Toronto — When the interstate highway system was engineered in the 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower envisioned a means by which Americans and commerce could move across state lines efficiently and breezily.
John Hicks can testify that it works. He has spent much of 2017 on I-75. He has become an expert on Michigan-Ohio traffic fluidity.
This is not, however, a convenience Hicks has particularly come to love. Rather, it simply has made his ongoing trips from Triple-A Toledo to Comerica Park, and back again, and back some more, a commute he can handle, normally within an hour.
Hicks, who is the Tigers’ backup catcher as well as an option at first base, could laugh at his interstate exit-ramp tours during a conversation Saturday, a few hours before the Tigers and Blue Jays were to meet in the second game of the series at Rogers Centre.
“Yeah, definitely going back and forth, coming up five times, was not necessarily what I wanted to do,” said Hicks, who was manager Brad Ausmus’ choice as designated hitter Saturday against Blue Jays left-hander Brett Anderson.
Hicks, though, appears to have signed a long-term lease on the Tigers’ active roster. He’s batting .312 in 48 games, with an .897 OPS. And while Miguel Cabrera was back at first base Saturday after his six-game suspension ended, Hicks’ flexibility has made him an option there, as well.
Not a bad surprise, it seems, for a player the Tigers grabbed 17 months ago from the waiver wire.
“No, he’s been a pleasant surprise,” Ausmus said as the Tigers savored Friday night’s 5-4 victory over the Jays, which featured a triple play, as well as Nick Castellanos’ grand slam. “I knew he had power, but he’s hitting better than expected. He’s been good. He’s filled in nicely.”
Hicks turned 28 on Aug. 31 and figures to be James McCann’s backup in 2018. In most respects, his rise to a near-lock to make next year’s 25-man Tigers roster shouldn’t surprise. He was a fourth-round pick in 2011, by the Mariners, as he was wrapping up studies and a baseball career at the University of Virginia.
But he never quite hit as the Mariners had hoped and was lost to the Twins, who in turn stuck him on waivers in April of 2016 — even after Hicks had a big spring camp with Minnesota. The Tigers had taken note. They jumped when he landed on waivers. And then they watched as he continued to hit, at Double-A Erie, then at Toledo, and during his cameos with the Tigers.
It was not an accident, in Hicks’ mind anyway. He had changed his swing just before joining the Twins. It was a product of long conversations with Mariners star Kyle Seager. Hicks settled on a different swing, a modified leg-kick, which enabled him to feel comfortable and loaded — “like a rubber band,” he said, speaking of the tension and quick release he soon was experiencing.
Hicks has six home runs in only 138 at-bats. He isn’t yet regarded as an expert on defense, or in the quiver full of responsibilities a starting catcher requires. But there’s no rule against advancing. He has shown as much in the year and-a-half since he joined the Tigers.
“He certainly can catch — to what extent?” Ausmus asked himself. “He’s definitely a No. 2 guy at the baseball minimum. And he has some versatility.”
Hicks played a fair amount of first base at Virginia and was even allowed a couple of cracks in the outfield this season at Toledo.
“One experiment at a time,” said Ausmus, who won’t find Hicks arguing.
No, Hicks said Saturday, he wasn’t expecting to duplicate Castellanos, who Friday started in right field and who had an overall smooth segue to what could be his permanent position in Detroit.
“My first fly ball in Toledo didn’t go as well as Nick’s did,” Hicks said, with a pained grin.
Ah, but give him time.
Hicks has done nothing but show the Tigers dimension since they raided the waiver wire. His baseball timeline is, most likely, far from complete.
Tigers at Blue Jays
First pitch: 1:07, Rogers Centre, Toronto
* RHP Anibal Sanchez (3-3, 7.07), Tigers: Took a liner off his leg five pitches into his last start. Now, ready to go in what has been something of a bizarre baseball season for Sanchez. Lots of extremes.
* LHP J.A. Happ (7-10, 3.85), Blue Jays: Happ’s often very good, and with the way he’s been throwing for much of the past month, the Tigers could be in peril today. Happ’s got quality pitches.