FORT MYERS, FLA. – Everyone has a theory about Aaron Hicks.
Everyone has an explanation for why his natural talents shine in the minor leagues, sometimes dazzle in spring training, then vanish when he arrives in the Twin Cities. Everyone has a suggestion, a tip, a secret Inca ritual that might turn him into Mike Trout.
And maybe, submits someone who can relate to Hicks’ frustrations, that’s the problem.
“It sounds funny, but he might be too coachable,” said Torii Hunter, who this spring has assumed the role of mentor and clubhouse neighbor to Hicks, as well as his new Twins teammate. “You want to do everything everybody tells you. You listen to everybody. You start changing things, you change your swing and your approach at the plate, and it messes you up.”
Hunter speaks from experience, he said. He thought he was ready for the major leagues a couple of times before he arrived in Minnesota for good, and recalls some of the same phenomena affecting his own development.
“I listened to about 30 coaches, and they [were] all trying to help, but sometimes they’re telling you the opposite of what the last guy told you,” said Hunter, now 39 and a five-time All-Star. “You’ve got to pick one or two, stick with them, and just work hard. You cannot change your swing during the season because it takes time to get it right.”
Hicks knows that now. In perhaps the most obvious symptom of his almost manic desire to turn into the hitter the Twins thought they were getting as he rose through the minors, he abandoned switch hitting last May, choosing to face righthanded pitching as a righthanded batter. Never mind that he had not tried hitting that way since he played Little League.
“It all came back to trying to help the team win. At that particular time, I was hitting really well [from] the right-hand side,” Hicks said.
He batted .283 with a .398 on-base percentage last year in the minors batting righthanded against lefties, numbers the Twins would celebrate if he could replicate them in the major leagues, so “it seemed like a good idea” to try batting right all the time.
Then he stepped into the batter’s box and realized almost immediately he had miscalculated. Seeing the ball from a different angle made him flinch at first.
“It was a whole different animal over there. I had years of practice from the other side, but righty-on-righty, it definitely was a different look,” Hicks said. “I didn’t realize how much work actually goes into being a [full-time] righthanded hitter in general, let alone being a righthanded hitter in the big leagues.”
Still, Hicks got two hits the first time he tried it, so he stuck it out for a couple of weeks. But after being sent back to Class AA New Britain, his right-on-right average bottomed out at .167, and he abandoned the experiment. The switch, and sudden reversal, made him appear desperate and capricious.
Actually, Hicks said, it was a sincere effort to live up to the promise he sporadically shows. He has twice won the starting center field job in spring training, including two years ago coming straight out of Class AA. He hit five home runs that spring, and convinced the Twins he was ready. Hicks knows now that he wasn’t — he batted .192 as a rookie with eight home runs, and was demoted by mid-June — and the spring 2013 power surge might have been part of the problem.
“When I came up, I didn’t know what kind of player I was. I’d hit home runs, I’d hit doubles in the gap, I’d steal bases, I’d try to do everything,” Hicks said. “But I needed to be working on more basics, just helping the team more than hitting home runs. It was like I was trying to live up to a definition of what kind of player I am, instead of just letting myself develop.”
It wasn’t just making the majors at age 23 that caused Hicks to regress, his new manager believes.
“Everyone thought [promoting him] was the right thing. In hindsight, which is a lot clearer than at the moment, to put him in the leadoff spot, I think, affected him as much as anything,” said Paul Molitor, who had worked with Hicks in the minors while serving as a roving instructor. “He got in that mode of [anticipating] when to swing and when not to swing, and ‘I gotta be more of a leadoff guy and see pitches.’ He lost some of his aggressiveness, and he had to recover from that.”
It’s taken awhile; Molitor chalks up a disappointing bounce-back season in 2014 as “confidence-related.” But even after two false starts, Molitor said, it’s still too early to give up on a 25-year-old former first-round pick.
“He’s kind of finding his way, not atypical from a lot of people who have to go back and forth a few times before they figure it out,” Molitor said, citing Hicks’ .250 average and .348 on-base percentage in September as an encouraging sign. “At the end of last year, it was obviously better. His at-bats were more consistent. He’s going to take his walks, he needs to run the bases. I can’t tell you how he’s going to take it this time, but I think it’s going to be a lot easier for him the third time than the first.”