According to Brendan Kuty of NJ.com, new assistant hitting coach Marcus Thames has been working with OF Aaron Hicks on “correcting his bat path.” Hicks has been in the minor league complex for around a month, lifting and working on hitting with Thames.
Hicks, whom the Yankees acquired in the offseason for John Ryan Murphy, was touted as one of the top ML prospects (topping at #19 in 2010 BA list) before being called up to the Minnesota Twins in 2013. Since then, he’s shown flashes of athletic brilliance but has not hit to his potential. The good news is he’s steadily improved hitting in ML: his 97 wRC+ in 390 PA in 2015 is career high (62, 83 wRC+ in previous two seasons) and many believe his tools will take him even further (for instance, check out this Carlos Gomez comparison from FanGraphs). I wouldn’t count on Hicks actually becoming as good as Gomez, but hitting improvements will do wonders for him as a player.
Kuty’s article mentioned that most of the work focused on Hicks’ left-side swing. That’s a plausible idea. His career LHP/RHP splits are quite stark in difference. He’s hit to a nice .808 OPS versus lefties with his righty swing, but only .596 OPS versus righties. Switch hitting is not easy – you have to work on two different swings at once. It is hard to maintain consistency and polish on one swing alone. There have been guys like Shane Victorino, a former switch-hitter who ditched one side and focused on another, but there are undeniable benefits if you can succeed with two swings.
What are they focusing on? Consistent bat path.”Being able to stay long through the zone and line drives, hitting line drives all over the place and constant hand positioning, being able to constantly get that slot long and through the zone,” Hicks said. Those are some phrasings that one may hear at local batting cage but they still ring true in the bigs.
Let’s also talk about Marcus Thames. There’s not a lot of history with his work as a hitting coach but from what I can tell, he seems to be very well-respected and liked. To have a rapid climb from being a High-A hitting coach (2013) to ML assistant coach means that he’s doing something right. In terms of hitting philosophy, it sounds like he’s far from being a cookie-cutter:
“I don’t have one philosophy,” he said. “I don’t want to sit here and make up something because it depends on the hitter. And it depends on the guy on the mound. I really don’t have one and it just depends on the guys. One major thing that I do, I want my guys to be aggressive in the strike zone. Other than that, philosophy-wise, it just depends on the hitter.
There’s definitely not one foolproof way to make every hitters succeed. If there were, imagine the terror pitchers would endure on plate appearance-basis. There were guys like Walt Hriniak, who was a hitting coach for Red Sox and White Sox in the 80’s and 90’s, who saw success (HOF’er Frank Thomas being the main disciple) teaching hitters pretty much the one way, but I personally think every hitter is different. I assume we will hear more about Thames’ reign as a ML assistant hitting coach throughout the season.
Back to Aaron Hicks – he certainly has some pop in his bat. In 2015, Hicks hit for a .142 ISO, which is right around league average. You can expect that figure to go up slightly in the Yankee Stadium. A more exciting number would be 20 HR’s and 20 steals. He hit 11 home runs in 390 PA’s. If he were to get full season’s worth of plate appearances, hypothetically he could get it near 20. I’m not necessarily calling it but it’s plausible and fun to think about. If what he works on with Thames pays off on the field, I think Yankees may have themselves a player that the Twins envisioned years ago. Don’t get too excited yet – if it happens, it’ll be a process.