FanPost

Aaron Hicks and Making the Routine Play

USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Hicks had a rough rookie season. One of the surprising areas of struggle was in the field. By the end of the season, both Fangraphs and Baseball Reference gave Hicks average to below-average ratings for fielding. In both cases, he received good marks for his arm, but well below-average rating on his range. Fangraph's UZR had his range component at -11 runs, while Baseball Reference's Defensive Runs Saved metric had his range component at -5 runs.

This seems very bizarre to me - I watched many of the games throughout the season, and at no point did I ever think that Hicks had poor range. His long strides seem to cover a ton of ground out there, and he made a bunch of athletic catches. A simple search of Hicks on MLB.com finds lots of great catches, like this.


And this.


And this.


And this.


And this.


So what is going on? Why are the advanced stats saying one thing but my eyes and memory saying something else?

Recently, Fangraphs added the ability to view spray charts for both offense and defense. This has been added to the player pages, and it provides some simple filter and comparison capabilities. I definitely recommend playing around with it if you get a chance. I was curious if these new charts would shed some light on Hicks's defensive ability, and why he rated so low. I turns out, there is something that jumps out at you about Hicks's defense: the missed plays.

Here is the chart of Hicks's "Missed Plays" from 2013.


Source: FanGraphs

As one can see, there were eight missed plays that were marked green on this chart, which indicated that they were classified as either being Easy to field (60-90%) or Really Easy to field (90-100%). In Hicks's case, five were in the Really Easy category and three more were Easy. Those eight plays ended up as hits that should have been outs (at least for the average outfielder). Instead, they resulted in a triple, three doubles and four singles. (Interesting side note: none of these missed plays were classified as an Error by the official scorer.) Without knowing the game situations when he failed to make these plays, it is impossible to know exactly how many runs he cost the Twins. However, using standard run-weights for each of those results, it sums to roughly 7 runs over the course of the season. It isn't hard to see how those eight plays would quickly cancel out much the good from his amazing catches.

In order to get a better sense of how Hicks fits in against other outfielders, I compared him to the three centerfielders that preceded him for the Twins: Carlos Gomez, Denard Span and Ben Revere. In 2013, Gomez was the top-rated defensive outfielder in baseball, Span was well above-average and Revere was roughly average. All three rate better than Hicks on range.


Source: FanGraphs


Source: FanGraphs


Source: FanGraphs

It truly is a stark contrast. Even though Gomez, Span and Revere combined for over 4.5 times as many innings as Hicks, they only had six missed plays COMBINED that were classified as either Easy or Really Easy to field. Hicks had a routine missed play about once every 90 innings, while the other three only had one every 540 innings. This is a good reminder of the importance of consistency in defense. If every amazing play is counteracted by a mistake on a routine play, the player is just treading water.

This data is interesting but still rather crude, and it leaves a lot of details unknown. The data points are not cross-referenced by game or play, so it is impossible to check which game correspond to which plays on the chart. Therefore, I can't tell you if it is something that got better during the season. Also, there is no way to reference the video for each play to see exactly what happened. Was it a bad read? Or miscommunication between outfielders? Poor effort?

There are a lot of possible explanations, not all of which would be Hicks's fault. Also, there are a lot of learning that needs to be done as a rookie - familiarizing with all the new stadiums, communicating with new outfielders (or non-outfielders playing the outfield) in loud environments, etc. Those issues can be overcome with experience. I am optimistic that Hicks's defensive stats will improve going forward. He is too good an athlete and has too much defensive ability to not become an elite centerfielder. He just needs to get better at making the routine plays.

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