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April 10, 2013

Painting the Black

What's the Matter with Hicks and Machado?

by R.J. Anderson

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Last weekend the Twins and Orioles met in Baltimore for a three-game set. Of the various subplots to come from the series—including the O's losing two more one-run games—the one with the most long-term impact could be the continued struggles of Manny Machado and Aaron Hicks, two young, gifted players with the potential to have long, glamorous careers but who are currently playing below their expectations.

Although technically no longer a rookie, Machado remains the youngest everyday player in the American League. His play last season—as a 20-year-old inserted into a postseason race—obscured this fact, save for a rough postseason. However, Machado's 6-for-30 start to the new year is bringing it back into focus. He's almost unfathomably young and that makes him a difficult player to evaluate during times of extreme play. Think of it as the Mike Trout corollary: highly skilled youth are capable of what their numbers say they are until they aren't. 

In Machado's case his struggles are exposing him as an inexperienced hitter. Through Monday's game the young third baseman had made 12 outs on fastballs, with 11 of those coming via batted balls. Those 11 outs share something else in common: location. Each of those pitches were located either over the middle or on the inside corner. Were Machado 34 or 35 instead of 20 years old this would be where bat speed concerns were voiced. 

But Machado is not an older player and he has plenty of bat speed thanks to his fantastic hands. Instead the cause for the struggles on inside pitches seem twofold. One, Machado boasts long arms. This makes it difficult for him to stay inside of the ball. Two, the quality of big-league stuff is such that many young players struggle with hard stuff in and soft stuff away upon reaching the majors. Machado had similar issues last season but nobody noticed because of his overall production. 

Despite the rough start there's reason to be optimistic about Machado this season. His maturity at the plate shines through in how he continues to put together professional at-bats without expanding his strike zone needlessly. He has an apparent aptitude for hitting that, when combined with his great physical tools, should allow him to make the necessary adjustments and learn how to drive those inside fastballs in due time. It may not click immediately, but don't be surprised if Machado finishes the first half right on schedule. 

Whereas Machado entered the season with previous big-league experience, Hicks is attempting to make the jump from Double-A. Right now he looks to be falling in the gap with a 2-for-30 start, including 13 strikeouts. A three-strikeout performance against Justin Verlander on opening day served as an ominous beginning to Hicks' career and an alarming trend of poor contact. Between late hacks at fastballs and empty swings on secondary stuff, Hicks has looked overwhelmed and bumfuzzled. PITCHf/x data backs up these assertions: of the pitches he's swung at, Hicks has fouled off more than 60 percent of fastballs and whiffed at more than 60 percent of secondary offerings.

Taken with other criticisms of Hicks' game over the years—an eagerness to become a spectator, a fringey hit tool, and so on—and it's a concerning sign that his game will not play in the majors as is. Given that Hicks is not known as a quick adjuster it's possible he may need to head to Triple-A before contributing at the big-league level. At the very least Hicks may need Ron Gardenhire to remove him from the leadoff spot in order to take some pressure off his bat.

Crushing a 23-year-old over a rough week in the majors is pointless and unfair—it's not like Hicks decided he should be in the majors. One has to wonder if the Twins will stick with Hicks for the long haul and what the plan was to begin with. If you  assume the Twins are rational then you'd think they knew Hicks could struggle; perhaps they felt exposing his feet to the flames would mold him into a better player. If you want to assume the Twins are less rational then maybe they considered Hicks their best option—the next-best in-house alternative was Darin Mastroianni. Of course the question then would be why the Twins felt they needed their best option right away. Forget the service time ramifications, feigning competitiveness for a few weeks isn't worth disrupting the developmental process of a top prospect.  

The situations appear similar on the surface but splash around in the pool and two different images appear. Machado is going through a normal age-related issue and still shows signs of being more advanced than his age indicates. Hicks, on the other hand, seems unfit for the majors. Both teams have invested first-round picks and money into these players, so expect them to do what's best for their futures. In Machado's case that could mean leaving him alone. Hicks, though, may require a midsummer stint in Rochester. 

Glove tap to reader "warpigs," who suggested a look at the early-season struggles of Manny Machado and Aaron Hicks.

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

Related Content:  Aaron Hicks,  Manny Machado

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