The past few weeks, Brewer Hicklen has become a rarity on the Wilmington Blue Rocks.
Playing in a pitcher-friendly ballpark, the Royals’ outfield prospect has gone from hitting below the Mendoza line — like most of his teammates — to one of its best options at the plate.
After playing a brief stint for Wilmington, the Royals’ High-A affiliate, during the 2018 season, Hicklen knew he was heading to a ballpark known for its thick grass and high outfield fence. It’s a stadium where players hardly ever hit more than 15 home runs in a season. He hit .204 in the first month of the year and became frustrated with his inability to hit for power in the park.
A Huntsville, Alabama native, Hicklen signed with Alabama-Birmingham out of high school expecting to play wide receiver for the Blazers football team while doubling up in baseball. But the brief cancellation of UAB’s football program caused him to focus solely on baseball, which led the Royals to draft him in the seventh round in 2017, partially for the speed and power that came with his 6-foot-2 frame.
In 2018, Hicklen hit 17 home runs in Class A Lexington to go along with a .307 batting average and .552 slugging percentage before being promoted.
Looking for change earlier this season, Hicklen sought advice from Blue Rocks hitting coach Larry Sutton. Sutton had a quiet professional career despite eight seasons in the majors, but has one claim to fame: his 26 home runs in 1994 for Wilmington is a club record.
Sutton didn’t give Hicklen tips to put a ball over the stadium’s left-center field wall. He filled Hicklen with confidence and told him to stop caring about his statistics.
“Let’s focus on hard hits,” said JJ Picollo, Royals assistant general manager of the organization’s philosophy. “Our analytic guys’ evaluations hold a lot of value in timing or hardness. Swing and miss rates are very important as are chase rates. We’ve tried to put a lid on it as best we can on ‘Let’s not try and hit home runs.’”
Over time, Hicklen started to worry less about the result of an at-bat and more about how he handled it. He started to see success at the start of May. If he made an out, was the ball made on hard contact or did he get under the ball? Was the pitch in the strike zone or did he chase?
He made peace with the idea that his power numbers were going to disappear. Hicklen said he preferred to make outs on hard contact over hits on pitches he had no business swinging at.
“All you can control is what you swing at and what kind of swing you put on it,” Hicklen said.
Most important to Picollo, when Hicklen didn’t see immediate results, he didn’t change his swing, which the Royals like for its speed and ability to stay in the zone for a long time. Hicklen saw marginal improvement in the month of May, hitting .279 in 27 games.
The past few weeks have been a breakthrough for Hicklen. For the month of June, he’s hitting .344 with an OPS of .976. With his newfound plate discipline, Hicklen has 17 walks and 13 stolen bases while driving in nine runs. Heading into Tuesday night’s game at Potomac, his .282 batting average led the team along with his 35 runs and 26 stolen bases.
“I went up there with a new mindset,” Hicklen said. “Just flush away what happened with the previous at-bat. If I had a good take; automatic victory in my head. If I swung at a ball I wasn’t supposed to, I just flush that, reset for the next pitch.”
Growing up in a football state has allowed Hicklen to become close with the few MLB standouts from the area, including Red Sox first baseman Mitch Moreland. The two have worked together the past two offseasons, with Moreland telling Hicklen to become accustomed to failure and appreciate the little things in his career, such as their hitting sessions.
During a season in which most of the Royals top prospects have struggled to adjust to Wilmington’s tough conditions, Hicklen has become a role model for the rest of his team. First baseman Nick Pratto said Hicklen is a great example of a player who stuck to his fundamentals rather than sell out to improve his numbers.
Pratto said earlier in the season that he can only recall a handful of games where Hicklen was on base multiple times. Now it’s becoming a regularity.
“It’s almost like he’s impossible to get out right now,” Pratto said. “The last couple series it’s like he’s been on base two, three, four times a game. I don’t know if we’re going to see him for too long.”