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.