How prospect Hicklen masters mental game

May 31st, 2022

This story was excerpted from Anne Rogers' Royals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

CLEVELAND -- remembers standing in the outfield at Riders Field one day last season, watching Texas’ Double-A lineup come to the plate against his team, Northwest Arkansas, and thinking about what would come next. Not the next play, nor the next at-bat, but what he would do when he was done playing in the Royals organization -- a time he thought, at that moment, would come soon.

“I really was at probably the lowest place in my life,” Hicklen said. “… Just struggling so bad that I didn’t even know if I was good enough to be here. I just said, 'This may be the end for me. I don’t know if I’ll ever get it figured out.'”

Almost a year later, Hicklen is still playing -- and he got a quick opportunity at the Major League level. The 26-year-old outfielder was called up last week to fill the Royals’ outfield need with both Michael A. Taylor and Kyle Isbel landing on the COVID-19 injured list.

Hicklen made his debut on Thursday, and while he was optioned back to Triple-A Omaha when Isbel returned Monday, Hicklen remains with the Royals on the taxi squad and is focused on being present for every moment.

That's a mindset he might not have been able to maintain a year ago.

Hicklen, once ranked among the Royals’ Top 30 prospects because of his power and speed, got off to a tough start in Double-A last season, hitting .164 during May. His OPS climbed to .633 in June and .678 in July, but that wasn’t close to the level he wanted -- or needed -- his performance to be.

“I was just doing life alone,” Hicklen said. “I was isolated, everyone was having success around me. I was trying to be the leader in the clubhouse without telling people I was struggling.”

That feeling led to the day in Frisco, Texas, where Hicklen thought about what he would pursue after baseball. As the feeling persisted into the following weeks, he searched for someone to talk to one night after a game. He called Larry Sutton, a former Royals player and coach who managed Hicklen’s Low-A team in 2018. Everyone else Hicklen knew was asleep that night, but Sutton was in Korea coaching in the KBO. The time change worked out, and Sutton answered.

“I just immediately said one word and started crying, breaking down, because I had so much weight on my shoulders, trying to carry it alone,” Hicklen said. “He just reminded me to go back to my roots. … 'Be where your feet are at' is a motto I’ve taken in life. Be where your feet are, to make the most impact on the people you’re around.

"A lot of times, people want to be in a different place, they’re in a different headspace, but if they really just digest what’s going on around you, sink in what’s going on with the situation you’re in, you’re going to have so much more impact that way."

From there, Hicklen took off. He posted a 1.143 OPS with seven homers in August and an .827 mark in September. It wasn’t as if Hicklen had all of a sudden changed the mechanics of his swing or approach; rather, it was a mindset shift. That’s continued into his 2022 season with Omaha.

“I’ve probably had some of my worst games this year, but it’s funny because I go home, and I see my wife, I see my dog, and I really don’t get nearly as frustrated as I used to,” Hicklen said. “I just have so much inner peace, and I do think that’s freed me up.”

Hicklen emphasizes that he’s still competitive, and he wants “to be the best No. 75 out there.” He knows results and playing opportunities decided his spot on the big league roster when Isbel returned. But as he looked out onto Target Field this weekend and thought back to last year and whether he would ever get this far, he shook his head.

“I really didn’t,” Hicklen said. “And shame on me for thinking that. I’m made for bigger things. I was made to be here. I belong here. I feel that way. I’m confident that I belong here and that I can contribute to this team.”