone to get him to specifically swing and miss. The real issue is the pitches that are being thrown down and in, and down-down and in to him that he’s getting fooled on consistently.
What about specific types of pitches though? Could it be that his real issues aren’t all pitches in general but a specific kind?
The Offspeed Stuff
It would be an understatement to say that Hicks likes to swing at the offspeed stuff, as he has taken his hacks at the offspeed offerings an astounding 94% of the time. We can also see that pitchers are throwing him those pitches low, low-inside, or low and away and he can't resist any of them.
His whiff rate on those offspeed pitches is above 50% right now so it’s no wonder why pitchers keep sending them his way in the locations that they do.
Are His Struggles An Easy Fix?
I asked a man that covers the Twins for ESPN1500, Brandon Warne, and this is what he had to say:
The biggest thing for Hicks -- and Terry Ryan has said as much -- is not his approach, but driving the pitches that he's afforded.
He should be driving the 3-1 fastballs he is seeing. Instead, he goes 3-2 and the puts himself in a tougher spot.
It won't be about re-making his skill set or pitch recognition, but holding pitchers accountable for piping 3-1 fastballs as he ought to.
Warne, and Terry Ryan, makes a great point when you see that Hicks is batting just .070/.216/.070 in the 51 plate appearances he’s had with two strikes on him -- the MLB average batting line with two strikes is .177/.244/.268. Instead of sitting back and waiting for, or hoping for, a walk he should certainly be a good deal more aggressive in those 3-1 counts then he has been. The MLB batting line on 3-1 counts this season so far is .350/.692/.680, so there is something to the suggestion that Hicks needs to be more aggressive in those counts.
And for comparison’s sake, the MLB average batting line with two strikes in 2012 was .178/.244/.273 and the average batting line with the count 3-1 was .354/.689/.641.
While I wouldn't go so far as to say correcting any mistakes you make at the plate are easy at the major league level, or any level of professional baseball for that matter, there are a few minor things that Hicks can do to improve his fortunes at the plate and help the Twins offense.