“I would love to be the next in line,” he proclaimed in the Twins’ clubhouse on Opening Day last year before everything went awry.
Perhaps in hindsight it was unfair of the Twins to lean on a kid fresh off a Double-A season and expect him to fill the integral role of leadoff hitter while manning a vital up-the-middle position. Certainly on paper the idea appeared tantalizing, particularly in the batting order. With his plus speed, switch-hitting capabilities and the tendencies to draw walks in the minors, he had the pedigree of a top of the lineup guy. On the field, this theory quickly devolved when he was obviously overmatched and overwhelmed.
This season, however, the Twins expect things to be different for the center fielder.
“I think he has a lot less pressure on him than he did last year,” Twins assistant GM Rob Antony said after news that Houston had claimed his competition Alex Presley off the waiver wire. “I think everything went so well for him in the spring that when the  season started, that he just expected for it all to continue and went it didn’t he went ‘uh-oh, what am I doing wrong, what can I do differently?’ I think he’s a little calmer and I don’t think he’s getting too wrapped up with everything.”
Improving the approach
Hicks said he spent a significant portion of the offseason and spring working on his offensive weaknesses from the left-side -- driving the ball the other way and focusing on a game plan.
Last year, the latter issue involved constantly finding himself at the mercy of the pitcher rather than attacking the ball in hitter’s counts. When he was up in the count, Hicks hit a very good .295/.396/.659 versus right-handed pitching. On the other hand, he was a .124/.140/.188 when he was behind in the count. The biggest difference was that he was ahead in the count in just 54 plate appearances and behind in another 114.
As far as the former goes, Hicks believes if you watched closely this spring, you have seen a change in his style.
“Typically, in the minor leagues, I pulled a lot,” he said. “If you looked at my spray charts, sure, but this spring training has been everything to left.”
Though he managed a handful of hits while slashing the ball to left field in 2013, it rarely came with a punch. Of the 47 balls he hit the other way, only two were considered well-hit by Inside Edge’s video scouts. This spring he has seen a few more balls ripped that direction, including tagging one against the St. Louis Cardinals in Jupiter, only to be thwarted in his efforts by a diving Stephen Piscotty.
Hicks said this progress has been made with hand-bleeding amounts of front-toss work and trying to react to pitches on the outer-half of the zone -- a factor that will be crucial for success if right-handed pitchers implement the same strategy as they did last year. According to ESPN/trumedia’s stats, 56% of the total offerings Hicks saw in the left-handed batter’s box were on the outer third of the zone.
As a switch-hitter, he says he has a different approach from each side.
“This offseason the focus was on the left and now I’m starting to do both, gotta get both ready for the season,” Hicks said. “Right-handed I tend to swing more, lefty I’m more patient. I try to look for a pitch. I tend to have more of a plan because I’ve had so much more at bats from the left-side, where as right-handed I get 100 at bats a year so I kind of just come out ready to swing.”
It is amazing, too, the difference in how southpaws approach him versus the righties. Last year, right-handed pitchers threw the ball in the zone 47% of the time while the left-handed counterparts breached the zone 55% of the time.
Physically, he’s added weight. The good kind, not the kind you acquire by sitting around and eating Cheez-Its. After finishing the year under 200 pounds, Hicks bulked up and added 15 pounds of muscle which will hopefully translate into bigger power numbers.
Making the routine and remote
But Hicks is slated to play a position in which the emphasis is on the defense and not the offense. The Twins are betting he can cover ground or “go get it”, in Ron Gardenhire nomenclature. He had a penchant for making highlight reel-type plays but missed on too many balls he should have had.
Last year, Inside Edge’s data available at Fangraphs.com shows that Hicks was very adept at make the difficult or “Remote” plays -- those a center fielder has a 1%-10% chance of making, such as robbing home runs, like he did to Carlos Gomez in Milwaukee. He converted on 66% of these types of plays, the highest rate among center fielders with a minimum of 600 innings. At the same time, he converted on just 98% of plays that were considered “Routine” -- 90%-100% chance of conversion -- the lowest mark in that category.
Hicks said there was a learning curve coming into the league from his days in the single-tiered stadiums of the Eastern League and having millionaires launch rockets into the night sky.
“The biggest difference is guys hit the ball harder and, in a way, it gives you more chances to rob a ball because guys hit the ball higher,” Hicks observed, explaining why he found it easy to make those difficult plays at the wall. “Gives me more opportunities to run underneath it and more opportunities to make more plays.”
‘Million dollar arm, ten cent head’
If you hang around the grizzled old-timers at a baseball diamond, those dugout lifers in the game, you may hear the phrase “million dollar arm, ten cent head.” This label does not pertain to Hicks’ intelligence, rather it might apply when he chooses to air out his arm, attempting to nail a lead runner at home or third, rather than play it safe and hit the cut-off man and keep the trailing runner from advancing into scoring position.
Hicks has a great arm and he hasn’t been afraid to show it off this spring -- to mixed reviews. In the game where he went 4-for-4, he overshot his cutoff man which led to another Phillies’ run -- a valuable one considering the Twins lost that game 5-4.
"The guy who hit the ball went to second and scored on another base hit. So there you have it -- the fifth run, and we end up losing the game by a run," Gardenhire said to reporters after the game. "Throw the ball down. He had no chance to throw the guy out at home, I don't care how strong his arm is. We hit the cutoff man, keep the man on first, who knows what happens?"
Most people who have seen Hicks’ snap off a bullet from the outer reaches of the playing field will agree the man has an elite arm. In fact, he was hitting 90 on the gun as a pitcher prior to his draft and several teams were interested in him on the mound rather than as a position player. Online onlookers at Fangraphs.com have cast their scouting grades in the website’s Fan Scouting Reports and found that Hicks’ arm strength comes out at a 78 out of 100, the third best among center fielders last year.
There were times the game was going too fast, he acknowledged, and leaning on his strength (his arm) was likely one way try to slow it down. Instead, sometimes it spiraled out of control.