Written By Tom Schreier
I’ve failed so much that I’ve already done everything. I’ve already failed at everything.
— Aaron Hicks, 7/8/15
Aaron Hicks is only 25. Entering the All-Star Break he has yet to have his 700th plate appearance, and he’s played in just over 180 games. And yet, he’s already dropped switch-hitting for a brief time period, has been called out by former manager Ron Gardenhire and assistant general manager Rob Antony for showing up to the ballpark and not knowing who the starting pitcher was that day, and after not making the team out of spring training this year the Star Tribune reported that he might not get another shot. “We probably haven’t seen the last of Aaron Hicks,” wrote LaVelle E. Neal, who has covered the Twins since 1998, “but the Twins’ expectations have fallen so far for the 14th overall pick from 2008 that his future could end up as a fourth outfielder.”
Hicks ended up resurfacing with the Twins, getting a call up in mid-May that lasted until he went on the disabled list in mid-June. Since returning from injury on July 7, he’s hitting .323 with two doubles, one triple, two home runs and seven RBI in 10 games. With Byron Buxton on the DL, he is the team’s starting center fielder, already has a Willie Mays-esque catch and is starting to show everyone why he was a first round selection in 2008. “I feel good at the plate,” he says, simply. “I’m just trying to make solid contact and drive some balls into the gap.”
He struggles to articulate exactly what is behind the turnaround. It is not as though he got traded or changed positions. Hicks added a leg kick, which has improved his timing and power, but it’s not all mechanical when it comes to big league production. “Up until this level, it’s physical,” Double-A manager Doug Mientkiewicz told the Star Tribune in June. “Past this level, it’s mental.”
“Our whole ordeal here is you have to prepare today as if you’re gonna be in Minnesota tomorrow, so you don’t want to have to all of a sudden change your routine and change your preparation,” says Triple-A hitting coach Tim Doherty, a person Hicks credits with turning his career around. “He learned how to do that. He learned how to study film, and he learned how to get his routine in, his work in, prior to learning how to take care of his body day-in and day-out.
“As far as his talents go, at some point in time the word ‘raw’ is gonna have to come off. You can’t have raw ability your entire career,” he continues. “You go up to the big leagues, and the first time you don’t know what to expect, you don’t know what they’re doing, so you gotta learn. … Seek out the veteran players: They’ll talk to you, they’re gonna help you, and they’re there and they’re a veteran because they listen and they learn. When players do that, like Hicksy’s been doing now, that’s huge.”
Torii Hunter has been a major influence on him in the Twins clubhouse. The nearly 40-year-old outfielder has helped Hicks with everything from workouts to diet to routine. “He’s always picking my brain,” says Hunter, who came up with the Twins as a center fielder at the turn of the century and had his fair share of call-ups and demotions before establishing himself as a major leaguer. “He reminds me of myself, that’s what I did with Kirby and Paul Molitor when I was younger and they were older.”
Hicks has always had talent: It’s why he was drafted in the first round, it’s why the Twins felt comfortable trading away Denard Span and Ben Revere in the same summer, and it’s why he was able to reach the majors at age 23. “Hicks is one of the most athletic outfielders in the high school ranks and perhaps in the (2008) draft class,” read one scouting report on him. “He’s got a ton of tools, but will he learn how to use them? Someone is sure to take that chance.”
“I definitely think that this guy, if he puts it together and gets his mind right, it’s gonna be special,” echoes Hunter. “[It’s] knowing when you step on the field you have the most athletic ability on the field. It’s like an inner-cockiness: You don’t speak it, you just go out and do it and try to prove it and tell yourself, ‘Hey, you’re better than everybody on this field.’”
The Twins ultimately took a chance on Hicks, of course, and they’ve given him ample opportunity to make the most of his ability since calling him up two years ago. Looking back on it, Twins general manager Terry Ryan admits that his promotion was premature, because while he made his fair share of spectacular plays in the outfield, he finished his rookie year with a .192/.259/.338 line in 81 games and wasn’t much better at the plate in his sophomore season (.215/.341/.274). “If somebody’s concerned about Hicks not getting a chance, I’ve got to talk to them,” says Ryan, elevating his voice. “If you’re talking about Hicks, you’re talking about the wrong guy. He’s had a lot of chances and he’s doing something with it here recently, but we’ve been criticized to the extreme about [his] chances.”
Throughout the process the Twins had to strike a delicate balance, allowing Hicks — or any prospect — enough leeway to fight through his struggles without giving him a sense of entitlement. “We try to make sure they get every opportunity,” says Ryan of his young players. “Aaron’s had a lot of chances. It’s his turn. It’s time to step up, and he’s done a nice job here.”
Twins hitting coach Tom Brunansky says the biggest difference between now and a year ago, when Hicks was muddled and briefly dropped switch-hitting, is his maturity level. “He feels confident, you can tell,” Brunansky says. “He doesn’t get frustrated, to where if it’s a bad at-bat … he can put that aside a little bit, we can get good conversations about what the next at-bat’s gonna do, and he’s moved on.
“We can call it growth, we can call it maturity — whatever it is, whatever terminology you want to use for it, it’s nice to see, because the talent and skillset of that kid is good.”
“I think it all came down to being able to do what I needed to do to become the player that I want to be, and it’s kind of just — I tried something new. I tried leg-kicking, and it’s been working out good for my timing and hitting in the big leagues,” says Hicks, who worked on the technique with Brunansky in spring training. “A lot of it just came with time: Being up here and having to deal with the grind and having to deal with failure so much. I mean, it’s all about just going out there and trying to have fun and learn, and learn as fast as possible to be able to have success.”
“All of that, and all of the curves that these guys go through with the ups and downs from the injuries and that type of thing, that all builds on all their mentalities,” says Doherty. “It makes them stronger, it makes them understand that when you take that away from them, they realize how hungry they need to be to get back with their teammates and start competing and try to win their division, and then try to win the pennant, and then try to win the World Series.”
Doherty says that Hicks told him, “I should be in center field. I should be helping those guys win,” when he was in Triple-A during his rehab stint, which brings up another aspect of Hicks’ development: He’s on a winning team for the first time in his major league career. So while he wasn’t traded, he did experience a change of scenery this season. “Does it matter? It makes it a whole lot easier. Absolutely,” says Doherty. “You’re going to a team that’s competing and trying to catch the Royals and right in the playoff hunt. Yeah, that makes it easier. But it doesn’t make it easier as a player: You still have to compete, regardless of if you’re in first place or last place.”
“He has that winning spirit, we’re winning, and he’s a part of winning right now,” says Hunter. “This last week, this last week or so, he’s shown all the ability that the Twins thought he had drafting him in the first round. This is what he’s capable of doing, and if he can do this consistently — you’re gonna have your rough times, that’s the way it goes — if he can bounce back every time, and make adjustments like he’s doing, he’s gonna be playing major league baseball for a long time.
“He’s only 25.”
Tom Schreier writes for 105 The Ticket’s Cold Omaha. Tune in to The Wake Up Call every Sunday at 8:00 am to hear the crew break down the week in Minnesota sports.