As Seth Stohs mentioned yesterday, while the rest of us at Twins Daily were all stark raving mad about Kyle Gibson’s performance in the Arizona Fall League, another Twins prospect was making noise even further south. Outfielder Aaron Hicks, who is playing winter ball in Venezuela, is off to a fast start this offseason, matching the expectation he set from his in-season performance at New Britain.
Of course, not long ago, Hicks was in danger of falling off the “top prospect” radar although. Heading into the 2011 season, Baseball America dropped him from 19th to 45th despite a terrific first full season at the low-A level in Beloit. Then, as if Baseball America’s rankings had influence, Hicks lost some power and over 30 points in the batting average at Ft Myers the following year.
The criticism on Hicks’s approach is that he could be too passive at times. Hicks boasts a high strikeout rate and a significant portion of those (39%) in 2011 were of the caught-looking variety, an indication that he was not aggressive enough with two strikes on him. Of course, the other side of the coin is that it has led to a 14% career minor league walk rate – a solid pillar supporting his .379 on-base percentage. While walks are en vogue with OBP-ers, there are those in the system who would like to see him use his six-foot-two athletic frame to transfer some power into the ball.
His 2010 season at Beloit had him smacking eight home runs but that total dwindled down to five after his foray with the Miracle in Fort Myers. Part of the reason for the drop off simply had to do with the offensive difficulty of the Florida State League. As the Star Tribune’s Phil Miller explained this year, hitting is dern tough way down south:
Those fences are one reason. Most Florida State League parks double as spring-training homes for major-league teams, and are built with larger dimensions than plenty of minor-league parks around the country. The quality of pitchers tends to be high, too, with more college pitchers, armed with more than only a fastball, than in the lower levels.
Then there's the weather -- beautiful in April and May, but frequently blistering hot, with heavy humidity, once summer arrives. The temperature takes a toll on everyday players as the season wears on, until "you're so worn out by the end of the game," according to Morneau. "It's hard to maintain your strength."
When he transitioned from high-A ball in the Florida State League to an even more polished level of competition of the double-A Eastern League, rather than being buried by the tougher pitching Hicks elevated his game. His matriculation to double-A ball could have also been a hindrance - given the significant leap in talent - but Hicks did not allow it. He hit a healthy .286/.384/.460 with 13 home runs.
Where did this production come from? Was it simply a course correction after leaving the Florida State League or did Hicks make adjustments elsewhere?
Being a switch-hitter, Hicks has had two sides of the plate in which to polish his mechanics and both have undergone some interesting transformations since 2011.
Hicks from the right:
While the angles and the graininess of the 2012 minor league camera shot do not provide the highest quality to judge these two stances on, there are some things that you can derive without having the same shot side-by-side.
The first is where his hands are set pre-swing. While he has a similar hold, in these two pictures you can see that his elbows/hands are lower during his time with the Miracle (left) then they were with the Rock Cats (right). This may sound like a minute detail but elevated hands, in theory, create more leverage by engaging the top hand. For a line drive/ground ball hitter, this equates to harder hit balls, perhaps as easily identifiable as his spike in isolated power (from .124 in 2011 to .173 in 2012) and a big jump in batting average on balls in play (from .308 to .346).
The second difference between 2011 Hicks and 2012 Hicks is the lowered stance with the deeper knee bend. This compacted stance figures to generate more power from his hips and lower half. In addition to the higher hand set this, according to minorleaguecentral.com, has lead to a higher fly ball rate from the right-side (from 29% in 2011 to 39% in 2012) and more home runs (from 3 to 7).
Hicks from the left:
The same disclaimer from above applies to this one as well: the angle and the graininess distort some perception and do not provide a crystal clear view to compare fully.
As opposed to the shots above, these two images are of Hicks striding from the left-hand side.
The first thing that stands out is where his hands are had at the loaded position. In the 2011 instance (left), his hands are lower and, judging by the angle, closer to his body. In the 2012 version (right), his hands are slightly higher and away from his body. This should give him a quicker path to the ball.
Interestingly, when Hicks was first drafted, he had a severely long swing from the left side (which you can see in this pre-draft swing .gif here). His hands were significantly higher which led to an elongated swing. So these modifications are simply the evolution in shortening that swing. Also, similar to the aforementioned right-hand side, he is also compacted more which gives leaves him able to generate power from the lower-half better.
The alterations made have led to a higher line drive rate (from 13% to 19%) and more power (from 2 home runs to 6) from this side of the plate.
This should be viewed as very positive development for the 23 year old prospect. Along with his above average defense – including his exceptional arm in the outfield – Hicks has reaffirmed the belief that he is an elite prospect after putting up terrific numbers in double-A. With some seasoning in Rochester schedule for this year, if this progress continues, Hicks could quickly make his way into the Twins outfield.