Brandon Hicks Making His Mark With Late-Inning Homers

In the seventh inning of the Giants’ 7-4 victory over the hated Dodgers on Sunday afternoon, Brandon Hicks squared off against reigning Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw. The Giants had just coughed up a lead and were down a run, now finding themselves in the unenviable position of trying to mount a comeback against arguably the best pitcher in the National League. Sandoval had provided hope by leading off the inning with a single, bringing up Hicks. The Giants’ second baseman, who came into the game hitting .198, seemed like an unlikely candidate to change the Giants’ fortunes, given his low batting average and Kershaw’s general unhittable-ness.

However, after quickly getting behind in the count, Hicks lofted an 0-2 curveball into the left field bleachers to give the Giants a stunning 3-2 lead. Not only was it a rare mistake by Kershaw (on an 0-2 count, no less), but would you believe that with that home run, Hicks became the first and only player to ever homer off of Kershaw’s curveball in the regular season? Albert Pujols never did it. Giancarlo Stanton never did it. Name any big time National League slugger with a prolific home run tally and they’ve never hit Kershaw’s curve over the fence. The first guy to do it was Hicks, an obscure utility infielder who played a grand total of zero major league games in 2013.

Hicks seemingly has one offensive skill: the ability to hit home runs in the late innings. He entered the day with a rather freakish .200/.321/.463 line, which given his time in home run-squelching AT&T Park, is good for a 125 OPS+. Four of his seven home runs have come in the seventh inning or later, and one of those was a walk off three-run shot against Cleveland. In addition to his big home run Sunday, he tied Thursday’s game with a late-inning shot off of Josh Beckett, a game that the Giants eventually won. Three of his home runs were impressive pokes at AT&T Park, including an opposite field shot against the Padres (wrong way home runs basically never happen for righties at AT&T). It’s clear that Hicks has legitimate major league power that can play in any ball park.

The thing is, he’s no stranger to this kind of late-game heroism, as A’s fans can most likely inform you. In 2012, Hicks played in 22 games with the A’s as a mid-season call up, serving mostly as a backup shortstop. He only hit .172 in 70 plate appearances and struck out a ton, but he also provided a glimpse of that penchant for big home runs that Giants fans are currently enjoying. On July 18 of that year, Hicks came up in the ninth inning of a tie game against the Rangers and blasted a game-winning home run to give the A’s the victory against their division rival. It was his first home run in the major leagues. Just a couple of weeks later, against Tampa Bay, Hicks tied a game in the seventh inning with a home run off of eventual Cy Young winner David Price. The A’s would win that game, too.

Coming into spring this year, Hicks was basically an afterthought, a middle infielder thrown a non-roster invite on the off chance that he’d do something to impress. Well, he impressed, all right. Hicks opened the eyes of members of the Giants’ coaching staff in spring training when he smacked a long opposite field home run of off, you guessed it, Clayton Kershaw. The Giants liked Hicks’ power enough to include him on the Opening Day roster as a possible substitute for the injured Marco Scutaro, and jettisoned Tony Abreu to make room for him.

Hicks has more or less taken over the starting second base job ever since. Along with the aforementioned timely home run hitting, he’s handled second base deftly, showcasing a strong arm and an impressive ability to turn double plays, making up for so-so range. In the field, he’s proved more than capable of filling in for Scutaro, who proved to be a bit erratic with the glove at times last season.

The downside to Hick’s power display, though, is a problem that has plagued him all throughout his professional career: strikeouts. Hicks apparently has never grasped the concept of the two-strike swing and his strikeout totals border on the horrifying. In 114 plate appearances this season, he’s struck out 37 times, which is actually a marked improvement. With the A’s in 2012, he struck out 31 times in only 70 plate appearances. In 212 career plate appearances, Hicks has struck out in 37 percent of them. By contrast, noted whiffmaster extraordinaire Adam Dunn has never reached 37% in any season (his career rate is 28 percent, and his career-worst is 35 percent).

The contact problems continue a long trend that weighed on Hicks all throughout his years in the minor leagues. Hicks had strikeout problems going back to A-ball, and those problems are what have to this point made his major league stays rather brief. Obviously, man cannot live on dingers alone, but Hicks will either have to keep hitting dramatic home runs to retain his value, or at some point hit some singles once in a while and shorten his swing. It seems inevitable that major league pitchers will expose the many holes in his swing to the point where even the home runs will dry up. If, or until that happens, though, Giants fans will enjoy the ride, as a decent portion of the Giants’ 24-14 start is attributable to Hicks’s heroics.