Aaron Hicks: A Lost Cause?

Coming into the 2013 season, Aaron Hicks looked like he might have finally put it all together. The former first-round draft pick was coming off a highly productive season in Double-A, where he hit .285/.382/.459 with 13 homers and 32 stolen bases. Then came Spring Training, where Hicks looked like a man amongst boys, hitting an absurd .370/.407/.644 with four dingers and three steals while playing excellent defense in center field. The five-tool player that the Twins had spent so long cultivating was finally bearing fruit. Minnesota handed Hicks the starting job in center field over Darin Mastroianni and set him free to light the world on fire.

To say that April was rough for Hicks would be a severe understatement. Appearing completely lost every time he stepped up to the plate, he scuffled to an atrocious .113/.229/.127 line, striking out in 31.7 percent of his plate appearances and collecting just one extra-base hit, a double. It didn’t get much better from there; by the time the Twins sent Hicks down to Triple-A in early August, he was still hitting a paltry .192/.259/.338 with 24 walks and 84 strikeouts in 313 plate appearances. Even worse, once Hicks got to Triple-A, a level he had previously skipped, he didn’t fare much better. In 22 games with Rochester following his demotion, he could only summon up a .222/.317/.333 line, and was still striking out in over a quarter of his plate appearances.

The strikeout rate wasn’t a huge surprise, seeing as Hicks struck out in more than twenty percent of his plate appearances at both High-A and Double-A. What was especially troubling was that he completely lost the ability to reach base. After posting a 14.7-percent walk rate in 500 minor-league games, Hicks walked in just 7.7 percent of his major-league plate appearances. Even more bizarre is that 11 of his 24 walks in the majors last year were in that awful April; from May through August, Hicks’ walk rate fell all the way down to 4.3 percent.

Obviously, there are plenty of very good reasons to doubt Hicks’ ability to produce in 2014, or ever, for that matter. Keep in mind that he’s now 24 years old and is entering his seventh season of professional baseball.

There are still reasons to hold out some hope, however. First off, it’s not like his natural ability and athleticism have gone anywhere. This is still the same potential five-tool prospect scouts saw tearing up Double-A in 2012. Furthermore, Hicks has gotten off to slow starts almost every time he has moved up a level throughout his career, and it’s entirely possible that the bright lights of the majors got in his head and prevented him from making the necessary adjustments as he had throughout the minors. Personally, I think the Twins waited far too long to send Hicks back down last year; making a rookie look up at the Jumbotron and see a batting average under the Mendoza line for four months straight is borderline cruel.

As I said before, Hicks is 24 years old, which means he’s had plenty of development time, but also means that he still has a chance to turn it around and be a post-hype sleeper. Heck, Alex Gordon was pretty darn bad until he was 27. The biggest red flag I have with Hicks is that I don’t believe his power is ever going to really materialize. I’d love for Hicks to prove me wrong, but his highest career isolated power at any level was in that excellent Double-A season, when he recorded a .173 ISO. That’s nothing to scoff at, of course, but not something that jumps off the page. To take it a step further, Hicks has 34 career minor-league home runs, 13 of which came in 2012. In his other 1,629 minor-league plate appearances, he hit just 21 homers, or one every 77.6 plate appearances. Scouts always talked about his potential to hit 20+ homers a year in the majors; I think at this point the Twins would be pretty pumped if he hit 20 homers once in his career.

Hicks will probably start the year in Triple-A and stay there until he either starts heating up or until Alex Presley reminds everyone that he’s not very good. In the long term, there’s still a chance that he’ll turn into the player the Twins so badly want him to be, but I’d say the odds are looking pretty slim. Thinking forward a couple years, Byron Buxton will likely be manning center field and Oswaldo Arcia will be playing one of the corners. With Joe Mauer entrenched at first base, Miguel Sano will likely be occupying the other corner outfield spot, if he can’t stick at third base. That doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for Hicks, and his bat has a lot of advancing to do if it’s going to play in a corner outfield spot to begin with. Hicks still has the ceiling to be a first-division regular, but it’s looking far more likely that he’ll reach his floor of being a quadruple-A bust.

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Scott Strandberg has written for RotoGraphs since 2013. He is a film critic and entertainment writer for The Norman Transcript newspaper, and the co-founder of RosterResource Wrestling. Scott is also the bassist for North Meets South. Follow him on Twitter @ScottStrandberg.

13 Responses to “Aaron Hicks: A Lost Cause?”

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  1. Matt says:

    I didn’t realize how much Hicks’ BB% had dropped last year, compared to how good it was in the minors. I thought I read in a scouting report at some point that his high BB% in the minors had to do with passiveness, as opposed to good plate discipline. If that’s the case, it explains why it dropped in the majors as he faced tougher, more polished competition – and it doesn’t bode well for his future potential.

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    • Scott Strandberg says:

      I completely agree with that, Matt. The fact that nearly half of his major-league walks came in a month when he hit just .113 and struck out in 26 of his 82 plate appearances seems to point in that direction as well.

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      • Matt says:

        If Hicks can’t figure it out at the plate in the next year or so, he seems like a perfect candidate to attempt a super-utility role to. He was actually highly regarded as a pitching prospect out of HS, and he could possibly become a useful bullpen piece, a pinch-runner, and a defensive replacement in late innings (you could even have him pitch to a RH hitter, go to the OF for a lefty, then return to the mound for a RH hitter again – I think that’s legal). It seems like someone who is adequate at those roles could provide decent value to a team and save them roster space.

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      • Matt, I do think that could be a great option to try to salvage some value from Hicks if he still can’t put it all together in the next year or two, especially seeing as he threw in the upper-90s on the mound in high school. Unfortunately, it would take a pretty innovative, forward-thinking organization to do that, and I’m not sure the Twins qualify.

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  2. Payroll says:

    In order to get hits, you have to swing. Hicks’ 39.9% swing rate would have tied for 10th lowest among qualified batters in 2013. He went up there expecting umpires to give him free passes but instead he just fell behind all the time. The Twins own Dustin Ackely really.

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    • I kinda like the Ackley comp. Your point about the low swing-rate feeds into what Matt was talking about with Hicks being passive at the plate. I’d much rather hear about a kid having a hitch in his swing or something mechanical like that than mental issues such as Hicks’ approach. It’s probably much easier to fix a mechanical issue with some extra time in the cages than it is to convince a kid to change his mental approach to hitting.

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      • Payroll says:

        I’d also much rather tell a kid to reign it in a little, than to try to get him to get more aggressive. Heck the kid just broke into the big leagues! Isn’t he jonesing to show us what he can do?

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  3. Patient guy says:

    The headline is too strong. Give him a bit before deciding the OBP skills are not transferable. And if he can OPS 750 to .775 while playing plus defense in CF, that’ll do just fine.

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  4. MLB Rainmaker says:

    First of all, as a Twins fan, I’ve never been a fan of Hicks — he’s essentially Denard Span with worse contact skills. His defense makes him a good piece to have in the organization, but a 1st round talent he is not. Think he’ll be a long-term contributor, but not an all-star by any means; shame to waste a 1st rounder on that return.

    Second, before we go too far, we’re only 300PAs into this kids’ career. I’m guilty of bailing on Julio Teheran too early last season, so have learned the lesson about letting a guy get his feet at the big league level, specially for a situation like Hicks where he jumped from AA. I think for sure the career arc has a lower trajectory now, but my gut says he’ll ultimately end up as .265/.365/.400 slash with 6HR/85R/40RBI/20SBs.

    Finally, the Terry Ryan Twins have talked about a 1000PA rule for prospects, so I’d guess he’ll get every chance to perform for at least another full season.

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    • JohnnyM says:

      If he becomes a .265/.365/.400 plus defender in CF, that’s certainly not a waste of a first round pick. That’s a very valuable player.

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  5. bam bam says:

    Steve, it sounds like you spared yourself from watching much of Aaron Hicks last season. He definitely flashed plenty of power. Using his ISO rates and MiLB plate appearances as a young prospect still developing that tool isn’t doing it justice.

    I don’t think he’ll be an MLB leadoff hitter, but could certainly develop into a solid performer in the 6-8 slot.

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  6. Tim says:

    He basically was forced to jump for AA to the majors in 2013. He should have spent 2013 at AAA and now would be ready for a shot at a decent 2014 in the majors. The Twins scouts and coaching staff fails again.

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  7. Ron Sullivan says:

    I realize he split home runs from both sides of the plate but it appears his left side stride foot is messy. He has no leverage into his stride foot as the swing begins and rolls over it far too early in my opinion. Not a fair comparison,but search for Griffey Jr slow mo swing and look how he uses the ground for leveraging the force of his swing, while Hicks stride foot planting is used only as a means to an end.

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