On Thursday night, Minnesota Twins center fielder Aaron Hicks left Target Field one one-thousandth of a point away from owning a .300 batting average.
To understand how incredible that is, consider the state of Hicks' season and career to this point. Heading into July he was hitting .247 with equally embarrassing on-base and slugging figures to match. Because the numbers mirrored his output from his first two seasons at the major league level, the expectations were low on his being able to contribute. But the numbers didn't bother Hicks because he was focused on the process, not the results. The hits would eventually come. And did they ever. So far this July Hicks has posted the eighth-best OPS (1.051) which was only best by some of the game’s premium names like Joey Votto, Carlos Gonzalez, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper.
How did Aaron Hicks suddenly join some of the league's best hitters?
This month’s performance has been a long time coming for Hicks. After hitting .201/.293/.313 in 150 games spread out across 2013 and 2014, Hicks decided he needed to make a change. Over the winter he rebuilt his swing. When he reported to camp, Twins hitting coach Tom Brunansky liked the direction he was going.
“The first couple years it was inconsistent,” Brunansky said about Hicks’ swing in spring training. “He couldn't find and then he'd find it and lose it and then he'd get frustrated. I think he's more mature and he's got an idea both right-handed and left-handed what his swing feels like and what it should feel like -- which should help make it repeatable. Which he has been in the cage. It's just the consistency in the game.”
The difference in the swing is easy to see even with the untrained eye. Rather than the small step forward as he did in the past, Hicks added the bigger leg kick as the pitcher delivers the ball.
While the swing looked substantially better than the past, other aspects of his game were an issue. The Twins staff were not completely happy with his decision-making and mental mistakes. And at the plate, while his swing looked better, they were looking for more aggressive swings and for him to attack the ball early in the count. They felt that time in Rochester would allow him to work on that game-ready consistency.
Hicks manhandled AAA pitching, hitting .303/.404/.523 in 34 games in Rochester.
The redesigned swing allowed for him to improve his contact from both sides of the plate. His line drive rate was the highest of his career and his strikeouts were at an all-time low. The leg kick provides him with a solid timing mechanism but it also allows him to use his lower half.
What allowed him to drive the ball better was not just simply lifting his leg to start his swing, it was what his body was doing in addition to the leg lift.
Watch how previously Hicks had gathered or loaded up before firing forward with the bat. As he strides towards the pitcher, Hicks coils his top half somewhat, loading his hands and bat before they begin their forward path. Keep an eye on Hicks’ belt and front hip. There is minimal inward turn. He was not loading much with the lower half meaning that the driving force in this swing will be his top half.
Since changing the swing, during the gathering process when the hands go back, he turns his hips inward as well, producing a more complete drive to meet the ball.
Overall, Hicks’ performance from the left side is improved but not game-changing. Instead of being a complete liability against right-handed hitters, Hicks has basically transitioned to being a league-average hitter. The real improvement has been his production against left-handed pitching. You can see a similar load process difference from the right hand side as well.
Whereas his right-handed side had always been his dominant side, this season he’s batting .404/.460/.632 against left-handed pitching. Take a look at his increased zone coverage from that side of the plate:
In addition to getting comfortable with his mechanics, Hicks upgraded his approach at the plate.
For several seasons, one area in which the Twins hoped he would improve upon is his ability to be aggressive in hitter situations. Far too often Hicks would let pitches in hitters’ counts go by for called strikes. Members of the coaching staff and front office alike were unhappy by this passive approach -- patience is one thing but if a hitter receives a hittable pitch and let it go by, that frustrates the everyone. This season, Hicks had pulled the trigger much more frequently in those situations to impressive results: From 2013 to 2014, Hicks offered at 40% of all pitches in hitters’ counts. This season he has swung at 49% of all pitches in hitters’ counts.
Makes sense, right? Once the swing is optimized, engage more in counts in which one will see more fastballs and in-zone pitches.
Likewise, when Hicks previously fell behind in the count, he was all but back in the dugout thinking about his next at bat. From 2013 to 2014, he batted just .132 while striking out in just shy under 50% of those plate appearances when the pitcher got the upperhand. The biggest factor for that was a complete inability to hit breaking pitches. Even with the platoon advantage of having sliders and curves break at him, he still managed to hit just .105 off of those pitches.
This season he has not been a complete pushover: When the pitcher gets ahead in 2015, Hicks is hitting .270 -- twice as much as he did the last two seasons -- with three of his home runs to boot. Whereas breaking balls gave him fits in the past, he has hit .206 against them this year -- another hundred point increase.
Twins hitting coach Tom Brunansky believed a lot of the empty swings and weak contact had to do with Hicks’ heading moving too much during his swing. In order to fix his line of sight, Brunansky went to work on Hicks’ foundation.
“Hicksy moved his head a lot,” said Brunansky this spring. “What's going to stop your head movement is a strong base. What's a strong base is your legs and core. So you have to get that under control to keep everything strong here which will stop your head from movement.”
That is where the new mechanics played a substantial role in reducing his strike outs. Over the last two years, Hicks struck out in a quarter of his plate appearances. This season he has reduced that to 15%.
Aaron Hicks is clicking right now and has positioned himself as an invaluable contributor to begin the season’s second half. Things may eventually change as opposing teams gameplan him a differently but, for now, Hicks will always have this hot month of July to remember. If he can continue to hit close to this level, he provides Paul Molitor and the Twins a new weapon to use at the top of the order.
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