After hitting his second career walk-off home run in the Giants’ 4-1 win over the Indians last Sunday, second baseman Brandon Hicks said he had about 50 congratulatory texts on his phone – including one from Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman.
Hicks was drafted by the Braves out of Texas A&M in the third round in 2007, one round after Atlanta selected Freeman. Sunday, Freeman preceded Hicks with a walk-off hit of his own, a 10th-inning single that gave the Braves a 1-0 win over the Reds.
“He just said, ‘Nice job,’ ” Hicks said. “ ‘Yours was way better than mine.’ ”
Freeman, an All-Star last season at 23, signed an eight-year contract extension with the Braves in February. Hicks never gained that kind of footing in Atlanta, spending his first five professional seasons in the organization but recording just 26 major-league at-bats. He returns Friday, though, having seized the Giants’ opening at second base created by Marco Scutaro’s balky back.
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When the Giants broke camp without Scutaro, who remains in Arizona doing rehab, veteran utilityman Joaquin Arias appeared likely to replace him, with Ehire Adrianza and Hicks there for backup. But through the first month, Hicks has started 18 of the Giants’ 28 games at second base – a trend likely to continue with the Giants facing two left-handed starters in this weekend’s three-game series against the Braves.
In many ways, Hicks could not be more different than the player he’s replacing. Scutaro rarely swings and misses, making him an ideal No. 2 hitter in the Giants’ lineup but providing little power. Hicks, a 28-year-old Texan, has struggled with strikeouts throughout his career but has displayed power and a more patient eye this year along with being a rangier defender.
In 21 games, Hicks is batting .213 with five homers and nine RBIs. He has struck out 24 times, including three Wednesday night against the Padres. But he has walked 11 times, and his .851 OPS is second-highest among Giants regulars. Much of that production has come from the eighth spot in the lineup, where the Giants had a .685 OPS in 2013.
Shortstop Brandon Crawford, who often has batted eighth in his Giants career, said Hicks has done a good job of being selective in a spot that pitchers often nibble around with the pitcher on deck.
“He has (five) home runs,” Crawford said. “That shows you he’s looking for his pitch instead of chasing the pitcher’s pitch.”
Chasing the pitcher’s pitch, Hicks said, has been at the root of his high strikeout totals in past seasons. He had 42 in his first 90 big-league at-bats and has struck out at least 113 times in every full minor-league season he’s played. He said he’s now trying to be more patient, looking for hittable pitches and making a conscious effort to keep his head still.
“The ball’s coming at 95,” Hicks said, “so you don’t want to move your head and make it seem like 100 or even more than that.”
Hitting eighth, he said, also has forced him to “think a lot more” at the plate, since it isn’t guaranteed he’ll see strikes. According to the website FanGraphs, Hicks has swung at 24.7 percent of the pitches he’s seen outside the zone – below his major-league average of 28.9 percent and well below the 34.2 percent mark he had in his previous longest big-league stint with the A’s in 2012.
“He’s always been selective, but he’s always swung and missed a lot,” Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens said. “He’s still swinging and missing now, but he’s not missing the hanger; he’s not missing the fastball strike.
“When they throw him big breaking balls, he’s still swinging and missing. That’s been his weakness, and it’s hard to correct your weakness 100 percent. But what he has done well this year is lay off the pitches going out of the zone and connect with the ones hanging in the zone.”
Hicks’ game-winning homer last Sunday came on a 96-mph fastball from Indians right-hander Cody Allen, which Hicks drove into the left-field seats. Hicks homered again the next night on an 86-mph slider from Padres right-hander Tyson Ross and led off the second inning Wednesday by driving a pitch from left-hander Robbie Erlin just over the brick wall in right field.
It was the fourth time the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Hicks has homered this season as a second baseman (the fifth was as a pinch hitter), equaling the four homers Giants second basemen produced in all of 2013 in 656 at-bats.
“He’s a big guy with strength and bat speed,” Meulens said. “When he connects with the ball, it’s going to go.”