Going into the 2018 season, the Detroit Tigers hoped that a bounce-back season from Miguel Cabrera would make what was set to be a rough season a bit more tolerable. The numbers were promising (.299 AVG, .395 OBP, 22 RBI), until a hamstring injury in May saw him miss time. After a brief return, a seemingly normal swing on a June evening would result in a biceps injury that would ultimately sideline the Tigers’ slugger for the remainder of the season.
With sizable shoes to fill, the Tigers tried a few options to plug the hole that the injury iceberg has torn into the heart of their lineup. While appearances from Niko Goodrum, Ronny Rodriguez, and, more recently, Jim Adduci have sporadically come to pass, the lion’s share of the first base reps in Cabrera’s absence have fallen to John Hicks, who, after something of a breakout during his 60 games in Detroit in 2017, has filled in adequately.
Hicks found himself a spot on the Tigers’ Opening Day roster in 2018 as a backup catcher and first baseman, giving Cabrera and James McCann days off when needed and, more importantly, finding a way to keep what was a hot bat on their 25-man roster. Though he never could have expected to find himself stepping into such big shoes for such an extended period of time, he has embraced it.
Hicks has appeared in 77 games in 2018, including 53 starts at first base over the various periods Cabrera has missed. As we enter the month of August, Hicks has carried his 2017 breakout into the current season, providing solid offensive production with a .267/.321/.418 line along nine home runs, 12 doubles, and 32 RBI in 273 at-bats. His 100 wRC+, .150 isolated power average, and .321 weighted on-base average (wOBA) also sit in the average range.
Not everything has been pretty, however.
Hicks’s 82 strikeouts (27.6% K rate) aren’t ideal, nor is his below-average 7.4% walk rate. A high swinging strike rate of of 18.1% indicates that worse may yet be in store. His 12.9% infield fly ball rate and 36.8% overall fly ball rate sit slightly above where they should fall when compared to league averages. Defensively, he is below average at the first base position. His .986 fielding percentage, -1 defensive runs saved, and -4.4 ultimate zone rating indicate defense that is subpar. But, being that Hicks is serving in an expanded role that was never intended to fall into his hands, and still handles his backup catching responsibilities too, it’s a pill that the Tigers will swallow.
He’s no Miguel Cabrera of course, but when it comes to filling the shoes of a future Hall of Famer, the Tigers could be doing much worse than John Hicks when it comes to holding his place until he is ready to play again in 2019.