He wore a lime-green “Big Al Hits Dingers” T-shirt as the Yankees took batting practice Wednesday afternoon, and then Aaron Hicks met the inspiration himself. Forget about the usual pregame routine of signing autographs for youngsters. The Yankees’ center fielder instead procured the John Hancock of Little League World Series celebrity Alfred “Big Al” Delia, who sure seemed to enjoy his Yankee Stadium field access.
The fun and bright colors aside, Big Al and his teammates should look to Hicks as a role model. Because not long ago, Hicks wore a Yankees uniform primarily as an intriguing athlete. Now he does so as an excellent baseball player — and, therefore, as the poster boy for the success of this Yankees front office.
“He’s just a good-looking player,” said White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper, who used to see Hicks regularly in a Twins uniform. “They can pencil him in for a while.”
Actually, Hicks can be a free agent after next season. If he keeps trending northward, though, the 28-year-old would give the Yankees reason to extend him beyond that point. And this winter, he represents a reason to stay away from free agent Bryce Harper.
Acquired from the Twins for catcher John Ryan Murphy in November 2015 — “It certainly looks like a steal for the Yankees,” Cooper said — Hicks entered Wednesday’s series finale against the White Sox with a .251/.368/.472 slash line, strong production from an up-the-middle player that he supplements with adequate defense. He slammed a huge, game-tying, two-run homer, his 22nd, in the eighth inning of the Yankees’ come-from-behind, 5-4 victory over the White Sox on Tuesday night.
While he produced at a similar level last year, injuries limited Hicks to 88 games. His 112th game Wednesday night put him among the club’s leaders.
“I think I’ve been able to evolve,” Hicks said Wednesday. “I had a lot of help from Torii Hunter, who kind of guided me on a path that has [better] allowed me to try to use my athleticism and my abilities.”
That best exemplifies itself in Hicks’ maturation as a hitter. Through Tuesday’s action, Hicks has been the game’s most efficient hitter as per one respected set of metrics. His chase rate, swinging at pitches outside the strike zone, stood at 19.3 percent, fourth-best among qualified hitters, while his “O-swing” percentage — swinging at pitches inside his strike zone — was 63.6 percent. As YES Network researcher James Smyth observed, no other hitter passes on so many bad pitches and swings at so many good ones.
To Hicks, the growth has resulted from his Hunter tutelage — the two men were teammates on the 2015 Twins — as well as simple time. “Really just playing a lot of games this year has taught me to know that I can do this on an everyday basis,” he said.
Hunter didn’t teach him the mechanical as much as the mental. “Ways to hit certain pitches,” Hicks explained. “How to be able to calm down in big situations and understand they’re more nervous than you are when you’re pitching. He taught me a way to kind of relax. A cheat sheet. ‘Be calm in big situations. Things always tend to turn out good.’ ”
The Yankees took a shot on the unfinished athlete, who displayed flashes of promise as a Twin yet displayed little consistency. They lived through his rough 2016 transition — remember his awful .217/.281/.336 slash line in 123 games? — and saw him benefit from the experience, and the Yankees’ emphasis on controlling the strike zone surely allowed Hicks to develop his already-present knack for that.
“It seems to take a while for some guys to get it going, whether they’re pitchers or position players,” Cooper said. “It seems like he had ups and downs. … He seems to have passed that. He’s a heck of a good player.”
Who says he can’t get better? “Torii told me if you’re not learning ways to make yourself a better player, Major League Baseball just spits you out,” Hicks said. “So you’ve always got to learn how to adjust and keep on doing it.”
Seems like the perfect pearl of wisdom to offer Big Al in return for that autograph, doesn’t it?
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