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May 14, 2013

What You Need to Know

A Good Hick-Up

by Daniel Rathman

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The Monday Takeaway
When the Twins decided to break camp with Aaron Hicks as their everyday center fielder, prospect fiends, including Jason Parks, cautioned that the 23-year-old might not yet be ready for the challenges he would soon face. Parks, who ranked Hicks as the organization’s third-best prospect, praised his tools and on-base skills, but wrote, “a stop in Triple-A would be beneficial.”

Hicks earned the Opening Day gig by going 27-for-73 (.370/.407/.644) in Grapefruit League play, where he showed off both his power (11 extra-base hits, four home runs) and speed (3-for-3 on stolen-base tries). Both tools earned a 6 grade from Parks, to go with Hicks’ excellent arm, but big-league pitchers immediately exposed his unpolished approach, leaving the 2008 first-rounder with scant opportunities to display them.

As hot as Hicks was in sunny Fort Myers, his bat promptly went ice cold with the move to frosty Minnesota, and he began his major-league career in a 2-for-43 slump. That ugly line, compiled over 10 games, was augmented by 20 strikeouts and a failed steal attempt, and some writers speculated that Hicks was staving off a demotion only because of the dearth of passable internal replacements.

Things didn’t get much better over the next month, and Hicks entered Monday’s series opener against the White Sox with a .137/.239/.216 triple-slash line. His 455 OPS was the second-worst among all regulars, with only Chicago’s Jeff Keppinger coming in lower on the scale of offensive futility, and after beginning the season atop manager Ron Gardenhire’s batting order, Hicks was mired in the eight-hole, from which he had gone only 10-for-52 in 17 contests.

But, at least for one night at Target Field, all of that changed.

Hicks flied out in the second inning but could do no wrong the rest of the evening. He led off the home half of the fourth by clobbering a 424-foot shot to dead-center field, and, two innings later, he added another solo homer, this time to left-center. The long balls marked Hicks’ first career two-homer game and tripled his home-run tally for the season. And, in case that’s not impressive enough, try this on for size: Monday’s 2-for-3 effort wasn’t merely Hicks’ first two-homer contest; it was also the first multi-hit game of his young career.

Hicks, who closed the book on his evening with an eighth-inning walk, raised his OPS by 87 points to a more-respectable 542. And his most important contribution to the Twins’ eventual 10-3 victory may actually have come in the field. With Minnesota up, 5-3, and the tying run at the plate, Adam Dunn sent a towering shot to center field, near the spot to which Hicks had homered earlier in the game. But while Hicks’ big fly was well beyond the reach of White Sox center fielder Alejandro De Aza, Dunn’s bid could not survive Hicks’ range, athleticism, and leaping ability. His catch, a strong candidate for the end-of-season highlight reel, preserved the lead and the victory for Pedro Hernandez, the former White Sox prospect who came to the Twins in the Francisco Liriano deal and was facing his previous employer for the first time.

Justin Morneau, who contributed a three-hit night in support of Hernandez, told reporters after the game, “We don’t need [Aaron Hicks] to be Superman. We just need him to be Aaron Hicks, and that’s good enough for us.” And, while Hicks slumped badly in his first 30 major-league games, he sprinkled in signs of the talent that led to his aggressive promotion.

Eleven days before what broadcaster Dick Bremer termed his “coming out party,” Hicks proved his ability to handle premium velocity by turning around a 101 mph offering from Tigers flamethrower Bruce Rondon. Meanwhile, even with the strikeouts mounting and his job in peril, Hicks’ plate discipline—a double-edged sword in Parks’ opinion—never wavered. His 15 walks are the third-highest total on the team, behind only Josh Willingham and Joe Mauer, and will boost his case for a return to the top of the order if he can build off of Monday’s bonanza.

Gardenhire, who was miffed by Hicks’ nonchalant play in the outfield earlier this month, called the rookie’s showing “a special night.” For now, the two-hit effort is just a glaring outlier on a log full of clunkers. However, the speedy switch-hitter left little doubt that, with experience and refinement, he has the talent to make it the norm.

Matchup of the Day
There aren’t many secrets when Bartolo Colon is on the mound: The portly right-hander is going to throw sinkers and fastballs, and he’s going to throw them over the plate. That strategy has yielded a 27-to-1 K:BB for Colon, who turns 40 later this month, and it has also served him well against Rangers leadoff man Ian Kinsler, who is off to a robust .320/.378/.533 start this year, but is still trying to crack Colon’s deceptively simple code.

Kinsler is just 2-for-14 lifetime versus Colon, with no extra-base hits, one walk, and two strikeouts. The American League West counterparts matched wits on two occasions last year, before Colon’s 50-game suspension, and Kinsler went 1-for-7 with a walk. Five of the six balls that Kinsler put into play stayed on the ground—with his line-drive single on June 6 representing the lone exception—a stark contrast to the second baseman’s overall profile, which shows a 35.2 percent career ground-ball rate that would rank in the bottom 10 of the league over the past three years.

The explanation for the discrepancy might be as deceptively simple as Colon’s pitching style. Kinsler’s single last year came on a pitch that stayed over the middle of the plate, well inside of the outside-corner target for which Colon typically aims. The righty’s ability to hit that target plays a critical role in his success, and his focus on pounding the outer edge to like-handed hitters has endured since 2007, the earliest PITCHf/x data available in his Brooks Baseball profile. That’s bad news for Kinsler, because he thrives on pitches up in the zone and struggles to drive hard stuff down and away.

The weakness on pitches in the low-and-away corner has persisted even amid Kinsler’s hot start. The 2013 sample contains only five plate appearances, but it’s five tacked on to an existing 109. If Kinsler is to reverse his fortunes against Colon, he’ll need to either capitalize on a mistake or alter his approach. Once a dead-pull hitter, the 31-year-old Kinsler spent time this past offseason working with hitting coach Dave Magadan on his opposite-field swing. Assuming that Colon sticks to his established down-and-away plan, tonight’s showdown could provide a useful barometer of the progress Kinsler made this spring (10:05 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for on Tuesday

  • After sitting in the mid-90s with his fastball and blowing away the Athletics in his most recent outing, Scott Kazmir will try to deliver a worthy encore in this evening’s date with the Phillies. The 29-year-old lefty struck out 10 A’s batters without issuing a walk last Wednesday, which marked the first time since May 26, 2008, that he had accomplished the feat. Kazmir is set to lock horns with Jonathan Pettibone, a third-round pick in 2008, who remains unbeaten through four major-league starts. Pettibone issued four walks and notched only one punchout in his May 8 assignment against the Giants, but he escaped with a no-decision (7:05 p.m. ET).
     
  • The last time Felix Hernandez pitched at Yankee Stadium, he delivered a two-hit shutout to outduel Hiroki Kuroda, 1-0. That showdown took place on August 4 of last year, and tonight, King Felix returns to the Bronx to do battle with CC Sabathia. Rain cut short Sabathia’s start versus the Rockies at Coors Field last week, forcing the southpaw to settle for four innings of one-hit ball. Hernandez, meanwhile, had no such weather-related issues at PNC Park, and he has recorded exactly 24 outs in each of his past three trips to the mound. The 27-year-old right-hander has issued no more that one walk in five consecutive starts, equaling the longest such streak of his career, and bringing his K:BB for the season to 56-to-8 (7:05 p.m. ET).  
  • Jason Parks wrote in his pre-season review of the Cardinals’ farm system that John Gast, a Factor on the Farm, “has a chance to find a home at the back of a major-league rotation, and should get his first taste of major-league action at some point in 2013.” Well, with Jake Westbrook on the disabled list with an elbow injury, that point is tonight. The Cardinals opted to reward Gast, a sixth-round selection out of Florida State University in 2010, for his excellent first month-plus at Triple-A Memphis, where he compiled a 1.16 ERA over 38 2/3 innings. The 24-year-old left-hander will now try to do the same at Busch Stadium, where the Mets will provide his first big-league test. Visiting skipper Terry Collins is set to counter with Dillon Gee, who has struggled to find any semblance of consistency in his first seven starts, and sports a 5.55 ERA (8:15 p.m ET).

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

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