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Aaron Hicks' Improvement and His Final Missing Piece

Aaron Hicks has significantly improved as a player this year. I take a look at what's different this year and the last thing he needs to improve upon.

Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since debuting in 2013, Aaron Hicks has been an enigma. Pressed into action thanks to offseason trades of Denard Span and Ben Revere, some growing pains were to be expected, but no one could have predicted how bad Hicks looked at the plate. Although he did show some power, he still struggled to make solid contact and his passiveness at the plate was on full display. Plus, his athleticism in the field didn't translate to the numbers as he was pegged as a below-average defender.

Given a second chance in 2014, Hicks evolved as a hitter but still put up a poor overall statistical line. His patience went to the extreme as he walked nearly one out of every six plate appearances (the very best walk around one in five), his batting average climbed a bit, but his power completely disappeared. Meanwhile, his defense didn't improve at all, and he found himself losing playing time to Sam Fuld, and even started moving around the outfield as a fourth outfielder.

Now we come to this year, where Hicks started the season in the minors. Jordan Schafer and Shane Robinson were in a timeshare, though Schafer turned back into who he always was and Robinson was no one's idea of a regular starting center fielder. Meanwhile, Hicks forced his way into the picture by hitting well in Triple-A. His first time up was rather ho-hum as he hit .243/.293/.301. Sure, the batting average was the best it had ever been, but Hicks wasn't walking and his power was still missing. He hit the disabled list due to a strained forearm in the middle of June, but ever since his return in July, he's been on fire. Not including yesterday's game, Hicks has hit .306/.392/.516 and it appears as though he has finally put it all together. He's gone back to drawing walks, he's cut his strikeouts, he's hitting for power and average, and even his defense has rated far better this year than in the past. Overall, he's now at .278/.345/.405 and his 1.5 fWAR puts him in 3rd place on the Twins among position players.

Everything is turning up Hicks right now, but there is still one last facet of his game that could be improved upon. Fortunately though, it's an issue that also has progressed in the positive direction this season. You see, in spite of all his improvements, Hicks still isn't much of a threat from the left side of the plate. (Numbers from before Tuesday's game.)

vs. LHP .340 .400 .540
vs. RHP .250 .320 .343

That's an OPS of .662 against righties, which is putrid when you realize the league average OPS is .711 this season. However, that is still a pretty big improvement compared to his career splits.

vs. LHP .271 .363 .446
vs. RHP .201 .283 .292

Hicks' OPS has jumped about .070 points from the left side, and almost all of that has come simply from having a better batting average, which in turn has been the result of fewer strikeouts and a better BABIP.

Admittedly, I'd still prefer for Hicks to be doing more damage against right-handed pitchers. However, that .662 OPS is far more acceptable than what he's done for his career, and Paul Molitor has also minimized the negative impact by mainly keeping Hicks in the bottom third of the lineup this season. At this point, he's been adequate enough that we're not continuing the "Should he quit switch-hitting?" charade from last season.

Perhaps what's been most encouraging is that there's no indicator that Hicks is going through a lucky streak, either. His BABIP currently sits at .297, which is probably still low for someone with Hicks' speed. He has been more aggressive at the plate (46% swing percentage this year compared to 40.5% for his career) without chasing pitches out of the strike zone (23.1% chase rate this year, 21.8% for his career), demonstrating that he's been less passive without becoming overaggressive. Considering his biggest knock was probably that he spent too much time looking for a walk, it's nice to see some dividends from him taking a few more hacks within the strike zone. To cap it all off, he's maintaining not only the best strikeout rate of his career (14.5%, down from a career 23.2%) but it's even significantly above-average (MLB average of 20.2% this season).

Although we were all very excited when Byron Buxton made his debut this year, it appears as though Aaron Hicks has risen from the ashes as a future building block for the Twins. Though his future may not lay in center field for much longer, it's nice to see that Hicks is demonstrating the skills that made him a first round draft pick years ago.