Is the Aaron Hicks Experiment Over?

After the Twins traded incumbent center fielder Denard Span to the Nationals in the offseason, it was assumed before spring training began that Darin Mastroianni would take over the job. Instead, the team couldn’t ignore the spring training performance of Aaron Hicks, as the 23-year-old hit .370/.407/.644 with three steals. Haven’t we established that spring training stats are 99% noise? How come teams still make decisions based on them? That was enough to push Hicks ahead of Mastroianni on the depth chart and open the season as the starting center fielder.

Now 46 plate appearances in, Hicks has the dishonor of easily having been the least valuable regular in baseball with -0.8 WAR. Aside from owning a league worst K%, he has played terrible defense according to UZR/150, sporting a weak -15.3 mark. It would be easy to point to an impossibly poor .087 BABIP and think that at least some bad luck is involved. But when you look at his batted ball distribution, it actually doesn’t seem so outrageous.

We all know that line drives fall for hits most frequently, followed by ground balls and then fly balls. Well, Hicks’ 8.7% line drive rate ranks as ninth worst among all hitters, while his 56.5% fly ball rate ranks fifth highest. You know who else has hit fly balls at a rate that high? Power hitters. Guys named Arencibia, Reynolds, Cespedes and Stanton. Hicks’ ISO last season at Double-A was .173, which is respectable, but hardly the level required to be worth hitting fly balls at such a high rate. So, he’s simply hitting weak fly balls right at defenders over and over again. No wonder he’s hitting just .047.

Looking at his plate discipline metrics, we note that his Swing% is below the league average, while his SwStk% is not surprisingly well above the league average. Once again, this approach is best used by patient power hitters. In fact, this is exactly how Adam Dunn profiles. Last season, his Swing% and SwStk% were almost identical to what Hicks is posting. The difference of course is that Dunn paired that with a .263 ISO. ZiPS projects just a .118 mark from Hicks for RoS.

Of course, this should surprise no one, except perhaps the Twins organization who put faith in Hicks’ spring performance. The reality is, Hicks has never even seen a pitch at the Triple-A level! It is much more difficult for a hitter to skip Triple-A and then succeed at the Major League level than it is for a pitcher. And although he did flash a solid skill profile with excellent plate patience, some power and good speed, his wOBA was merely good, albeit unspectacular at .377. That’s not strong enough to rocket through the system and start for a Major League team getting nary a plate appearance at Triple-A.

So it is clear that the Hicks experiment has failed and he may be looking at a demotion in the near future. If that does indeed happen, then the door reopens for Darin Mastroianni, a man I drafted in February in the LABR mixed league when it was still assumed he was the front-runner for the job. It’s true that he is not the long-term answer at center field for the Twins. But unless you’re in a keeper league, that hardly matters.

What does matter is what Mastroianni could do for your fantasy team. That’s simple — run, run like the wind. He stole 21 bases — getting caught just 3 times — last year in 186 plate appearances and stole a whopping 70 bases back in 2009 with a Blue Jays farm affiliate. Aside from the speed, he has some hidden batting average upside. First off, he made much better contact in the minors than he did with the Twins last season. So, there’s that. Second, he sported a fantastic line drive rate paired with a low IFFB%, suggesting that .328 BABIP was no fluke. Yet, ZiPS project his BABIP to fall to just .298 RoS. He has also generally posted well above average BABIP marks in the minors. While he may not actually be a positive in batting average, I would bet the over on the ZiPS .237 projection and think he has a chance to be neutral in the category.

He has also always displayed good plate patience, taking walks at an above average rate. That means he is a decent option to replace Hicks atop the Twins order and remain there. A full season from Mastroianni could actually look somewhat similar to what Ben Revere did in the leadoff slot for the team last year, but with a lower batting average offset by a bit more power. In deep mixed leagues, especially for those teams in need of speed, he’s definitely worth a look. In shallower formats, he’d be borderline, but might be worth keeping around on H2H teams if you need some steals to win the category for the week.

Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

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9 years ago


9 years ago
Reply to  Ross

cant play CF? Somehow i dont see Willingham or Parmalee or Doumit out there either.

Brandon Warne
9 years ago
Reply to  Ross

Arcia was sent back to Rochester.