By Ryan Divish The News Tribune
PEORIA, Ariz. — In another organization, John Hicks would be getting a lot of attention.
A young, athletic catching prospect that is outstanding defensively and better than average offensively is something that every team covets.
And yet when the Mariners’ catching future is discussed, Hicks’ name isn’t the first to be mentioned.
Sure he’s a bit of an unknown, having played just two minor- league seasons.
But the real reason for Hicks’ status isn’t because of anything he has or hasn’t done since being drafted in the fourth round of the 2011 draft out of the University of Virginia.
No, it’s because the Mariners drafted an ultra-talented catcher with the third overall pick of the 2012 amateur draft.
In the short time since he was selected, Mike Zunino has lived up to almost all the lofty expectations that made him the Mariners’ top pick a year ago.
Well, he’s mentioned by scouts and prospect analysts, but it’s always after Zunino, who is considered the top position player prospect in the organization.
Does it matter to Hicks?
“No,” he said with a chuckle. “I don’t worry about that stuff.”
There is a no nonsense attitude to Hicks. He works. He plays. He leads. Then he repeats it all again the next day.
It’s made him successful in his first two years in the Mariners organization. Last year in his first full season, Hicks played 121 games for Class A High Desert — catching 98. He hit .312 with 32 doubles, 15 homers and 79 RBI with a .351 on-base-percentage and a .472 slugging percentage.
“I thought I had a decent year offensively,” he said. “I don’t strike out often. I just try and put the ball in play.”
While the offensive numbers were good, Hicks’ defense behind the plate was outstanding. Of 106 base runners attempting to steal, Hicks threw out 57. The 53.8 caught stealing percentage was the highest amongst all full-season minor league catchers last season and the highest since 2010.
“The numbers are incredible,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said.
How does he do it?
Well, arm strength helps.
“He’s got a cannon for an arm,” said Mariners top pitching prospect Danny Hultzen, who had Hicks as a catcher at Virginia.
But plenty of catchers have strong arms and don’t throw out runners the way Hicks does. It’s the accuracy that’s impressive.
“They all seem like they are right at the knee of the shortstop and all he has to do is tag the guy,” Hultzen said.
Brad Miller, who was High Desert’s shortstop, didn’t disagree with that assessment.
“He’s awesome,” Miller said. “It seemed like he threw out pretty much everybody. He has a way of getting it down there regardless of what the pitcher is doing. He was always on the money.”
But it isn’t just throwing that defines him as a catcher. Hicks is outstanding at blocking pitches, calling a game and embracing the details of the position that can’t be measured statistically.
“I do throw the ball well,” he said. “But I just try to do anything I can to help the pitchers out. I usually have a great relationship with my pitchers. I try to get to know those guys, what they throw best, what they like to do in tough situations. Everything.”
A catcher must be a leader on the field and Hicks has assumed that role at every level he’s played at.
“Yeah, he is an awesome defensive catcher,” Hultzen said. “But what sticks out to me — he’s really a leader. He takes charge of the entire field, and especially that relationship between the pitcher and the catcher. There were dozens of times where he would come out and kind of slap me in the face and tell me, ‘Get your head in the game.’ He was really good at that.”
Coming into spring training, Wedge mentioned how interested he was in seeing Hicks play. He hasn’t been disappointed.
“John Hicks is an athlete,” Wedge said with a grin.
Hicks looks like an athlete, not a catcher. It’s the first thing you notice about Hicks when he stands with the other catchers in camp. He’s got a leaner, muscular physique. At 6-2, 210 pounds, he looks more like an outfielder. And he can run like an outfielder too.
“He’s fast,” Hultzen said. “And I don’t mean fast for a catcher, I mean fast for a baseball player.”
Think about Jesus Montero’s speed, Hicks is the complete opposite of that. He stole 22 bases last season.
This spring he’s hitting .571 (4-for-7). On Saturday against the Dodgers, he laced a two-run double to right-center off former Mariners closer Brandon League.
“You have to love the way he plays, whether it’s at home plate, catching, or at the plate hitting, and particularly on the base paths,” Wedge said. “He’s a heads-up player. He’s a smart young man. He’s been very impressive in this camp so far.”
No matter how impressive, he still sits behind Zunino on the depth chart. Hicks will likely begin the season at Class AA Jackson and Zunino in Class AAA Tacoma.
“He’s such a good athlete,” Mariners director of minor league operations Chris Gwynn said of Hicks. “He’s further along at this point than people thought he would be, so that’s very positive.”
So while Zunino gets the much deserved hype, Hicks will still be there waiting for a chance.
“I just have to keep working every day,” he said. “That’s what you have to do. If you do that, you’ll get your chance.”