At this year’s SoxFest, Chicago White Sox general manager Rick Hahn summed up the development path for catchers.
“Catchers develop weird, you know, you see that throughout baseball,” he said. “Some years [as a group] they are outstanding offensively and the defense lacks, and other years it’s the reverse of that …”
Keeping Hahn’s thought in mind, Kannapolis Intimidators catcher Michael Hickman is primed for a breakout in 2019.
Hickman was on the White Sox radar in 2015 as a high school player in Katy, Texas. His perfectgame.org player page displays a grade of 10 on their scale, which suggests “potential very high draft pick and/or elite level college prospect.” Along with other very favorable commentary attached to his profile, a blurb touts, “Huge bat-speed and power potential.”
After being selected by the White Sox in the 36th round of the 2015 draft (1,072nd overall) Hickman did not sign, opting instead for Chipola Junior College in Marianna, Fla. rather than follow-through on his verbal commitment to attend Oklahoma.
Why the JUCO route? Well, enrolling in junior college is preferable for some players, as they are draft eligible after their freshman year, rather than having to wait until finishing their junior season when attending an NCAA school. Some high-profile major league players who chose a JUCO route to the big leagues include Bryce Harper, Albert Pujols and Mike Piazza. Chipola historically has been a great school for developing major league talent, and some of their luminaries include Patrick Corbin, Jose Bautista, and Russell Martin.
Hickman’s performance at Chipola did not disappoint, as he hit .345 with 10 home runs and 55 RBIs during his one-and-done collegiate career. “Going to Chipola was a huge benefit for me,” Hickman told South Side Sox. “The program is filled with great players each year. Being around them made me a better player — as well as learning from the experienced coaching staff.”
The White Sox called Hickman’s name again in 2016, but this time they were successful in inking him to a $100,000 signing bonus as their 13th round pick (No. 386 overall).
Hickman reported to the Arizona Rookie League and hit respectably in very limited playing time (.285 average, .386 on-base in 49 at-bats). His workload increased in 2017, repeating at the level and again producing respectable but unspectacular numbers (.270 average, .362 on-base in 189 at-bats).
In 2018, Hickman took his talents to the South Atlantic League as a member of the Low-A Kannapolis Intimidators. Hickman’s playing time was sporadic, as he was sidelined for a month and was on the catching depth chart below Evan Skoug and Carlos Perez, but he acquired some much-needed experience by playing in 80 games while alternating among catcher, first base, and designated hitter.
It was in 2018 that Hickman encountered his first taste of adversity, going through a brutal two-month stretch of hitting .187 (14-for-84, with only three extra-base hits). On a more positive note, this cold-streak led to an epiphany, as Hickman explains: “I fell into a slump in the middle of the season, the first time in my career where I was in a real struggle hitting. I was pressing and trying to hit the ball 500 yards.
“Toward the end of the season, I worked in the cage, just taking smooth, easy swings, and letting the ball come to me. I brought that same approach into the game [and] started piecing up balls left and right. I was able to relax and make solid contact, not trying to go out and attack everything I saw. Going through that struggle was good for me, because now I know I just need to stay calm and let my natural swing do the work.”
The cage work and new swing approach resonated, as Hickman finished the season on an absolute tear, hitting .412 (21-for-51, with six doubles and two homers) in his last 13 games. Hickman also carries an eight-game hitting streak into 2019.
The 6´0´´, 205-pound Hickman should be the recipient of additional at-bats, given the way he closed the season and probability that Skoug receives a promotion to Winston-Salem. The fact that Hickman also plays first base should lay the foundation for ample playing time, again rotating among catcher, first base, and designated hitter.
Although Hickman has earned a reputation as an offense-minded backstop, he expresses an admiration for Cincinnati Reds catcher Tucker Barnhart. “He stands out to me because he takes major pride in his defense,” Hickman says. “I am on track to mold myself like him.”
Defensively, the standout tools for Hickman are a very strong throwing arm and the ability to consistently register pop times between 1.8 and 1.9 seconds (putting him solidly within the major league average range).
“Other than the fact that it is a draining position, the most important part of catching is defense,” Hickman says. “There is a lot that goes into it: Studying up on the opponent’s hitters, how to pitch to them, what pitchers do they hit well and who they struggle with. As a catcher, you need to know your pitching staff and all the pitches they throw, along with how to calm them down when they are in a struggle during the game. Each pitcher’s personality is different, and you find ways to amp them up to get locked in.”
Hickman also recognizes the need to continue to develop his receiving skills, working on strengthening his lower body and increasing his flexibility during the offseason, along with catching bullpens and working on throw downs and blocking drills. He’s found great value in working with roving White Sox roving instructor John Orton, specifically applauding Orton’s ability to recognize each catcher’s individual skill set. Rather than trying to develop them in the same mold, Orton tries to tune each one to maximize their potential. Hickman says the coach also encourages innovation from the players, telling them not to be afraid to try something new, because the game is always evolving.
Although Hickman’s name is currently unlikely to be seen on any White Sox top prospect lists, his amateur resume, offensive profile, age and work ethic indicate that the 2019 season could be his coming-out party.
Hickman’s manager at Kannapolis, Justin Jirschele, may well agree, telling South Side Sox, “Michael is a young man who is continuing to grow. Each year he’s been in the organization he has made strides, both offensively and defensively. He’s a great teammate as well.”
The great teammate sentiment is echoed by a teammate and friend, shortstop Luis Curbelo, who joined the organization during the same draft as Hickman. “He’s a great guy, very laid back, doesn’t let anything bother him,” Curbelo says. “He’s a hard worker, too, and when he relaxes in the box he barrels everything.”
Hickman is focused on a relatively straightforward goal for 2019: Finish the season in High-A. Based on the way he finished the 2018 season, don’t bet against him. White Sox fans will want to check the Kannapolis box scores and continue to monitor Hickman’s growth, as he works toward his major league dream.