PHOENIX—Twins outfield prospect Aaron Hicks almost wound up hitting a different kind of ball for a living. The 22-year-old member of the Arizona Fall League’s Mesa Solar Sox was a golfing prodigy at a very young age.
“I was pretty much going down the same road as Tiger Woods . . . starting at the same age as him, playing in tournaments that he played in, also playing in the same place,” Hicks said. “He played over at Heartwell Golf Course (located in Hicks’ hometown of Long Beach), which is where he originally started. I thought I was going to be playing golf.”
Hicks’ golf game is now just a source of leisure for him to pursue in the offseason, although he’s still a scratch player capable of shooting under par on a good day. The switch-hitting outfielder began concentrating on baseball as a teen, helping Long Beach’s Wilson High to a national No. 1 ranking in his junior year. He was picked by the Twins with the 14th overall pick in the 2008 draft after the conclusion of his high school career.
While he’s shown the raw athletic ability that convinced the Twins to pop for him in the first round as well as impressive plate discipline, Hicks’ overall offensive performance has lagged behind expectations to date. His over-the-fence power has yet to emerge and he still struggles to hit with authority from the left side of the plate. He’s coming off a season in the high Class A Florida State League in which he hit .242/.354/.368 with five home runs.
Solar Sox hitting coach Jeff Branson, regularly the batting coach for the Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate in Indianapolis, believes that Hicks just needs reps.
“He needs playing time,” Branson said. “The more athletic kids do have a tendency to succeed at the high school level. Once you get into pro ball, 90 percent of the guys are athletic. So it’s more about a plan, an approach, and reps . . . having an approach and carrying out that approach. Trusting that approach and letting it work because it will work.”
Hicks is a natural righthanded hitter who took up switch-hitting in his sophomore year of high school. He believes that he’s stronger from the right side but sees the ball better and gets better at-bats from the left side.
The Twins organization wants him to get his tempo from the left side as he does from the right side during his time in the AFL, according to the instructions given to Branson.
“He tends to get a little quick from the left side,” Branson said, “a little rigid.”
Hicks is aware that he’s got a different approach from the right side of the plate.
“I have more power from my right side— left side I’m more of a doubles and triples guy,” Hick said. “Right side, I just grip it and rip it.”
Some scouts maintain that Hicks’ advanced plate discipline works against him in that he sometimes takes pitches that he should be driving. That’s a key part of the lessons that a young hitter needs to learn, according to Branson.
“Strike-zone discipline, that’s the biggest thing,” Branson said. “Learn your swing, learn the type of hitter you are . . . knowing thyself and learning the type of player that they are, and hone the skills for the player that they’re going to be. That’s tough for them to realize, so sometimes it takes a number of years for them to get that instilled in their brain.”
There’s no question about Hicks’ defensive skills in the outfield. He effectively uses his plus speed in the outfield, and his excellent arm was rated as the best outfield arm in the FSL this year.
Many young prospects focus on hitting first, with improving their defense being a secondary concern. That’s not true in Hicks’ case.
“The Twins stress defense—defense wins games,” Hicks said. “That’s what I really stress.”
Hicks models himself after former Twins center fielder Torii Hunter, who has won nine Gold Glove awards. He’s never had the opportunity to meet the Angels star but periodically gets with him on the phone to talk about shared experiences coming up through the Twins minor league system.
Branson, who coached Pirates star outfielder Andrew McCutchen during his rise to the big leagues, has shared with Hicks that defensively he’s a little ahead of McCutchen at this point in his career.
Hicks believes that his seven weeks in the Fall League will help him with his ascent to the big leagues, especially as it relates to further developing his core baseball skills.
“Every year it gets better and better,” Hicks said. “I started becoming more of a complete player. I’m starting to be able to find myself as a player because that’s what this game is all about.”
• Scottsdale Scorpions manager Arnie Beyeler can pencil in a “dream team” outfield just about every time he fills out a lineup card this fall, with the top two prospects in the minor leagues, Bryce Harper (Nationals) and Mike Trout (Angels), sharing time with Gary Brown (Giants) and Tyson Gillies (Phillies). The Scorpion lineup for last Friday night’s game at Scottsdale Stadium included Trout in left field, Brown in center and Gillies in right, with each player arguably an 80 runner on the 20-80 scouting scale.
• As is customary for the Fall League, in which hitters are usually ahead of the pitchers, home runs are already flying out of the parks in bunches. Phoenix Desert Dogs outfielder Michael Choice (Athletics) has been the league’s hottest slugger, having gone yard three times in his first 19 trips to the plate. The 2010 first-round pick is hitting.371/.526/1.059 in his first four AFL games.