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  • Breaking Bad: Aaron Hicks' Early Struggles

    Leading baseball in strikeouts probably is not what Aaron Hicks had in mind when he daydreamed about his first week in the major leagues.

    He probably has visions of scorching liners into the right-center gap or sending a shot into the overhang in right field. He pictured himself dancing off of first and swindling second with blaze of dust behind him. Instead, he has made so little contact at the plate that his bat is going through separation anxiety.

    How has it started this poorly for Hicks and how can he turn it around? The first key to improvement is avoiding falling behind in the count so frequently.

    Perhaps pitchers in the Eastern League would tip-toe around the strike zone but major league pitchers have come right at Hicks. With a reputation for being borderline overly patient, opponents have poured in first-pitch strikes and put the center fielder behind in the count 76% of his plate appearance thus far in his young career. By comparison, the rest of the league’s hitter’s have been ahead in the count more often than not, as pitchers have gained a first-pitch strike edge just 48% of the time on average.

    Overall, Hicks has not given opponents much reason to avoid pumping strikes, either. While he has swung 11 times on the initial pitch of his at-bats, he’s put the ball in play just twice (one of his two hits, no less). This may evoke comparisons to Joe Mauer’s laissez-faire attitude towards first pitches but even this season in which the catcher has had an unusually high strikeout rate, pitchers have fallen behind him too (45% first-pitch strike rate). While he does not swing often, Mauer does have a .422 career average when swinging on the first pitch, providing pitchers consideration for not living inside the zone. Hicks, however, has built no such reputation.

    The second key for Hicks to rebound is improving his pitch recognition – specifically the breaking balls.

    Once he falls behind in the count, teams have twisted and turned the ball at him. In counts when behind (0-1, 0-2 and 1-2), Hicks has seen 17 fastballs compared to 26 non-fastballs (curves, sliders and change-ups). According to Pitchf/x data, Hicks has seen 46 non-fastballs from right-handed pitchers. He’s offered at 18 of those pitches. Of those 18 swings, he’s made contact just seven times. His early season lack of contact is one reason – besides falling behind in the count – which he has struck out in 16 of his 37 trips to the plate.

    In his second inning at-bat against Kansas City’s Wade Davis on Wednesday night, the pitch sequencing used has become a common theme for Hicks – dominating the strike zone airspace early in the count and then dropping the hammer with two-strikes.

    First pitch: Fastball, strike looking.

    Second pitch: Fastball, strike looking.

    Third pitch: Cutter, ball.

    Fourth pitch: Fastball, foul.

    Fifth pitch: Curve, swinging strike. Strike three. Goodnight Gracie.

    Take a look at the concluding pitch:



    Now this pitch had very little chance of being put into play but what you see in these clips is what Hicks has been doing all season on breaking and off-speed pitches. His front side opens up and then his back side drops, effectively eliminating any chance of making decent contact. All of this happens because he over-commits to the pitch.

    The way he swings at these grossly unhittable pitches, it is clear that he is having troubles deciphering breaking balls from fastballs. On a basic level, hitters know that breaking balls and other various swing-and-miss type pitches are coming once a pitcher gets ahead in the count. The trick is recognizing the spin. And that part simply comes with comfort and repetition.

    This is not an uncommon struggle for younger ballplayers. In a recent interview, Mets hitting coach Dave Hudgens addressed outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis’s similar curve ball problem and his advice is very applicable to Hicks as well:

    “The key is laying off those pitches you should be lay off, and that comes down to pitch recognition. When you start struggling a little bit, guys start chasing hits, and chasing results. Whenever you start doing that, you start a little bit earlier. … I try to teach the guys, if you see spin down — knee high or thigh high — if it’s spinning, you have to discipline yourself. But when you’re hunting hits, it’s very difficult to do. That’s how it snow balled with Nieuwenhuis a little bit. He couldn’t calm himself down and he wanted to hit so bad, he was committing himself early and not recognizing those pitches. My suggestion to [the hitters] is early in the count, we’re tracking pitches. Right now, we’re going down and watching our pitchers on the side and watching that spin. Then when the games begin, hunt fastballs. [He] can hit breaking balls, but it has to be a breaking ball that’s up.”

    It is early in the year and management knows that he has plenty of time to turn things around. Still, if this continues for a prolonged period of time, Hicks may have to recalibrate in Rochester.


    This article was originally published in blog: Breaking Bad: Aaron Hicks' Early Struggles started by Parker Hageman
    Comments 30 Comments
    1. jimbo92107's Avatar
      jimbo92107 -
      Yeah, he's got the wrong idea of how to adjust to different speeds. First, his rhythm is off, he's shifting his weight forward too soon. However, this isn't the problem, it's a symptom of the problem, which is that Hicks doesn't know how to adjust the size of the loop of his hands to the speed of the pitch. If it's a slow pitch, you do a big loop; faster pitch, smaller loop. If somebody tosses you a ball slowly, you follow the arc upwards, then downwards. If they throw it flat and hard, you do a smaller up-down.

      Also, notice that as he extends his arms he's pushing his butt away from the strike zone, what I call "Doing The French Mistake" (h/t, Blazing Saddles). This is a great way to eliminate your ability to cover the far side of the plate, as well as getting rid of any significant power in your swing. No wonder Hicks has no home runs from the left side. He's long to, short through the ball, which makes him a sucker for dying duck curves like in the example.

      Kevin Youkilis solved this problem by getting his hands up and forward, then pointing the bat head literally at the pitcher. He does let his hands come down to a more conventional position as he shifts his weight forward, and this is what lets him adjust the size of his loop during pitch recognition to be short to various speeds of pitch, with a good, long sweep through the hitting zone. Maybe that will work for Hicks.
    1. glunn's Avatar
      glunn -
      I love how Parker always explains the problem and then proposes a solution. I hope that someone from the Twins reads this article.
    1. RodneyKline's Avatar
      RodneyKline -
      He is not in a slump. He is overmatched and has lost his confidence. He has no plan up at the plate. He needs to go to AAA to get his head together and build some confidence back. He can't even hit a fast ball any longer. He will eventually be a good hitter if they get him out of there and let him get his confidence back before he comes back. This happens to most young players. Span had issues. Carlos Gomez had big issues. It just happened to Ben Revere last year. Revere had to go back down a couple times before he was up to stay.
    1. clutterheart's Avatar
      clutterheart -
      That AB was really bad. I remember seeing that live. I almost feel like the catcher felt sorry for him.
    1. Old Twins Cap's Avatar
      Old Twins Cap -
      With the Twins winning, Hicks could struggle and the team could put up with it. But, when the Twins lose, and the offense doesn't click, then everyone's problems are magnified. Without some kind of change in approach, and the Twins in sputter mode, there will be no alternative but to send the kid out. Funny how night and day Hicks is between Spring Training and the regular season.
    1. birdwatcher's Avatar
      birdwatcher -
      Parker, I always look forward to your articles. Thanks for your great analysis. And jimbo, thanks for your terrific insight. Very interesting stuff.
    1. 70charger's Avatar
      70charger -
      Aside from Tuesday, has he ever been given a day off?
    1. Dave T's Avatar
      Dave T -
      Mastroianni was injured, so, no.
    1. 70charger's Avatar
      70charger -
      Quote Originally Posted by Dave T View Post
      Mastroianni was injured, so, no.
      Right. Forgot about that injury. Tough situation to be in with pretty much no one to fall back on in center field.
    1. ashburyjohn's Avatar
      ashburyjohn -
      I can't disagree with any of the points in the article (and wouldn't be qualified to comment on the fundamentals of hitting), but if I were writing I would take a different tack on "The first key to improvement is avoiding falling behind in the count so frequently." If pitchers are throwing strikes on the first pitch more often than not, then taking the first pitch means falling behind often. So I'd make the first key "Punish pitchers who throw first-pitch strikes". I don't mean swing at anything - sometimes it will be a ball, and sometimes it will be a "pitcher's pitch" that would get you out even if it's a strike. No, just a more aggressive approach that means if you see a pitch you like, whack at it.

      And if *that* doesn't work, if you're swinging at strikes and still not raising that batting average, well, maybe it's indeed time for AAA after all.
    1. TwinsMusings's Avatar
      TwinsMusings -
      Interesting analysis and comments. One more factor that is most likely contributing to his struggles is the lead-off hitter's role, at least in part, is to see lots of pitches to help the hitters behind him in the lineup. Is Hicks taking too many first pitches that are good pitches to hit because he wants to extend the first at bat?
    1. Aaron Cross's Avatar
      Aaron Cross -
      Drop hicks to 9th and bat mauer leadoff. Problem solved.
    1. Willihammer's Avatar
      Willihammer -
      Quote Originally Posted by TwinsMusings View Post
      Interesting analysis and comments. One more factor that is most likely contributing to his struggles is the lead-off hitter's role, at least in part, is to see lots of pitches to help the hitters behind him in the lineup. Is Hicks taking too many first pitches that are good pitches to hit because he wants to extend the first at bat?
      I suspect thats how he's been coached. It is his "job" to look at pitch one strike one, by virtue of his spot in the order.
    1. Aaron Cross's Avatar
      Aaron Cross -
      People get so bent out of shape over batting order, like its an art or something, when its pretty simple. Mauer is your best OB guy. Bat him leadoff. So what if he cant steal a base? Then put your best hitters at the top of the order and your worst hitters at the bottom of the order. Its a simple game, and we over-analyze it to death.
    1. kab21's Avatar
      kab21 -
      Quote Originally Posted by Willihammer View Post
      I suspect thats how he's been coached. It is his "job" to look at pitch one strike one, by virtue of his spot in the order.
      I would consider to be his natural approach to hitting since he has done this at every level regardless of lineup position. He's a patient hitter but I'm not surprised that this approach doesn't initially lead to struggles jumping to the majors. Long-term it should yield very good results though.
    1. ashburyjohn's Avatar
      ashburyjohn -
      Quote Originally Posted by Willihammer View Post
      I suspect thats how he's been coached. It is his "job" to look at pitch one strike one, by virtue of his spot in the order.
      That's an excellent observation, and it's incumbent on his coaches to work around that or modify it or whatever. "Joe, for this series we're going to have Aaron try to shake things up on first-pitch, give him the green light, so it'll be up to you to take some extra pitches in the 2-slot to kind of work the pitcher over." Which of course is right in Joe's comfort zone anyway. Actually, as many first-pitches as Josh and Justin take, the top of the order will hardly notice if Hicks hacks a bit more. Right now it's more important to get Hicks going than it is to run up 100 pitches on the opposing starter by the 6th versus the 7th.
    1. mako83's Avatar
      mako83 -
      Is this organization to afraid of saving face for those trades, that they wont do anything to help him. New leadoff hitter flormion or escobar for a couple games, make him swing at the first pitch if its in the zone, give him a day off once a while.
    1. Oldgoat_MN's Avatar
      Oldgoat_MN -
      I appreciate that in an ideal situation the lead-off hitter would take some pitches. I mean, when you get to the playoffs they will.... oh, wait.
      With a couple of weeks practice I could hit .051 and I'm 200 years old! (possible exaggeration)

      Hicks should be sent to AAA and Benson should be called up. He can't hit? Who will be able to tell the difference?

      It would give Benson one last chance to earn the spot we (many of us) expected him to be in today anyway. Hicks can go learn how to hit a fastball again and maybe even a breaking ball.

      In his defense, the difference in pitching from AA to MLB is night and day. It's not surprising that he is overmatched. Give him time. But make that time in AAA.

      P.S. Until tonight's game I was all for keeping him in MLB and moving him down in the order. No longer. He needs to go away for a long lesson. He is really bad right now. I'd rather have the pitcher bat.
    1. fairweather's Avatar
      fairweather -
      I'm sure many will think I'm over-reacting but I think he should quit switch hitting. He looks absolutely awful from the left side.
    1. PeanutsFromHeaven's Avatar
      PeanutsFromHeaven -
      I know the focus on Hicks' performance is first and foremost in the minds of dedicated Twins followers, and the explanation of his struggles is both logical and clear. But the thing that makes me keep coming back for more on this site is this:

      He probably has visions of scorching liners into the right-center gap or sending a shot into the overhang in right field. He pictured himself dancing off of first and swindling second with blaze of dust behind him. Instead, he has made so little contact at the plate that his bat is going through separation anxiety.
      Great writing, just great.
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