Despite veteran starting outfield, Hicks in line for a lot of playing time in 2016

(Duane Burleson/Getty)
(Duane Burleson/Getty)

The very first move the Yankees made last offseason was re-signing Chris Young to be their fourth outfielder. They did that days after the end of the World Series. This offseason their first move was acquiring Aaron Hicks to replace Young. Probably a coincidence, or maybe the Yankees just really value quality fourth outfielders.

Brett Gardner trade rumors were flying at the time of the Hicks trade, so for a while it seemed he could end up in a starting role. Gardner is still with the Yankees, so Hicks remains the fourth outfielder for now, though it’s starting to become clear the team intends to play him a fair amount. After all, Young appeared in 140 games and batted 356 times last season.

“I think (Hicks is) going to play a lot,” said Joe Girardi during a recent YES Network interview (video links). “Being a switch-hitter, you don’t worry about (matchups) as much. If they bring in a lefty, okay. If they bring in a righty, we don’t care. And I think he’s going to get a lot of playing time because of that.”

Brian Cashman called Hicks an everyday player soon after the trade — he also called John Ryan Murphy an everyday player — which sounded like one of those things every GM says after a trade. He was pumping up his new acquisition. It seems there’s some teeth to the idea though. The plan apparently calls for Hicks to play an awful lot going forward.

“For (Hicks) to have a strong year is extremely important,” added Girardi. “Cause if you can start playing Aaron Hicks four or five times a week, and give these guys a day off a week — or maybe even two days if they need a couple days — it would really help them down the stretch.”

Both Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury faded big time in the second half last season, and the Yankees have indicated resting the two and keeping them healthy is a priority next season. Add in soon-to-be 39-year-old Carlos Beltran in right field and the Yankees have three outfield starters who maybe aren’t 150+ games a year players anymore.

The math is pretty simple. To get Hicks those four or five games a week, the Yankees could rest Gardner once, Ellsbury once, and Beltran twice — one day on the bench and one day as the DH. (That would also give Alex Rodriguez some more rest.) I’m sure Hicks will come off the bench as a defensive replacement a bunch of times too. Hot and cold streaks and injuries will inevitably complicate things, but that seems like a viable plan.

“You don’t necessarily need to move Gardner to center if you’re giving Jacoby a day off. You can leave people just where they are,” said Girardi of Hicks’ versatility. “And this guy’s very athletic. He’s a very good right-handed hitter and I saw improvements in his left-handed swing and I watched him and watched his approach at the plate. That really excites me because I think this kid can be a complete player.”

Hicks turned 26 in October and there is some evidence he is on the verge of breaking out, mostly in his more aggressive approach and new leg kick. Surely that’s part of the reason the Yankees acquired him. The raw ability is obvious and they see the signs of improvement, and hope he develops into a true everyday player down the road. They’re going to try to get him as much playing as possible next year to make it happen.

The Yankees are in the middle of this on-the-fly rebuild and have been buying low on young players since last winter. In some cases, plugging them into the lineup was rather easy, like it was with Didi Gregorius and Nathan Eovaldi. In other cases, like Hicks and Dustin Ackley, the Yankees will have to get a little creative. Acquiring the talent is the easy part. Getting players like Hicks to reach their potential is where it really gets challenging.

Hicks, Ackley, and Sanchez poised to give the Yankees a strong bench in 2016

(Hannah Foslien/Getty)
(Hannah Foslien/Getty)

Over the last few seasons benches have become a critical piece of a baseball team. Platoons are widespread, and with amphetamines (“greenies”) now on the banned substances list, players need a little more rest throughout the season. The bench used to be full of guys who only played when the starters got hurt. Now they’re full of players with strategic roles.

Quality benches can be hard to build, especially for a big market team like the Yankees, who have a roster loaded with big name (and big contract) players. No free agent bench player wants to sign with New York because they’re worried they won’t get much playing time. I don’t blame them. Look at Garrett Jones last season. He never played because Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira were healthy and productive.

The Yankees have had to grow their own reserve players or acquire them in trades over the last two decades or so. Either that or pick up reclamation project veterans and hope for the best. Think Darryl Strawberry and Eric Chavez. Same idea, just 16 years apart. Bench players are like relievers though. They do their work in inherently small samples, and their performance is very volatile from one year to the next.

Next season, the Yankees figure to carry three players capable of providing some thump off the bench in Gary Sanchez, Dustin Ackley, and Aaron Hicks. Sanchez is homegrown and the other two guys came over in the trades. The Yankees still have an open bench spot too, and depending how they feel about Starlin Castro‘s ability to play third, they could go in one of several different directions with that spot.

All three players will serve specific roles next season. Sanchez, who I must point out is not a lock for the backup catcher’s job, will likely give Brian McCann a rest against tough lefties thanks to his right-handed power. John Ryan Murphy was really awesome last season, but he doesn’t have Sanchez’s power. Sanchez is a threat to hit the ball out of the park every time he steps to the plate against a southpaw.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Ackley showed the kind of left-handed pull power that plays well in Yankee Stadium following the trade last year — he pulled six of his ten homers last summer, including all four with the Yankees (three at Yankee Stadium) — and his versatility means he’s an option in the outfield as well as at first and second bases. As we saw with Jones though, Ackley could wind up getting less playing time than expected if the veteran starters produce.

Hicks is the new addition to the bench after coming over from the Twins in the Murphy trade. He’s a switch-hitter and a high-end athlete with excellent defensive chops. Chris Young was an awesome fourth outfielder last season, though I’m not sure how realistic it is to expect him to repeat that performance. Hicks is a better defender and he hit southpaws hard himself last year (139 wRC+), and there are signs he may be on the verge of a breakout.

“I think Hicks has a chance to help (the veterans) in spelling them and keeping them healthy and strong,” said Joe Girardi in the Winter Meetings last month. Girardi and Brian Cashman have both indicated they see Hicks as an everyday type player who will play a lot going forward. (Young batted 356 times last year, remember. The fourth outfielder gets a lot of work.) He’s going to start against lefties and play defense in the late innings at a minimum.

Last year the Yankees appeared to have a very strong and powerful bench thanks to Young and Jones, two veterans with pop. Young worked out, Jones didn’t. So it goes. Hicks and Ackley add much more athleticism to the roster and more versatility as well, without sacrificing much offensive production, if any. I think there’s a chance going from Murphy to Sanchez will be a step down next year, but Sanchez at least offers big upside. Growing pains are part of development.

The trio of Sanchez, Ackley, and Hicks are poised the give the Yankees a very strong bench with power, speed, athleticism, and defense. (For what it’s worth, ZiPS projects them for 4.4 WAR combined.) There’s some real upside with this group, which is usually not the case with bench guys. That doesn’t mean they’ll all work out, benches are weird like that, but the Yankees are in the middle of this quasi-rebuild, and part of it is upgrading the reserves. It’s not often the Bombers have carried bench players with this sort of potential.

Offseason moves will help the Yankees use the entire field going forward

(Andy Lyons/Getty)
(Andy Lyons/Getty)

By now it’s no secret the Yankees are one of the most pull happy teams in baseball, which is why they see so many infield shifts. Their 44.4% pull rate this past season was the highest in baseball by more than a full percentage point (Blue Jays were second at 43.3%). Over the last three years the Yankees have a 41.6% pull rate, fifth highest in baseball. (Interestingly, three of the four teams ahead of them are AL East clubs. The Red Sox are the AL East club not in the top five.)

Part of this is absolutely by design. The short right field porch at Yankee Stadium rewards left-handed batters who pull the ball, so the Yankees have targeted those kinds of hitters in both big (Brian McCann) and small (Kelly Johnson, etc.) moves. There’s now a stigma associated with pulling the ball due to the increased use of shifts, which is unfair. Pulling the ball is the best way to hit for power — the MLB average was a .267 ISO when pulling the ball in 2015. It was .142 when going the other way.

That said, there’s an obvious benefit to having a diverse offense. It can be pretty easy to defend a team of pull hitters, especially when the few hitters capable of spraying the ball all around aren’t at their best. We saw this in the second half this summer. Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury are the team’s two best all-fields hitters and when they stopped hitting, the offense was one batted ball to the right side of the field after another. That’s a problem.

“I love home runs as much as the next guy – and, in fact, probably more – but there needs to be a little added dimension to us offensively, and we have those guys in place to do that,” said hitting coach Alan Cockrell to Chad Jennings earlier this offseason. “I’m not going to say playing the game like the Kansas City Royals did, but the little things that add a dimension to a club that pitchers just don’t want to face you.”

There is still half an offseason to go, but right now it appears the Yankees will bring back largely the same offense next year. Teaching guys like McCann and Mark Teixeira to not pull the ball just isn’t going to happen at this point of their careers. Both tried to go the other way more often in recent years — McCann in 2014, Teixeira in 2012 — and it had a negative impact on their production. They are who they are. Let them be.

The Yankees did, however, add two new offensive pieces this offseason, and both stand to help the Yankees diversify their offense. Starlin Castro is the most notable offensive pickup and he’s historically used all fields in his career. In fact, a week ago we looked at an adjustment he made to his stance that better allowed him to use the entire field after he fell into a rut trying to pull everything. Castro’s right-handedness and ability to go the other way are welcome additions to the lineup.

The Yankees also added Aaron Hicks earlier this winter. Hicks only projects to be platoon player at this point, but the guy he replaced, Chris Young, is one of the most extreme pull hitters on record. (Batted ball data goes back to 2002.) Hicks is a switch-hitter and his batted ball profile is pretty interesting. It matches up well with what the Yankees would like to see from their hitters.

Aaron Hicks batted ball

As a left-handed batter (vs. R), Hicks pulls the ball a little more often, so he is in position to take advantage of the short porch. But, as a right-handed batter (vs. L), Hicks is an all-fields guy who actually goes the other way more than he pulls the ball. Hicks figures to platoon in the lefty heavy outfield and will see most of his action against southpaws, so his all-fields approach as a right-handed batter will give the offense a much different look than it had with Young.

Brian Cashman said the Yankees will look to diversify their offense following the season — “The method to signing Jake and Gardy were to be table-setters, to be those guys who can get on base and wreak havoc … It was supposed to start changing the evolution of the picture of this team being only home run oriented,” he said to Jennings — and the additions of Castro and Hicks are a step in that direction. Their batted ball profiles aren’t a coincidence. They were targeted for a reason. (Many reasons, really.)

The Yankees are always going to be a home run hitting team. That’s their identity. They’re the Bronx Bombers because their ballparks have always been conducive to dingers, particularly to right field. The current incarnation of Yankee Stadium is the most extreme example. It would be foolish to shy away from that homer hitting identity given their ballpark. Homers are very good. The Yankees should continue hitting lots of them. Hitting the ball out of the park is what the Yankees do.

At the same time, the Yankees have run the risk of being too one-dimensional in recent years. There’s always been a kernel of truth behind the #toomanyhomers movement that never did get expressed properly. There is no such thing as hitting too many homers, but there is such a thing as not scoring enough runs in other ways. With simple base hits becoming harder to come by these days thanks to the shift, the need to diversify the offense and add players who can hit to all fields became too great for the Yankees to ignore.

“We need to talk about the culture of what we are offensively and how we have players in place to have an even better offense,” added Cockrell. “Those types of things will be things we’ll talk about this winter and things we’ll address in Spring Training.”

Fun with Statcast: Where does each Yankee hit the ball the hardest?

Carlos Beltran
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

This past season, MLB and MLBAM made Statcast data available to the public for the first time. Things like spin rate and batted ball velocity were suddenly right at our fingertips. The info as presented still lacks context — I have no idea if a 96.8% route efficiency is good or bad or average — but it’s a start. More information is a good thing.

Batted ball velocity is an interesting one because intuitively, the harder you hit the ball, the better. There’s something to be said to having the ability to place the ball in a good location, but hitting the ball hard is a positive. There’s a pretty strong correlation between exit velocity and BABIP. From Rob Arthur:

Exit Velocity BABIP crop

The averaged batted ball velocity in the AL this season was approximately 88.7 mph. The Yankees as a team had an 88.6 mph average exit velocity, but that doesn’t help us much. The individual players are most important, so we’re going to look at them. Specifically, we’re going to look at where each Yankee hit the ball the hardest, which for our purposes means 100+ mph. That sound good?

Before we start, it’s important to note exit velocity by itself is only so useful. Things like launch angle are important — it’s possible to hit a 100+ mph infield pop-up, for example — but there still hasn’t been a ton of research in that department. We’re going to keep it simple and just look at the pitch locations of the 100+ mph batted balls by each Yankee this past season. Got it? Good. So with a big assist from Baseball Savant, let’s dive in. (Click any image in this post for a larger view.)

Carlos Beltran

Carlos Beltran 100mph

Beltran led the Yankees with exactly 100 batted balls with a 100+ mph exit velocity in 2015. Seventy-eight of them came against right-handed pitchers, which makes sense since 71% of his plate appearances came as a left-handed batter. Those numbers are in line with each other.

There isn’t much data against southpaws, so that doesn’t tell us a whole lot, other than Beltran liking the ball over the plate. The pitch locations against right-handed pitchers is far more interesting. Beltran hit away pitches the hardest this past season. Almost all of his 100+ mph batted balls as a lefty batter came on pitches in the middle of the zone or away. There’s very few on the inner half.

Beltran is not an extreme pull hitter from the left side but he definitely doesn’t use the field a whole lot — only 20.3% of his batted balls as a lefty were to the opposite field in 2015. He pulled 45.2% and the other 34.5% went back up the middle. He’s able to do that despite hitting away pitches harder than inside pitches. Interesting! Being able to hammer outside pitches is cool, but would taking slight step back away from the plate better allow him to cover the inner half?

Alex Rodriguez

Alex Rodriguez 100 mph

A-Rod was second on the team in 100+ mph batted balls with 92. It appears he hits the ball the hardest in the lower half of the strike zone, and he also does a better job driving balls on the outer half of the plate, which is also interesting. Pulling inside pitches is anecdotally a good way to create exit velocity.

Chase Headley

Chase Headley 100 mph

Headley was third on the team with 69 batted balls of 100+ mph, so yeah, the gap between Beltran and A-Rod and everyone else was massive. Twenty-five of Headley’s 69 100+ mph batted balls, or 36.2%, came as a right-handed batter, which matches up with his plate appearance split (31% as a righty).

Again, the “vs. LHP” plot doesn’t tell us much because there’s not a ton of data, but wow, look at the “vs. RHP” plot. Headley loves down and away pitches, huh? Or at least that’s where he hit the ball the hardest in 2015. He didn’t drive anything — and by drive I mean hit a ball 100+ mph — up in the zone or in the inner half. So far the data has been the exact opposite of what I expected. I figured we’d see most 100+ mph batted balls on pitches up and/or in.

Mark Teixeira

Mark Teixeira 100 mph

If not for the shin injury, Teixeira would have been among the team leaders in 100+ mph batted balls, if not the leader outright. He had 66 of ’em. Teixeira has that big long swing from both sides of the plate so he loves outside pitches. The vast majority of his 100+ mph batted balls came on pitches on the outer half if not off the plate entirely. Let Teixeira extend his arms and he can do major damage.

Brian McCann

Brian McCann 100 mph

Another outer half guy. The Yankees have all these pull hitters and yet most of them seem to hit outside pitches the hardest, and McCann is no exception. He tied Teixeira with 66 balls in play at 100+ mph. It’s amazing to me McCann and the other guys can reach out and pull a pitch that far away from them with such authority. So if you want to limit hard contact, I guess the best way to pitch these guys is inside? That sounds a little weird given their pull tendencies, but the pitch location plots don’t lie.

Brett Gardner

Brett Gardner 100 mph

Okay, this is more like what I expected. Gardner is an all-fields hitter and the majority of his 53 100+ mph batted balls came on middle-middle pitches. There are a few on the inner half and a few on the outer half, but in general, Gardner hit the ball the hardest when it was right down the middle. That makes perfect sense. Brett’s not a brute masher like most of the other guys ahead of him in this post. He makes the hardest contact on mistake pitches over the plate.

Jacoby Ellsbury

Jacoby Ellsbury 100 mph

Ellsbury had 46 batted balls register 100 mph or better and, like Gardner, most of them came on middle-middle pitches. He did some more damage on down and away pitches and less on inside pitches than Brett, but generally the pitch locations are similar. These two aren’t power hitters. The pitcher has to give them something in the heart of the plate for them to really drive it.

Didi Gregorius

Didi Gregorius 100 mph

Ellsbury had one more 100+ mph batted ball than Gregorius in 77 fewer plate appearances. Didi is another guy who does most of his damage on pitches out over the plate, but he also showed the ability to reach out and drive pitches on the outer half this past season. Well beyond the outer half too. Gregorius had a handful of 100+ mph batted balls on pitches off the plate. Pretty crazy.

The Yankees worked with Didi this summer and in June or so he seemed to make a concerted effort to use the opposite field more often. His plot of 100+ mph batted balls ostensibly reflects that approach.

Dustin Ackley

Dustin Ackley 100 mph

This plot covers Ackley’s entire season, not just his time with the Yankees. He had 47 total 100+ mph batted balls in 2015, including nine with the Yankees. Ackley has tremendous natural hitting ability, and although it hasn’t shown up in the stats yet, he does a good job of covering the entire plate based on the plot. He hit balls 100+ mph that were in, out, down, middle-middle … basically everywhere but up, which doesn’t appear to be uncommon.

I am really curious to see a full season of Ackley next year, and not just because of this plot. Getting away from the Mariners and into hitter friendly Yankee Stadium is one hell of a change of scenery for a talented left-handed hitter.

Greg Bird

Greg Bird 100 mph

Bird wasn’t around very long this past season but his 35 batted balls with a three-figure exit velocity were ninth most on the team, ahead of guys with (many) more plate appearances like Chris Young (30) and Stephen Drew (24).

Based on the pitch location plot, Bird does his most damage on pitches down in the zone, which sorta jibes with opponents trying to beat him upstairs with fastballs all the time. I don’t think Bird has an uppercut swing, or at least not an extreme one like McCann or Teixeira, but the lower half of the strike zone is his wheelhouse. He can go down and golf pitches.

Aaron Hicks

Aaron Hicks 100 mph

Hicks, who so far is the Yankees’ only notable pickup of the offseason, had 35 batted balls of 100+ mph last season. As a right-handed batter, he was all about the low pitch. He could really go down and drive low pitches with authority from the right side of the plate.

As a left-handed batter, Hicks had the hardest contact on pitches middle and away. Not so much inside. That is his weaker side of the plate, historically, but being a left-handed hitter in Yankee Stadium comes with some perks. I’m looking forward to seeing what the Yankees and the hitting coaches do with him next season. There are reasons to believe Hicks is on the verge of really breaking out.

* * *

The Yankees had a bunch of other guys on the roster this past season who are still with the team, but they didn’t hit many 100+ mph batted balls at all. That group includes Rob Refsnyder (seven 100+ batted balls), Slade Heathcott (seven), Brendan Ryan (four), and Mason Williams (three). Click the links in parentheses for each player’s pitch location plot, if you’re interested.

Platoon

I’m hardly one who obsesses over dreams and they’re meanings, but for years now, I’ve had some recurring, sports-related themes in my dreams. Often, in some random context, I’m playing baseball or basketball, things I’ve done for most of my life. As a kid, I was decidedly mediocre at both of these, though getting contact lenses in the eleventh grade certainly helped. Nevertheless, when I have dreams featuring these two very familiar sports, I often find myself playing horrendously: I miss layups and jumpers at a Chucker Costanza like rate in basketball dreams and frequently in my baseball-inclusive dreams, I physically cannot throw the ball. Last night, I had a dream in which my wife and I were coaching a youth team, then I took some cuts against one of the pitchers and whiffed a lot–which I chalked up to playing slow pitch softball and not being used to hitting actual pitching–until finally smacking one over the shortstop’s head, just before the dream’s context and setting changed in a heartbeat, as they tend to do. I suppose the takeaway from this all, sparing you the Freudian dream analysis, is the simplest of all: even in our dreams, it’s damn hard to play sports, especially baseball. Players, managers, and teams have to constantly search for any advantage they can find and exploit in. For managers, one of the simplest and oldest advantages in the game is the platoon advantage. As Mike noted in late October, the Yankees led the league in gaining the platoon advantage over their opponents’ pitchers in 2015. 2016 has the potential to be no different, with at least three platoon situations presenting themselves early in the offseason.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Catcher: When the Yankees traded away John Ryan Murphy to the Twins in exchange for switch-hitting outfielder Aaron Hicks, it seemed to open the door for Gary Sanchez to (finally?) fully break through to the Major Leagues and get some consistent playing time. With Brian McCann entrenched behind the plate, Sanchez won’t be the full-time starter unless McCann gets injured. A platoon, however, could develop and give the Yankees value. As a young hitter with little experience to Major League pitching, Sanchez could benefit from a platoon that sets him up for success by limiting his exposure and letting him work against the types of pitchers–lefties–that he’s done well against. Like with any Minor League numbers, take these with a grain of salt, but Sanchez has put up an .863 OPS against southpaws throughout his career with a .241 ISO. His raw OPS against right-handed pitchers isn’t bad–.737–but it’s significantly lower and he’s flashed less power, a .147 ISO, against same-handed pitchers. Additionally, a straight platoon could give Sanchez more predictable playing time and give McCann more regular and consistent rest, something all catchers need, especially ones in their 30’s. On the other side of the ball, Sanchez’s defense, though improved, likely will never be a shining part of his game. Playing him against lefties and limiting him against righties will allow his potential shortcomings to be minimized.

So far, this seems like a decent plan. That doesn’t mean, though, that there aren’t things that would need to be considered. For one, Brian McCann actually has a reverse platoon split in his time with the Yankees, something I didn’t expect at all. The Yankees may also want Sanchez to get every day playing time in the minors until they feel he’s ready, rather than let him sit on the bench. While Murphy flourished with inconsistent playing time last year, the Yankees may not want to do that with Sanchez and opt to put him–along with Greg Bird, probably–in Scranton to see the field every day.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Second Base: Catcher is not the only spot on the field where the Yankees have a young player who may be ready to break out. Fans clamored for Rob Refsnyder through much of last season, and in 2016, they’re likely to get him–along with trade-deadline acquisition Dustin Ackley. This situation is likely more amenable to a straight platoon since the difference between Ackley and Refsnyder–while large, as one is an established-if-not-great Major Leaguer and the other is still unproven–is not as large as the difference between McCann and Sanchez. Neither one of these guys is making mega-bucks, so there’s no financial incentive to play one over the other more consistently.

A platoon at second base between these two would be best for them and the team as it would let their strengths play up, as platoons tend to do. In his career, Ackley has put up a replacement-level wRC+ of 80 against lefties. His mark against righties–97–isn’t great, but it’s much more palatable than the one against lefties. He’s also got a respectable .140 ISO against right-handed pitching and a solid 8.4% walk rate against them. Meanwhile, Refsnyder’s hit both types of pitchers will in the minors, but has outperformed against lefties: an .863 OPS against lefties compared to an .800 mark against righties. And with these two, you’ll let one of them shine. As soon as one starts to perform and the other starts to lag, you can ride that wave without too much consequence. If Refsnyder prevails, Ackley becomes the backup. If Ackley reclaims some of that prospect shine, Refsnyder can go back to AAA for some more seasoning and more reps.

The only real downside to this platoon is that neither of these players is strong on the defensive side of things. There’s also that chance that Ackley continues to be aggressively “meh” at playing Major League Baseball and that Refsnyder never blossoms into the player we all want him to be. The alternative in that nightmare scenario, then, is Brendan Ryan? Yuck.

Aaron Hicks
(Getty)

Outfield: Last week, I touched on the newest Yankee, Aaron Hicks, and his potential to get a lot of playing time even if he isn’t necessarily a starting outfielder, so I’ll be brief here as not to be repetitive. With Hicks in the fold, the Yankees can add a bit more balance to their outfield, balance that’s missing when two of the three outfielders are lefty hitters and one of them–Jacoby Ellsbury–has struggled against lefties recently. Manager Joe Girardi has also shown a propensity to platoon for Brett Gardner in the past and doing so with Hicks would be a fairly seamless transition. Carlos Beltran‘s concerns are from the defensive side, and it’s easy to see how much and how often he’ll be replaced on defense in the late innings. In that vein, a platoon involving Ellsbury, Gardner, and Hicks will always leave the Yankees with at least two–three when Beltran sits–outfielders capable of playing center field and playing it well, bolstering their outfield defense.

Hicks does struggle against righties, which limits his usefulness in resting Ellsbury and Gardner if the Yankees hit a long stretch of right-handed pitchers, but there is hope that some new adjustments can help overcome those (hopefully former) struggles. Regardless, Hicks’ defense and the injury concerns that all three starting outfielders have should give Hicks plenty of burn in the field and in the lineup, making a de-facto, if not de-jure, platoon situation.

Seeking the platoon advantage is something the Yankees have clearly prioritized of late and they’re set up to do so again in 2016. The ways hinted at here are not necessarily what will happen–it’s only November, after all–but it’s easy to see the Yankees tinkering with their lineup day in and day out to get the biggest advantage possible. They’d be foolish not to.

New approach and leg kick are reasons to believe Aaron Hicks is on the verge of a breakout

(Ed Zurga/Getty)
(Ed Zurga/Getty)

Late last week the Yankees made their first significant move of the offseason, trading backup catcher John Ryan Murphy to the Twins for outfielder Aaron Hicks. The team has some depth at catcher — Gary Sanchez‘s breakout summer sure helped matters — and needed an outfielder, particularly someone who can hit lefties and play strong defense.

Hick does both of those things. He has long been considered a standout gloveman in center field — Hicks is the best outfield defender in the organization right now — and this past season he hit .307/.375/.495 (139 wRC+) against southpaws. That’s pretty great. At the very least, Hicks is a fine replacement for Chris Young, who is reportedly seeking a starting job this offseason.

The Yankees don’t view Hicks merely as Young’s replacement, however. They believe he has the potential to be more than that in the future. Brian Cashman called him an “everyday player” at the GM Meetings last week, and while there is no obvious starting spot for Hicks on next year’s team at the moment, there figures to be a way to get him 350+ at-bats. After all, Young batted 356 times in 2015.

The Twins jerked Hicks around the last few years, calling him up and sending him down multiple times. He started this past season in Triple-A, came up for four weeks in May and June, went back to Triple-A for three weeks, then came back up for good in early-July. Part of that was Hicks’ fault — he would have stuck around longer had he performed better — but Minnesota didn’t show much patience.

Hicks hit .259/.333/.432 (109 wRC+) with ten homers and a 16.8% strikeout rate in 291 plate appearances after that final call-up this summer. He was a career .209/.293/.311 (70 wRC+) hitter with a 24.6% strikeout rate in 637 big league plate appearances prior to that. The Yankees are hoping the strong finish is a sign of real improvement and not just a three-month hot streak.

There are reasons to believe Hicks is on the verge of a breakout, if he didn’t already break out with the Twins last year. First and foremost, he became more aggressive at the plate. Usually that’s a bad thing, but Hicks was passive earlier in his career, and that’s bad. Here are his plate discipline stats:

Aaron Hicks plate discpline

(Hicks had over 200 plate appearances each year from 2013-15 and swing rates tend to stabilize very quickly, so while it isn’t a huge sample, the data works.)

Hicks started swinging at more pitches in the strike zone last year (Z-Swing%) without swinging at substantially more pitches out of the zone (O-Swing%). His contact rates have held relatively steady too, which is good. He’s being more selective in the sense that he’s swinging at more strikes without swinging at more balls.

All throughout the minors Hicks drew a ton of walks (career 14.4 BB%) but he was letting too many hittable pitches go by at the MLB level. The MLB average Swing% and Z-Swing% are 46.9% and 64.4%, respectively. Hicks was well below that from 2013-14 and is now closer to average. Working the count and drawing walks is good! But the goal first and foremost is to get a hit, and taking so many pitches in the zone is no way to hit.

“Preparation is key to be successful to the big leagues. If you don’t know who the starting pitcher is, it’s tough to prepare for that. I think that made me a stronger player, a better player,” said Hicks to Ken Davidoff when asked about his strong second half. “I feel confident that I’m hitting big league pitching and I’m developing into a good Major League hitter.”

Hicks is a switch-hitter who stopped hitting left-handed for a while in 2014 because of a lack of success. He made the decision himself before being talked back into it — “Rod Carew called me and told me what the heck am I doing, giving up switch hitting? It’s a blessing and I should go back to work harder at it and be able to learn from my mistakes,” said Hicks to Ronald Blum — though maintaining two swings can be tough. Maintaining one swing is tough.

Last year Hicks made some mechanical changes at the plate, specifically adding a leg kick. This was him at the plate in 2014. He had the same slight step while batting right-handed as well:

Aaron Hicks 2014 swing

The center field camera in Target Field is just the best.

Anyway, Hicks has almost no leg kick there. It was a little step forward and nothing more. Again, he did the same from the right side of the plate. Here’s video if you don’t believe me. I’m not making another GIF.

Now look at Hicks in 2015. He has a much more exaggerated leg kick:

Aaron Hicks 2015 swing

Hicks had the same leg kick while hitting from the right side too. Here’s video. He told friend of RAB Brandon Warne the leg kick came about when he and some teammates were messing around during batting practice, mimicking the swings and leg kicks of other players around the league.

“I started to like it,” he said to Warne. “From then on it was kind of a point where I was just like, you know what, I’m going to try this. We were just having fun in offseason hitting, and it just kind of led to me being comfortable with it and taking solid swings.”

Hicks told Warne he came to Spring Training this past season with the leg kick and kept “tinkering all through the spring” until he got it just right. “Torii (Hunter) helped tinker it for me as far as what I needed to do to be able to get my foot down in time,” he added.

Leg kicks do different things for different hitters, but for the most part it is a timing and/or weight transfer thing. There aren’t a whole lot of hitters these days who hit with a tiny step forward like the one Hicks was using prior to this season. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done, just that it’s not for everyone. Hicks found something more comfortable.

“I feel like with the leg kick I’ve been more aggressive. Swinging early in counts and being able to make contact early, and not missing pitches,” said Hicks to Warne. “I think for me it’s more important to have my hands ready all the time to be able to fire them whenever I need to. A leg kick is going to generate my timing mechanism so I need to have my hands ready.”

So hey, how about that, the leg kick and the increased Z-Swing% might be related. At least Hicks believes they are, and that’s all that matters. Neat. It’s also worth noting that even though Hicks was swinging at more strikes this year, he still maintained a healthy 8.7% walk rate. It was 9.6% after being called up the final time.

Once upon a time Hicks was a first round pick (14th overall in 2008) and one of the top prospects in baseball (No. 19 in 2010), so this isn’t some middling talent the Yankees are trying to refine. Hicks has tremendous natural ability. Baseball America (subs. req’d) once said he has the potential to “become a five-tool center fielder with 20-25 home run power who bats in the middle of a lineup.”

It has taken Hicks some time to find his way at the MLB level and that’s not terribly uncommon. He’s still trying to figure out what works best for him, which led to the leg kick and a more aggressive approach — let’s call it “controlled aggression” since he’s not hacking at pitches off the plate — this year. Sometimes it takes time. Baseball is hard.

The Yankees are betting on Hicks — who turned only 26 last month, by the way — and his talent, hoping the improvement he made this summer is real. The change in approach and leg kick give us some tangible reasons to believe Hicks is on the verge of breaking out, at least as a legitimate everyday player, if not more.

“It feels good that the team that just traded for me has confidence in me,” said Hicks to reporters on a conference call after the trade last week. “Whatever they want me to do, just do it, and to know my role and help this team win.”

The Swiss Army Outfielder

This ball was caught. (Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankee outfield was given more shape on Wednesday when the team acquired Aaron Hicks from the Twins for John Ryan Murphy. Ironically enough, that shape is a little more amorphous now than it was before the trade. The term “amorphous” generally carries a negative connotation, the implication for the Yankees going forward is one of flexibility, not shapelessness.

It’s most likely that Hicks will slot in as the team’s fourth outfielder to start the year, but that alone could carry a great deal of playing time, as Chris Young appeared in 140 games for the Yankees last season. That much playing time is easy to envision for Hicks. Given his defensive reputation, he’ll likely be replacing Carlos Beltran on a daily/nightly basis, which will give the Yankees a strong defensive outfield in the late innings, something any team would gladly sign up for.

Nominally, Hicks will be the fourth outfielder, but there’s potential for him to play an even bigger role. He’ll definitely swap out for Beltran in the late innings, but given Joe Giradi’s tendency to platoon and his desire to rest players, Hicks will get plenty of burn in the starting lineup. Brett Gardner (fairly or unfairly) already gets his fair share of platooning as he sits semi-frequently against lefties. That’s a trend that’ll probably continue, given that Hicks hit lefties very well last year–.375 wOBA; 139 wRC+; .188 ISO–and has done similarly over the course of his (short) career–.354; 125; .175. Gardner was also, apparently, playing through injury in the second half and it’s a certainty we’ll see Hicks start in place of Gardner when Brett starts to slow down a bit after playing for long stretches. The same could be said for Jacoby Ellsbury, who probably wasn’t healthy for more than a month and a half of last season; he also had his fair share of struggles against left-handed pitchers and the fact that Hicks can play center–88 games there last year–means the Yankees will still be able to run out a mostly strong defensive outfield, even if one of Gardner or Ellsbury is sitting.

One knock on Hicks, a switch hitter, is that he doesn’t hit right handed pitching well. That rang true in 2015 as he racked up just a .292 wOBA/82 wRC+ against them. His career numbers against non-southpaws are just as ugly: .269/66. In this way, he’s definitely similar to Chris Young, who also couldn’t hit right handed pitching. However, for his career, Hicks does have a 9.2% walk rate against right handed pitchers, something slightly encouraging that the team could build on. And, taking it with a shaker of salt, Hicks did hit right handed pitchers fairly well in the minor leagues, posting a .371 OBP against them. It’s not the most reliable data, but it shows that, at some point, Hicks did something well against righties.

Despite those struggles, though, it’s easy to see why Hicks could be an upgrade over Young. His ability to play center field–and play it well–means that the Yankees can feel fully confident when they match up for platoons or have to rest someone. Hicks will also play the entire 2016 as a 26 year old, which in and of itself means there’s potential for more growth and development. Trading for Hicks was certainly a surprise, but it’s something that gives the Yankees a lot of flexibility in one spot on the field. Given the way the team looks, that’s a welcome sign.