DETROIT – Aaron Hicks touched the plate Wednesday, jogged to the Twins dugout, slapped hands with his teammates and sat down on the bench. Then someone mentioned a number — 101! — that reminded the rookie yet again that he’s not in the minor leagues anymore.
“I knew the guy throws hard ...” Hicks said after the Twins’ 6-2 victory over the Tigers, marveling at that three-digit number that flashed on the scoreboard after his seventh-inning triple, a startling speed-gun miles-per-hour measurement of the Bruce Rondon pitch that Hicks slapped into the right field corner. “You’ve got to really get the bat head out. I was just trying to hit the ball solid.”
He is doing that more frequently now, though still not often enough. But with his first month as a big-leaguer now in the past, Hicks has begun to settle in and make adjustments — like his approach with Rondon — that will help him stay with the Twins.
“It’s been good experience for him,” manager Ron Gardenhire said of his new center fielder. “He’s taken some beatings, but you’ve just got to keep plugging away.”
Hicks has, even when it appeared he might crumble under the weight of his early frustrations. The low point came April 21 in Chicago, when his batting troubles reached 2-for-49, a microscopic .041 average.
But the Twins have stuck with the 23-year-old, and looked for ways to lift some of the pressure on him. Gardenhire made the biggest move April 15 when he took the spotlight of batting atop the order off Hicks, a shift that seems to have helped.
In 10 games batting leadoff, Hicks was 2-for-43 with three walks and 20 strikeouts. In the 11 games he has played since dropping down to seventh or eighth, he is 7-for-32 with eight walks and seven strikeouts.
No, that’s not good enough to be a major league starter, either, but it’s good enough to buy him more time and let the Twins keep nurturing his progress.
“We all know he’s kind of been fighting through it, but his confidence has been pretty good lately,” Gardenhire said. “He came in [Wednesday against Rondon] and put a nice swing on it.”
There’s been more of that lately; Hicks has a .259 batting average since April 21, and his on-base percentage since April 15 is .366. Also encouraging is his ability to come through in run-scoring situations; he is 4-for-14 with eight RBI with runners in scoring position, including 3-for-8 with two outs.
There are plenty of shortcomings, too, obviously. Hicks, despite being one of the fastest players on the team, if not in baseball, hasn’t reached base on an infield hit yet. Though he worked with Rod Carew in spring training on handling the bat, he has bunted only once, unsuccessfully.
He hasn’t taken a pitch the opposite way for a hit yet, either; the switch hitter tends to pull the ball from both sides of the plate, yet he has not connected on a home run. And once a pitcher gets a second strike on him, Hicks hasn’t been able to protect the plate. He is 3-for-44 with two strikes, whiffing 27 times.
Though Hicks has a double and a triple, he has yet to collect two hits in the same game. But, “I’m just checking things off,” he said of all the firsts. “I’m just trying to get hits, do what I can to help the team win. That was big for me, to get a triple. I’ll just keep grinding, keep playing the game. Get good pitches to hit, try not to chase out of the zone.”
The Twins’ patience with him has been made easier by the fact that Hicks has been solid defensively; by most advanced metrics that measure fielding, he has been slightly better than an average center fielder, and he is noticeably gaining more confidence in the field by the day.
“There’s a confidence thing there, makes him feel pretty good,” Gardenhire said. “But he’s not through anything yet. He’s still got a long way to go.”