By Charles Hallman
It’s not unusual that a rookie struggles early. However, a month and a half in the books, first-year Minnesota Twins centerfielder Aaron Hicks was “demoted.”
Twins Manager Ron Gardenhire is known as a player’s manager, and as expected he looked out for the rookie, sparing him from sports talk knuckleheads and wannabe experts who’re quick to criticize. As a result, late last month, Gardy demoted Hicks from the leadoff spot to further down the lineup. Then he pulled the player aside and offered some sage advice:
“‘Just play’ is what I basically told him. ‘You just play and you’ll be fine,’” the manager recently told the MSR. “He had some moments in his career where he struggled, but it’s a little more magnified [here]. People talk about it a lot more. As much as you tell him to turn it out and just play, it’s not easy.”
Hicks said he took the manager’s advice to heart: “It definitely made me looser.”
Although his batting average still hovers in the .130s, Hicks is getting on base more. Prior to last Sunday’s game vs. Baltimore in which he didn’t play, the 6-2 outfielder had reached base safely in 16 of his last 20 games, and five of his last eight hits at the time were for extra bases — three doubles, a triple and a home run.
“There was a lot of pressure leading off every game,” admitted Gardenhire. “He doesn’t know the pitchers in this league, and when you bat leadoff, you are seeing them for the most part for the first time.”
This “demotion” seems natural considering the fact that just a year ago the rookie was playing Double-A ball. Now batting in the bottom third of the lineup, “He gets to see how the guy is pitching to other people and gets a little better feel for what the guy has,” explained the manager. “That is going to help his first at-bat automatically.”
It also eliminated a load of unnecessary worries on the young man, things he doesn’t have to worry about unless he’s batting first in the order. No more “having him worry about all the different things as a leadoff batter, ‘Do I take pitches or do I do this?’” noted Gardenhire. For Hicks, “I’m back to my normal spot” in the batting order.
“Leadoff was a big spot,” admitted Hicks. “I was just anxious and swinging at pitches I don’t usually swing at, and I was getting away from my approach [at the plate].”
Nonetheless, Hicks didn’t allow his bat struggles to affect his on-field play: His six outfield assists lead the majors, becoming the first Twin since Kirby Puckett (1984) to have that many in his first major league games, and he also became the first MLB rookie to do this since 2010.
“It’s not over yet — he’s going to go through some more struggles, but the kid is doing just fine,” said Gardenhire.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.