There are good weeks, there are bad weeks, and then there are weeks like the two Aaron Hicks (owned in 1.2 percent of ESPN leagues and 3 percent of Yahoo! leagues) had to start the season. His .042/.179/.042 line over the first 13 games of the season was marred by 20 strikeouts in 56 PAs, and he reached base more often via error (3) than he did by getting a hit (2). It’s not exactly a line that breeds confidence. He managed to be driven in six times, which is somewhat impressive given his incredibly low batting average, and was largely due to the fact that even though he wasn’t hitting, he did walk in 14 percent of his plate appearance.
His ownership started slipping, for obvious reasons, right about the same time there were rumblings that Hicks may need a stint in Triple-A to improve his eye. The Twins did decide that Hicks should no longer lead off, but elected to keep him in the majors. Three games after he was dropped from the leadoff spot in the Twins’ order, Hicks started hitting. Heading into Monday’s game, Hicks had been hitting .300/.375/.350 with just four strikeouts in just 24 PAs. Monday night, he struggled against Max Scherzer, but that’s hardly a unique issue. If that’s the criteria for success or failure, better players than Hicks would fall into that second category.
So what has changed in Hicks’ game and is it sustainable? It’s a little hard to see all of what’s going on when even Hicks’ best splits with a reasonable sample size have him hitting about .217, but there are clearly some old issues popping up in Hicks’ game once again. One of the lines Hicks toes rather carefully is the line between patience and passivity; he has always had a great eye at the plate, but letting a good pitch go to wait for the perfect one is a recipe for disaster in the majors. He’s seeing the 33rd most pitches per plate appearance in baseball – though he’s just fourth best on his own team – which is typically a good thing, but one wonders how many hittable pitches were included in that number. The three most common counts Hicks has ended a plate appearance with this season are, in order: 3-2, 1-2, 2-2. He’s wearing out opposing pitchers, that’s for certain, and his .526 OBP from 3-2 counts is almost 100 points better than league average, but consistently hitting from two-strike counts is going to severely cripple his ability to hit his way on base with any sort of consistency.
It isn’t showing up in his pitches per plate appearance yet, but Hicks is beginning to look more aggressive at the plate. He finally seems to be getting his feet underneath him, and given that he skipped a level, it’s hardly surprising that it took him a little longer to adjust to the speed of the majors. With Darin Mastoianni on the disabled list, there is no one standing between Hicks and playing time, even if he begins to struggle again. This is good news, because as painful as this first month of the season has been, seeing major league pitching on a consistent basis was probably the only thing that was going to solve his issues. If he can keep from constantly getting into that two-strike hole, there’s every reason to believe he’ll be a productive option in deeper leagues this season.
My concern with Hicks’ fantasy value is that he has the name recognition and hype to find his way onto unduly shallow rosters. His excellent eye gives him additional value in OBP leagues, but as far as the traditional 5X5 goes, he still needs to show improvement to even be worth considering in anything shallower than 14 teams. The power may come someday, but counting on it to come through this year is probably a bad bet. Even in the minors, Hicks was more of a doubles hitter than a home run threat, a trend that will continue and almost certainly be exacerbated by his jump to the majors. The good news is that even though he isn’t on base much, he is running when he gets the chance. Those steals will help boost his value in traditional 5X5 leagues, but it’s a bit of a double-edged sword: If he’s getting on base enough to steal the bases he needs to have actual value in that category, he’s probably also hitting enough to be a contributor to average. If he isn’t hitting, he isn’t going to steal enough to be worth the roster spot.
My favorite comparison for Hicks has long been Dexter Fowler. Both are switch-hitting center fielders, both have ample speed and a body that projects more power than either player showed in the minors. Fowler made his full season debut at 23, the same age Hicks is now, and was within 7 percent of league average offensively until his age-26 season. While Fowler had a strong 2012 season holistically speaking, this year looks to be the first where he is the type of five-category fantasy contributor that many always expected him to be. Hicks, too, could easily reach that level, but expecting him to do it in his first taste of the majors is asking too much of a player who was dropped in the deep end and told to swim.
For deep league or keeper owners, take heart in Hicks’ improving approach. He is not yet a plug-and-play player, but if he can continue to make incremental improvements, he may reach that level around midseason. Even if his growth is a bit slower than that, as long as he keeps moving forward, he should be a strong keeper option this winter.