Yankees Magazine: Taming the Game

At the plate, in the outfield and off the bench, Aaron Hicks continues to adjust in his pursuit of the game he loves

May 4th, 2016
Over the course of his Minor League career, Aaron Hicks was recognized several times for having the "Best Outfield Arm" in the Twins' system. On April 20, that arm strength was on display when the 26-year-old set a new record for the fastest throw ever recorded by MLB's Statcast: 105.5 mph. (New York Yankees)NEW YORK YANKEES

Yankees outfielder Aaron Hicks heard it -- the barrel of Jose Altuve's bat connecting with Masahiro Tanaka's 84-mph splitter -- and saw the sharp liner coming right at him in left field. Realizing too late that he had misread it, Hicks jumped and reached upward with his glove as the ball sailed over the right side of his body. When he reconnected with the ground, the ball had already bounced on the grass behind him and continued onward, ricocheting off the wall. It was a double for Altuve, the Astros' second baseman; he would score Houston's first run of the game two batters later.

Had Hicks scripted the day himself, the fourth-inning misplay in the team's 5-3 Opening Day loss at Yankee Stadium would not have been part of his official introduction to the Yankees faithful. But misreads, strikeouts, slumps and the like are just as much a part of the game, if not more so, as home runs, hitting streaks and laser-beam throws to nab runners at home plate. During the postgame interview in front of his locker, Hicks -- who was acquired from the Twins for backup catcher John Ryan Murphy this past offseason -- dutifully answered reporters' questions, explaining that he had gotten "caught flat-footed" and hadn't read the ball well.

The next day, the misplay didn't seem to be a thought in his mind until he was specifically asked about his approach to coming to terms with -- and moving past -- the errors and other challenges inherent to the game. His process is simple: Just forget about it.

"I know I'm a good outfielder, and I know I can make that play every single time, but it just so happened that one time I missed it," Hicks said. "I can't be worried about what happened yesterday. For me, it's just to continue to be better on my footwork and continue to just make plays."

It's a philosophy that he has adhered to throughout his short time in the Majors despite the doctrine being tested multiple times since he made his Big League debut in 2013.

Hicks was selected by Minnesota in the first round of the 2008 Draft. From that year through 2012, the switch-hitting outfielder combined for a .271 average, 204 RBI and 340 runs in 478 games at the rookie, Low-A, High-A and Double-A levels, amassing a steady succession of accolades -- a top prospect, Best Defensive Outfielder, Best Outfield Arm and Best Strike-Zone Discipline, as determined by Baseball America, in the Twins' system, among other honors. During Spring Training with the big club in 2013, he batted .370/.407/.644 in 22 exhibition games and made the Opening Day roster as the Twins' starting center fielder. But after failing to get his average more than a few points north of the Mendoza Line at best, he was optioned to Triple-A at the beginning of August and finished the year there.

The 2014 ride proved to be even bumpier: After another solid Spring Training, the California native made his second Opening Day roster with the Twins, only to be optioned to Double-A at the end of June -- remaining there after already having started a rehab assignment earlier in the month -- with a .198 average in 48 games. He was called out publicly by then-Twins Manager Ron Gardenhire: first for playing "in a fog," including not properly backing up a play and being out of position for another, and a month later for a lack of preparation at the plate. And, in what he now describes as a "really bad" decision, Hicks gave up switch-hitting for about a month.

But the outfielder says he's been able to use the ups and downs of his first couple years in the Majors to improve, and when he needs to keep things in perspective during rough patches, he turns to the guy in the mirror. And he'll surely rely on the lessons he has learned thus far in filling his new role, as the Yankees' fourth outfielder.

"You've got to believe in your abilities, believe in yourself and know that you can do it," said Hicks. "I believe that I'm a good player, and I believe I belong up here, and last year is when it really clicked that I belong here. I'm a Big League player, and I have the tools to stay here."

In 2015, after spending a month-and-a-half at Triple-A to start the season, Hicks played in 97 games for Minnesota and hit a career-high .256, crushing left-handed pitching with a .307 average from the right side. At the end of the season, the Twin Cities chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America named Hicks the Twins' most improved player.

The progress was no fluke, but rather a result of some offseason tweaking that continued into the spring, when Hicks arrived at 2015 camp ready to work.

"He came in with open eyes and understanding what it takes to be a Big League guy; not only to be a Big League player, but also to be a productive Big League guy -- what type of work it was, how to go about your business," recalled the Twins' Triple-A hitting coach at the time, Tim Doherty, who worked with Hicks during Spring Training and during that month-and-a-half at Triple-A to start the season.

Doherty -- one of several coaches the outfielder credits with his improvement at the plate -- and Hicks studied video, identifying his strengths and how they could be used against specific pitchers, and refined a leg kick that he had introduced back home over the winter.

Previously, Doherty explained, Hicks "would lower his body into the ground, and then when he wanted to swing, he would come up." In doing so, his head and body wanted to follow through with that upward motion, and since the ball travels downward, it was difficult for Hicks to stay on the ball. He was off balance and, essentially, "fighting his body to swing." Hicks replaced the down-up motion with the leg kick, which has given him a greater sense of the connection between his hands and feet, allowing him to establish better balance and, ultimately, rhythm and timing.

"Ever since I started doing that, I just became a different hitter," said Hicks. "I understood what being on time was, and I was able to hit balls that I wasn't able to hit before, and my confidence just came and rose. All of a sudden, I am not afraid to go out there and compete at the highest ability."

"This translated now into the Big Leagues, so that big monster of the Big Leagues has slowed down considerably for him," said Doherty, who believes that the developments show Hicks has made gains on two keys to finding Big League success: knowing who he is and preparing himself to be successful.

This sense of self should prove integral as Hicks continues to make the transition from Twins everyday center fielder to Yankees fourth outfielder.

Leading into the start of the season, Joe Girardi reiterated to the media that Hicks was in New York to play and would get regular time at the plate and in the field -- making starts against lefties and spelling his outfield veterans at all three positions -- and the manager has backed up his words. With the Astros sending left-hander Dallas Keuchel to the mound in a repeat matchup of last year's American League Wild Card Game, Girardi gave Hicks the Opening Day nod over Brett Gardner, and the 26-year-old played in 12 of the Yankees' next 13 games, starting five and entering the other games in the later innings as a pinch-hitter, pinch-runner or defensive replacement.

But there is a significant difference between regular playing time and playing every day. Just ask Yankees assistant hitting coach Marcus Thames, who spent the majority of his 10 Big League seasons with the Yankees, Rangers, Tigers and Dodgers as a fourth outfielder.

"Coming off the bench, it's tough," Thames said. "As a young guy, you don't get it right away because you're just used to playing every day against lefties and righties. Once you get here, and that's going to be your role, it takes a little bit of time to get it; eventually, you'll get it. But it's just that fight of, 'I haven't played in three or four days,' or 'I've got one at-bat over the last three days,' so it's kind of tough, the mental side of it."

And on top of that, when Thames did get the call, it was against some of the game's nastiest left-handers -- Randy Johnson, CC Sabathia, Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano.

"These guys aren't cupcakes, so they were tough at-bats," recalled Thames.

To make the transition a little easier, Thames has spoken to Hicks about approaching all of his work in the field, in the cage and during batting practice as if he's starting that day.

Yankees backup catcher Austin Romine can attest to the virtue of that approach. He has been called up to the big club a few times, and in 2013, he played a more recurring role after catcher Francisco Cervelli broke his right hand, logging appearances in a career-high 60 Major League games. It was then that he realized the challenges of working off the bench.

"My first month-and-a-half or so, I hit .111 or something like that. It was not good," recalled Romine, who was 24 at the time. "I was a young kid, I really didn't know what I was doing, and I had to figure it out. When I looked down and saw I was hitting really low, I figured I needed to do something else, so I fixed some things and got my average back up to where it needed to be and [figured out] what was good for me to get ready for a baseball game, which turns out is a lot of work."

Hicks is navigating those waters now.

When he was a starter with Minnesota, he liked to take BP in the cage 30 minutes before first pitch, starting with pulling the ball, working up the middle and then opposite field. That's still the drill when he starts now, but on days he's not in the lineup, he's in consistent motion.

"I take swings throughout the game, so I'll do like a fastball machine, then I'll do a little curveball machine, all this during the game," he said. "Once it gets around the fifth or sixth inning, I start stretching, get the legs loose, getting ready to run and being ready to just go out there and play."

As for where he'll be running to when he takes the field, Hicks says his biggest challenge in switching among all three outfield positions is being able to stay sharp at each spot. In his 247 Big League games prior to joining the Yankees, he had played 21 in right and 10 in left. And while the footwork doesn't change much, the vantage point -- and how the ball behaves -- does.

"Playing center field is obviously my primary position, so that comes to me a lot easier than say the corners, so I've got to constantly get reads off the bat during BP in both left and right field," said Hicks. "I feel comfortable right now, but [I need to get] where I don't think so much while the guys are at-bat, to where I just kind of react."

While he's still honing his instincts out in the field and learning the lay of the Yankees' land and his role in it, he has little doubt when it comes to his ability to play at the Major League level or his love of the game: "I enjoy the game so much. I just want to have fun, and I want to compete. I think it's fun being out here and being in the Big Leagues. This being my job, it's an amazing feeling."