Zero for seven. Thankfully, that is not how the Minnesota Twins will open up the season thanks to a two-run walk-off double by Eduardo Escobar on Wednesday afternoon. No, 0-for-7 is what rookie center fielder Aaron Hicks is hitting two games into the 2013 season.
Nobody expects Hicks to continue this way; I mean, five strikeouts in two games is not a good thing. Two walks are really the highlight of Aaron Hicks’ big league career, but we’ll give him a pass so far since he did have to face probably the best pitcher in baseball in Justin Verlander on Monday, and Hicks had never seen a major league fastball until then.
We need to keep in mind the Hicks who was on a spring training field in Clearwater, Florida, when the 23-year-old cranked out three home runs in one ballgame against the Philadelphia Phillies. It’s not realistic to expect three home runs a day from Hicks either, but it is realistic to expect Hicks to be closer to more success.
That success has been set for years by the men patrolling center field for the Minnesota Twins—not only their successes, but their rookie-campaign successes. The Twins have had many rookies patrol center field, such as Denard Span, Jimmie Hall and Lyman Bostock, who had really good rookie years but played too much in other outfield spots to be in this exclusive club.
Aaron Hicks looks to join the club of Ted Uhlaender, Kirby Puckett and Torii Hunter of successful rookie center field campaigns. Assumedly, most are familiar with two of the three.
Ted Uhlaender first made the big leagues with the Twins in 1965, playing in 15 games, but broke through the next year in 1966 when he played 105 games, 96 in center. He hit .226 that year with 22 RBI and 10 stolen bags. That isn’t the greatest rookie season, but Uhlaender did become a steady player for the Twins for the next three years, playing in 133, 140 and 152 games before jumping ship to Cleveland.
Uhlaender had an average of .262, 186 RBI, 46 stolen bases and 23 home runs in his time as a Twin. He was a nice player, but never the team legend that the next two were or what Aaron Hicks hopes to be.
Kirby Puckett’s rookie season was 1984, in which he played 128 games, all in center. But Kirby wasn’t the Opening Day starter that year. That honor belonged to Jim Eisenreich for the third and final time; from then on, Puckett was the Opening Day starter for eight of the nine years.
The one exception was the magical 1991 season when Shane Mack was the Opening Day center fielder and Puck was in right. That didn’t last long with Kirby only starting nine games in right field all year long.
Back to Kirby Puckett’s rookie 1984 season, which was pretty darn good. Kirby hit .296 with 14 stolen bases and 31 RBI. Not quite a Mike Trout rookie year, but it did get Kirby a third-place finish in American League Rookie of the Year voting behind two Seattle Mariners: Alvin Davis and Mark Langston.
Just to throw out some other names from the 1984 rookie class: Kirby finished three spots ahead of an up-and-coming Boston Red Sox pitcher named Roger Clemens. Over in the National League, San Francisco Giants outfielder Danny Gladden finished fourth just behind Dodgers pitcher Orel Hershiser and New York Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden, who won the award in the NL.
Of course, Kirby Puckett’s 1984 season set the table for a Hall of Fame career that included 10 straight All-Star appearances, six Gold Gloves, six Silver Sluggers and precious moments that a whole website probably couldn’t contain.
There was a five-year window between Puckett and Torii Hunter, but those years are lost to the memories of the horrible mid- to late '90s Minnesota Twins that we speak none of. 1999 was Hunter’s rookie season, and he was the Twins' Opening Day starter; the difference between Aaron Hicks and Hunter is that Hunter did have seven major league games already under his belt.
Hunter played in 135 games his rookie season, 107 of which were in center. That year, Hunter only hit .255 with 35 RBI, both career lows. Hunter only hit nine home runs that season as well, the second-worst total of his career.
Of course, all of this led to Hunter building up quite a major league resume, including nine straight Gold Gloves between 2001 and 2009 and four All-Star appearances. Hunter has expanded on that success and is now in his 15th full big league season as a member of the Detroit Tigers, whom Aaron Hicks and the Twins have been facing to start the season.
But why have I told you all of this about former Twins center fielders?
So we, as Twins fans, can keep our rookie expectations of Aaron Hicks at a realistic level.
There are many, many reasons to be excited about Hicks. He has a good bat with some power, defensive instincts with a strong arm and he has speed. Hicks is a five-tool player in every sense of the term, but we have to remember he is human.
He's a human with the skill set to be on the same level as Torii Hunter, with a slightly less accurate arm at the moment and a bat yet to match that of Hunter. But, then again, he is only 23.
We need to remember that the two best center fielders to ever put on a Twins uniform both had their worst season in their rookie year. It is absolutely a building process not only for Hicks, but also for the Twins as a whole.
We need to be patient and remember it will eventually all come around. We need to remember that Hicks has never been at the major league level before and the first pitches he saw were from the rocket that is Justin Verlander’s right arm.
We’ll look back at this in a year or two and know we made the right choice not to breathe down the neck of the emerging Hicks.
Then again, come September, I’ll probably be ringing the "Aaron Hicks for Rookie of Year" bell.
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