Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Aaron Hicks: Not a Bust (yet)

Aaron Hicks is not yet a bust. I realize that's an unpopular opinion amongst the Twins faithful, but a simple understanding of his numbers makes it a fact.

Calling Hicks a bust seems to stem from him struggling offensively over the last two seasons in the big leagues. The thought process seems to be that he got two years to show he belonged on the team, and he struggled. Of course, each season was less than half a season's worth of at bats, so Hicks first two years in the big leagues are really the equivalent of most rookies first seasons.

To be fair, Hicks hasn't just struggled with the bat, he's been horrible. Hicks has 538 major league plate appearances over the last two seasons and he's posted a slash line of .201/.293/.313 for just a .606 OPS. Hicks' OPS+, which adjusts for the offensive environment the player played in (allowing fans to compare players across different eras), is 69. 100 is average.

The last two great center fielders the Twins had, Kirby Puckett and Torii Hunter, both struggled in their first taste of the big leagues. Hunter's first three seasons he was given 441 plate appearances, and he hit .254/.309/.377, good for an OPS of .686. While the OPS is 80 points higher, Hunter's OPS+ was just 73. Slightly better than Hicks, but basically the same. Because Hunter played during the peak of the steroid era when offense was at an all-time high, his .686 OPS is basically as close to the league average as Hicks .606 was this season. Both players were drastically below average in their first taste of the big leagues.

Puckett was more highly regarded than both players, and was given over 500 plate appearances as a rookie. In his 583 plate appearances, Puckett hit .296/.320/.336, which was good for an OPS of .655. (Both OBP and SLG were rounded up, so together they equal a point less) Puckett's OPS+ was just 79. That's considerably better than Hicks, but still well below average and hardly the kind of rookie season that speaks to a future Hall of Fame career. Both Hunter and Puckett seemed to take their offense to another level after about 1,000 plate appearances. (This happened for Hunter in his fourth season, when he posted an OPS+ of 102, 2% above average. Puckett eclipsed this mark in his third season, and posted a ridiculously good OPS+ of 142, 42% above average.)

Of course, just because Puckett and Hunter struggled and then emerged as all-stars doesn't mean Hicks is destined to follow the same path. For every Hunter and Puckett there's the entire early 1990's busts, like Rich Becker. It's important though to remember that a 500 at bat sample size is far too small to make any true judgments. Hicks minor league numbers are solid and suggest an above average player in the future. Considering he had 2,500 at bats in the minors, I feel much safer projecting his future on that large sample than a small sample size spread over two seasons.

Giving Hicks the center field job on opening day for the third year in a row is something the Twins need to do. With top prospect Byron Buxton ultimately missing a full year of development with his injury woes this past season, he's likely at least half a season (and likely more than a year) away from contributing at all in the big leagues. Hicks has struggled the past two seasons out of the gate, but with no other options the team could do a lot worse than someone with Hicks minor league track record. If he gets a full season's worth of at bats in his third season and there isn't improvement, then we can talk about him being a borderline major league backup.

But to call a player a bust after just more than 500 at bats is silly, especially when the franchise's best two center fielders also struggled in their first 500 at bats. Don't give up on Hicks yet, Twins fans. He might emerge as one of the team's best young players after this season, and while others may be surprised, now you won't be.