The announcement that Aaron Hicks was no longer going to be a switch-hitter, a dramatic mid-season effort to increase his production at the plate, came as a surprise to manager Ron Gardenhire. According to Gardenhire, assistant general manager Rob Antony and Hicks himself, the manager was walking through the locker room on the morning of May 26 when Hicks pulled him aside and said that he was no longer going to hit from the left side of the plate against right-handed pitchers..
"He's going to shelf his left-handed swing," Gardenhire announced, unsolicited, to the local media that morning, "[he] says he has no confidence in it, and he's worked at it with Bruno (hitting coach Tom Brunansky) trying to figure these things out this morning, and he said he wanted to hit right-handed."
The thought process with this move is that if you make the game of baseball simpler, it will bring out Hicks' athleticism. More specifically, if he cuts down on the things that he has to do at the plate, and he won't think when he’s at-bat; he'll act without overthinking things. And when Hicks stops thinking, he should become that five-tool player the Minnesota Twins believe he can be.
"That's something that I'm really going to need to do," says Hicks. "I need to simplify everything, I need to be able to do what I can to make hard, solid contact and pretty much go from there."
"To simplify in his mind is to clear it and free it," says hitting coach Tom Brunansky. "As a switch-hitter, the hard thing about switch-hitting is that you’re never going to feel good on both sides. Every switch-hitter I've ever talked to always told me that."
The decision came swiftly, but it does not mean that it was an easy one for Hicks. His father, Joseph Hicks Sr., encouraged him to hit from both sides of the plate growing up and only once allowed him to hit right-handed, his dominant side, against a right-handed pitcher -- during an All-Star game when he was 12 years old. It's not the first time that Hicks has deviated from his father's advice, he also wanted his son to pursue professional golf
instead of baseball (Hicks has hit five holes-in-one
, his first at age 10), and Hicks maintains that his father is supportive of the decision.
Simplifying the game goes farther than just dropping his left-handed swing, however. Hicks is also learning how to consume information and figure out what major league pitchers are doing to him in order to stay one step ahead of his opponents. And converting from a switch-hitter to a right-handed hitter in the middle of the season is not optimal, especially for a player that is currently hitting below the Mendoza Line.
What it really comes down to, however, is whether or not Hicks is capable of becoming the player the Twins thought he could be when they promoted him directly from Double-A a year ago.
Simplifying things doesn't mean just dropping the left-handed swing
It is too easy to conclude that dropping the left-handed swing is a panacea that will allow Hicks to increase his on-base percentage and allow him to hit for power. Hicks also needs to better process information and show that he is willing to do what he has to do in order to come to the ballpark prepared to face the opponent that day.
This came to a head on May 14 when Gardenhire told the media that he and Hicks had a long talk about picking his game up. The Twins front office is aware that he was underperforming, and it was not the first time Hicks was told that he could not rely on his talent alone. Gardenhire also re-emphasized that it's all about the numbers at the major league level -- he didn't want to have to send shortstop Pedro Florimon down, but if you can't hit .200, you can't stay on a major league roster.
"He needs to get some hits; that's the message," said Gardenhire. "You need to start -- if it's studying the game a little more, studying the pitchers a little bit more, a little extra work in the outfield doing drills and everything, improving your whole game and the way you come to the ballpark and your approach to the game."
Antony went on to add that there were times when Hicks did not know who that day's starting pitcher was, and later that day, a card with that week's upcoming matchups could be seen in Hicks' locker after the game. "That's the preparation: When you show up at the ballpark knowing who you're facing, what you want to try and accomplish, what your approach is going to be, rather than walking in and looking at the board and asking who's pitching today," said the assistant general manager.
Antony went on to say that Hicks gets preoccupied, and ultimately distracted, by some things in his game, and it causes him to lose focus at the plate. "I don't think he always has a plan: How that guy is going to pitch him, how he is going to be prepared for it," he said. "It's going to be more of a mentality of, 'I feel good, and I'm going to rake today.' Well that's great in high school or whatever, but it's a little more sophisticated, and there's a lot more preparation that goes into it."
The Twins provide the necessary information -- how a pitcher approaches right-handed hitters, what he throws in 0-2 counts, if he has any tells in his delivery -- and all the accompanying film, but they can only go over what to study so much. Eventually, players must learn on their own what film they want to watch and how much detailed information they need. Some players prefer to watch hours of film and want to know which pitch is going to be thrown in a 1-2 count; others don't watch film of themselves at the plate unless they are dramatically changing their swing and only want to know which pitches the opposing pitcher will throw and how often he uses them.
At this point, Hicks is still figuring out what information he needs on a daily basis and says he is looking at a lot more film than other players that have figured out their swing. Dropping one swing, ironically, has meant he's had to watch more film to figure out how to face right-handed pitchers from the right side of the plate.
"There's actually a lot of information to learn," he says. "Some stuff you need, and some stuff you don't. Some stuff works for some guys and for me, it's more I like to focus on the small things -- percentages on fastballs and curveballs and all that stuff and then go from there to my game plan."
Sometimes keeping it simple can be, well, kind of complicated.
Dropping switch-hitting mid-season is uncommon and suboptimal
Gardenhire cannot think of any players that have stopped switch-hitting in the middle of a season, nor can Antony. Many players do it in the minors, and there are a couple examples of players that have done it during their major league careers, but it's hard to find somebody that did it mid-season. Still, J.T. Snow, Rico Petrocelli and Reggie Jefferson all dropped switch-hitting during their major league careers.
Hicks is unfamiliar with those names, but teammate Eduardo Nunez dropped switch-hitting in the New York Yankees minor league system before he was traded to the Twins this season. Unlike in Hicks' case, it was team management who told Nunez to drop switch-hitting, but Nunez only sits a few lockers over from Hicks and can offer him advice on how to make the transition.
Hicks says that the two have already spoken about the change, but it was not incredibly encouraging. "When I was thinking about it, we actually talked a little about it," he says. "He was talking to me about how he went, like, 1-for-50. I was like, uh, all right..."
"If we were in a perfect world right now we would be able to send him down and do this at the Triple-A level, but we're not," acknowledged Gardenhire, knowing that Sam Fuld is out indefinitely with a lingering concussion and Danny Santana's natural position is shortstop. "That's just the way it has to happen."
"He could go down to Triple-A -- we've talked about that -- it would be great to be able to send him down to Triple-A," echoes Antony. "I'm not sure he would face everything. Even if he goes down and hits fairly well down there, it's completely different. You go watch Triple-A ball for a week, and then come back and watch this, it's night and day."
When asked if he'd rather go down to the minors or learn at the major league level, Hicks laughed and said that of course he'd like to stay in the majors. While that's understandable, it also means that Brunansky is delivering him a crash course on right-handed hitting. He sets up the pitching machine and has it throw him breaking balls over and over again. In one drill, Hicks never offers at them, all he'll do is sit and track them and decide if he should offer at them and at what point he wants to make contact. "A lot of the problems we see with breaking balls coming from a lefty, we want to go out here," he explains while extending his arms, pantomiming a swing at a breaking ball, "because we know it's going to come to us. With a right-hander, we can't do that because if we see a pitch out there, and we think we’re going to go get it, by the time it's supposed to be bat-to-ball contact, it's got to be a little deeper."
Hicks is used to seeing fastballs from righties because there are no left-handed batting practice coaches. Therefore, pitches that may be dramatically different and difficult to hit from the right side – say, a fastball high and inside -- Hicks has already seen. "He gets that every day. He sees that in BP," explains Brunansky. "The biggest challenge is the ball that's going to be breaking away from him."
There's also some thought that Hicks should play better from the right side even though he is used to hitting left-handed against righties. His left-handed swing is learned and did not come naturally to him. He is also noticeably more aggressive from the right side of the plate. What it comes down to is Hicks will have success with the transition if he is able to process information fast enough to stay one step ahead of pitchers.
Can he still reach his potential?
Antony has no doubt that Hicks will become a great player one day. To him, it's a matter of when, not if. "I'd be extremely surprised and disappointed if he's not a solid everyday major league outfielder," he says. "It's a process; it’s going to take time. I'm not saying that's going to be the case overnight, but there's a lot of guys that have gone through the process, and he's got a lot of athletic ability, and he's shown all the tools now, so it's just a matter of when he's going to put it together."
Gardenhire has already noticed a difference with Hicks. He believes that a weight has been lifted of his player's shoulders and that he's starting to display more confidence in the clubhouse and on the field. "I see him walking around here, he's actually kidding around, joking around a little bit more than ever," says the manager, "and you can tell he's a little more relaxed, there's no doubt about that."
Not only that, but according to Gardenhire, there have been no more issues with his work ethic. He's been showing up to the field early, taking extra batting practice and knows who is pitching every day. "He's doing a lot of work, and I think he feels good about that so it all gets down to the performance on the field and putting it to use during the game," he added, "but he's definitely bumping around on people, throwing elbows at people. You can definitely see he's a little bit more relaxed."
Hicks, for his part, has played everything pretty cool. He says that he has set a goal of hitting .250 and is not worried about doing anything too fancy. If he hits a home run, it's simply a ball he was trying to knock into a gap that carried a little further than it was supposed to. "I need to focus on just getting hits, not trying to hit home runs or trying to get doubles quite yet," he avers. "But just being able to step in the box and be comfortable in there is a step I needed to make."
Brunansky just came out and said it: by simplifying the game, he's trying to bring out the athlete in Hicks. "That's the whole game plan," says Brunansky, standing in the clubhouse batting cages with a wide smile on his face. "You can't think, you can't think. You come in here, and everything we do is react -- trust what you see, and react to what you see."
See the ball and hit it. It's simple, as long as you don't think about it.