Aaron Hicks wore a sheepish smile as he stood at his locker following his major league debut last April. The young, unproven Twins center fielder knew he would endure some ribbing from family members at dinner that night after striking out in his first three plate appearances.
“They’re probably going to start laughing at me,” he said.
A group of reporters chuckled along with him.
Anyone still laughing?
Once a highly regarded prospect, Hicks has looked overmatched as a hitter from Day 1 in the majors, and Monday brought another strange twist that smacks of desperation, both from Hicks and for the Twins organization.
Hicks approached manager Ron Gardenhire in the clubhouse before a 7-2 loss to Texas and dropped a surprise announcement that he is no longer a switch hitter. His confidence reduced to nil at the plate, Hicks has decided to scrap his attempts to hit lefthanded and focus solely on becoming a competent righthanded hitter.
On the surface, this move hurts Hicks’ value as a player, but at this point, anything will qualify as an improvement. Things can’t get much worse, so he might as well give this a shot.
“I just need to be a different hitter,” he said. “I feel like this is the change I needed to make to become a big-league hitter.”
The first day of his experiment produced mixed results. Hicks collected two singles but also struck out twice, including an awkward swing-and-miss in his first at-bat. His first three at-bats were against righthanders.
Hicks began the week batting only .187 this season. He hit .178 from the left side in his brief career. The sample size is still relatively small, but Hicks just looks lost against big-league pitching.
In an ideal scenario, the Twins would send Hicks to the minors to work on his craft under less stressful conditions and then bring him back once he is comfortable as a righthanded hitter. But when is anything ever ideal with this team? The organization’s mismanagement of the roster left them without a viable alternative in center field, so Hicks must learn to hit righthanded on the fly.
Nobody’s to blame for Sam Fuld’s concussion, but Alex Presley and/or Darin Mastroianni — two guys claimed off waivers — could have taken over in center while Hicks regrouped mentally and emotionally at Class AAA Rochester. Instead, he’s flailing without a safety net.
The Twins have done Hicks no favors with the way they’ve handled his development. Their fast-track approach in the absence of a Plan B looks grossly shortsighted. Hicks desperately needs seasoning at the Class AAA level, but the Twins don’t have another viable center fielder in the pipeline, at least until Byron Buxton proves he’s ready.
And so a young player who has lost all confidence approaches the organization about a radical change and the team is forced to go along with it.
“We need him out there,” Gardenhire said. “We don’t have a replacement right now.”
Hicks doesn’t deserve a free pass in this mess. The team recently criticized him publicly for his approach to his job, which felt like a last-ditch effort to get a message across. If Hicks indeed showed up to the ballpark without knowing the identity of the opponent’s starting pitcher that day, then shame on him. That’s not on the team, but it speaks to how rushed this whole thing feels.
Maybe this transformation as a hitter will produce a positive effect and unclutter Hicks’ mind a bit. Hicks noted that he now only has one side to worry about, rather than two. If that makes him relax and feel more confident as a hitter, it’s worth any growing pains he might experience.
“I know one thing with the kid, it’s freeing up his mind,” hitting coach Tom Brunansky said. “I think the thing for him is he’s finally going to feel freer.”
Until Monday, Hicks said he had not faced a righthanded pitcher from the right side (excluding knuckleballers) since he was 12 years old.
“It was in an all-star game,” he said. “I had to ask my dad for permission for me to hit righthanded. I was really struggling lefthanded. He gave me the OK. I got a hit. It ended up working out.”
The Twins can only hope the same result happens this time, too. Their options seem scarce at this point.