Tigers’ John Hicks expands horizons, wants to stick

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Detroit — He sat in front of a locker cubicle late Saturday afternoon, flicking at his iPhone in the Tigers clubhouse.

A game against the Rangers at Comerica Park (7:15 p.m.) was three hours away. Hicks had time to answer an amusing question:

When will he cease batting .300 or better?

A man 27 years old, who had just arrived from Triple-A Toledo earlier in the day, broke into a grin the width of a catcher’s mask, which is what he most often wears on those rare days he makes it into a big-league lineup.

“All I can do is keep doing it,” said Hicks, who became the second man in 48 hours to replace Victor Martinez, who is in Florida and on paternity leave through this weekend.

It is comical, in a quirky way, this steadiness with the bat that doesn’t seem to get him regular work in the big leagues. Unless, of course, you’re Hicks.

The Tigers scooped him from the waiver wire 13 months ago after the Twins had no space for him. And what a steal he has been, offensively.

Hicks batted .303 (.842 OPS) in 70 games at Toledo in 2016. In 14 games at Double-A Erie, which earned a quick promotion to the Mud Hens, he batted .388 (.936 OPS). He played in one game last September for the Tigers and batted .500 (1.000).

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And then, after it became clear he would dislodge neither James McCann nor Alex Avila as the Tigers’ top two catchers, Hicks dutifully returned to Toledo where in 20 games this spring for the Mud Hens, he has batted .333 (.842).

This is a peculiar repeat tale, given the need for big-league catchers, especially if they’re not throwaways on offense.

It also explains why the Tigers have been making more and more room for him at other positions. And why this week he started a game in left field for the Mud Hens.

“He swings the bat good, he’s a strong kid, and pretty athletic — he moves well,” said Tigers manager Brad Ausmus. “His bat plays at the major-league level. We’re trying to see if we can use him at multiple spots.”

Hicks was a fourth-round draft pick by the Mariners in 2011 following his junior season at the University of Virginia. He made it to the big leagues in 2015 with the Mariners, where he played in 17 games and hit .063, which is how you find yourself on that first waiver wire.

The Twins grabbed him in December 2016 before he again found himself in come-and-get-him status in April of last year when the Tigers bit.

Swinging a .300-plus bat isn’t necessarily new, Hicks explained Saturday. He batted .309 and .312 in his first two seasons in the minors.

His approach changed, he said, during that stint with the Mariners two years ago when a talented hitter, Kyle Seager, began talking with him about hitting’s complexities.

“Best thing that could have happened to me,” Hicks said of his Seager sessions. “He looked out for me, especially when I was struggling.

“He helped me out a ton. I don’t know if he knows how much he helped me.”

He got busy that offseason adding weight and muscle. He spread out a bit more in his stance in a bid to get his lower body involved and boost his power.

And he has done nothing but hit since.

Hicks has been playing different positions along the way, including third base, as well as first base, which he played in a couple of games last month for the Tigers.

Ausmus implied Saturday there was a motive at work there. It has to do with the complexities of big-league catching.

“Usually, it’s because of defense, not the bat,” he said, explaining why Hicks perhaps hasn’t been gobbled up by another club, or yet stuck on Detroit’s 25-man roster. “That’s why I think versatility helps him — and us.”

Hicks is free with his smiles. To the extent possible, a man’s disposition has helped deal with those Toledo-Detroit shuttles, which Hicks can expect to resume once Martinez returns.

“Hopefully, I can show ’em what I can do,” said Hicks, who wasn’t in Saturday’s starting lineup on an evening when Miguel Cabrera returned to Detroit’s batting order following a brief break.

The Tigers were hoping some early-evening rain would move out and that their rematch with the Rangers would begin on time. Justin Verlander was to go against Rangers right-hander A.J. Griffin.