Patience has rewarded the Yankees with one of the best center fielders in baseball: Aaron Hicks. Despite a brutal first season in pinstripes, the team stuck with the former first round pick. It would have been easy to cut ties with him, citing an extensive track record without success, but he got another opportunity in 2017 and ran with it. Since that year, the only two center fielders with more WAR than Hicks are Mike Trout and Lorenzo Cain.
2019 could have been Hicks’s final year in New York, but that was quashed once the two sides agreed to an extension on Monday. He’ll be roaming the outfield for the next seven seasons and earn $70 million while doing so. The 29 year-old probably would have been paid more than that on the open market, provided that he sustained his recent success this summer.
With the extension out of the way, Hicks can keep his focus on this season without pondering his future. At the very least, there’s no pressure to perform for a contract anymore. Maybe that wouldn’t have affected him anyway, but it’s seemingly a nice weight off his shoulders. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing left for him to prove, though.
As always, good health is key
It may not dawn on you at first glance, but Hicks is perhaps the team’s most well-rounded player. Offensively, he gets on base at a high rate and hits for power. Though he’s not a base stealer, he swipes his fair share of bags. He’s quite reliable in the outfield as well. What more could anyone ask for? If anything, the only thing preventing Hicks from being a complete player is…playing a complete season.
For whatever reason, Hicks has suffered a few muscle injuries over the past two years. He hit the disabled list twice in 2017 because of oblique strains and was shelved due to a hamstring pull early last year. 137 games played was a career high last season, but getting to 150 would be a nice step up. If there’s not much for him to improve upon in terms of ability, remaining on the field will allow him to add more production than ever before. Easier said than done, of course.
Health aside, if you squint, there’s one thing that would be nice for Hicks to improve: his batting average. BABIP appears to be the culprit. His career .270 BABIP seems low for a guy with his athleticism and hitting ability (he was in the 80th percentile for hard hit percentage last season, yet had a .264 BABIP). There’s got to be some bad luck in there, right? On the other hand, he’s nearing 2,000 career plate appearances, so maybe this is just who he is. Still, all it takes is a little good fortune one year to raise his batting average up to the .270s or .280s, instead of .248 last season. Of course, batting average is a bit archaic nowadays, but when you have someone who walked 15.5 percent of the time last year, on-base percentages north of .400 are attainable with a higher batting average. Maybe this year will be that year.
Hicks was all over the lineup card last season. First (31 games started), third (33), and sixth (28) were the most common slots for him. After hitting 27 home runs and recording a .219 isolated power last season, there’s no doubt that he’s capable of hitting in the heart of the order. But what he does best is get on base. For the Yankees, only Aaron Judge got aboard at a higher rate than Hicks did last season. It’ll be curious to see who gets the nod as the primary leadoff hitter this year, but we could see Hicks wind up in the role more than any of his teammates.
Only Andrew McCutchen had a lower chase rate than Hicks did last season, albeit in much less time. Hicks swung at only 18 percent of pitches outside of the zone, which was better than longtime table setter Brett Gardner (20.5 percent) and Judge (21 percent). Gardner essentially lost his job at the top of the order by the end of last season. Judge could be that guy this season, as Aaron Boone openly speculated, but Hicks has a very good case for himself. He’s incredibly patient and doesn’t go after bad pitches.
Hicks certainly is a capable three or six hitter, but putting him in front of Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Gary Sanchez, et. al. could become the play this year. His discipline would permit the big boppers to see a lot of pitches before stepping up to the plate, which could help them get a better look. Another benefit of Hicks at the top of the order is that he puts the ball in play quite a bit. So when he’s not walking, he’s also not striking out too often. That theoretically should result in more opportunities to get aboard, though as mentioned, his BABIP has been unimpressive. Nonetheless, I’d call Hicks’ spot in the lineup a thing to watch this year.
PECOTA: .255/.349/.434 (112 DRC+), -7.6 FRAA, and 2.4 WARP in 600 plate appearances
Steamer: .247/.348/.430 (113 wRC+), +1.4 Def, and 3.3 WAR in 586 plate appearances
ZiPS: .253/.354/.459 (116 OPS+), +3 Def, and 3.2 WAR in 507 plate appearances
All three systems have good things in store for Hicks, but I would probably bet the over on all of them. ZiPS seems the most in line with my expectations, as PECOTA and Steamer feel too low on Hicks’s power. The worrisome aspect of the ZiPS projection is the amount of plate appearances. 507 signals another season with time missed due to injury. Hicks did manage to reach 581 last season after never exceeding 390 in any year prior, so hopefully he builds on that.
Still, it’s understandable that the projections seem a tad low on Hicks. Remember, Hicks was really bad up until 2017. I think we’re all well aware that the 29 year-old has gotten past those poor early seasons, but these systems never forget (even if they weigh recent seasons more heavily). Even so, a three win season wouldn’t be a disappointment.
Doesn’t Hicks seem underappreciated? He’s one of baseball’s best center fielders, a premium position where talent isn’t easy to come by. Obviously, the Yankees value him highly even though they signed him for a bargain. Even after a bad year in 2016, the team didn’t give up on him. He’s always had loud tools, though it took a while for them to lead to results. Now that everything has clicked over the past couple of years, there’s little reason to believe that Hicks isn’t poised for another productive season.