It seems hard to believe that it has been over two months since Aaron Hicks was declared “day-to-day” with lower back discomfort early in Spring Training. Since that fateful March day, Hicks’ recovery has dragged along with little progress to be noted as he underwent a slough of treatment.
But after a successful rehab stint, Hicks will finally be back in pinstripes this week. When he steps onto the field in the upcoming series against the Orioles, it will be his first game action since he signed a stunning 7-year, $70 million extension with the team this offseason.
When the news broke of the deal, I was shocked for two reasons. First, because the Yankees seldom extend players before they reach free agency. But more importantly, because the deal represents remarkable value for a player who it is not hyperbole to call one of the five best CF in the league right now.
Hicks was the third highest ranked CF by fWAR last year, behind only Mike Trout and Lorenzo Cain at 4.9 WAR for the 2018 season. Indeed, he was the sixth highest player by fWAR of all outfielders in the MLB, and that’s with the generous inclusion of JD Martinez as a non-DH. Whether you like the numbers or prefer the eye test, Hicks was one of the best two-way position players in the bigs last year, and his contract looks like it could be a steal for the Yankees in the long run.
But forget the long run, let’s talk about the present. The Yankees are currently 24-16 with their entire starting outfield having played 23 games combined. That’s less than 20% of the total game time we might have expected if the trio had stayed off the dreaded IL to begin this season. With Hicks replacing Mike Tauchman on the roster and allowing Brett Gardner to return to his much preferred post in left, the outfield — and the team — are set to get much, much better. Since it’s been over half a year since we saw him in game action, let’s examine all the ways that Hicks improves this Yankee roster.
Let’s start with the obvious one, and something even my non-nerds can appreciate: Hicks is a switch hitter, and a great one at that. After some early career struggles swinging from the left-hand batters box, Hicks has flourished from both sides of the plate the past couple years. His wRC+ hitting both lefty and righty has eclipsed 100 for two consecutive seasons now, making him a comfortably above average hitter against pitchers of all stripes. That is an incredible asset that makes the lineup deeper and grants Boone and the tunnel nerds their much coveted ~flexibility~.
Beyond that basic fact, Hicks has always had a tremendous approach and plate discipline that have only improved with age and experience. Unlike his fellow bashers in the outfield, he walks nearly as much as he strikes out, posting impressive BB/K ratios of 0.76 and 0.81 the last two seasons. That is a coveted asset on any squad, but even more so on one that has long been derided as overly reliant on the long ball.
It is made even more valuable by his uncanny ability to come through in the key situations. Though the inability of this Bombers squad to hit with RISP has been overblown, Hicks has consistently been one of the best performers in those situations thanks in no small part to his approach at the plate. Last year, the team as a whole hit .269/.351/.407 (100 wRC+) with men on base. Hicks, on the other hand, posted a .267/.416/.485 (143 wRC+) helped along by a whopping 21.2% BB% and 13.1% K% in such situations. Similarly, the team was below average hitting in crucial high leverage situations. But Hicks was one of the few clutch performers with a 120 wRC+ in the most important at bats of the game.
Perhaps most surprisingly and importantly of all, Hicks has experienced a massive power surge as he has broken out over the last two years. After below average production early in his career, Hicks has ridden an ISO boost of more than 80 points to reach .219 last year. His SLG and HR numbers rose in kind, reaching .467 and 27 respectively in last year’s campaign.
The best part is that there’s good reason to believe it’s not a fluke. Diving into the Statcast data, he produced career bests across every batted ball metric in 2018. In the largest sample size of his career, he outperformed his previous highs in hard hit rate, exit velocity, barrels, and xwOBA last year.
In tandem with his elite level plate discipline, Hicks has emerged as one of the most complete offensive players in the league right now. This is to say nothing of his ability to run and steal bases, which he does at a similarly exceptional level. Bottom line: Aaron Hicks will step in as an immediate upgrade at the top of the lineup and, health permitting, pick up where he left off as one of the more exciting offensive pieces on an already magnificent offensive squad.
As many of you likely know, advanced defensive metrics have a tendency to be finicky and noisy from year to year. Unlike almost every other aspect of the game, I do believe there is still value in the eye test with a player’s defense. My conflicting feelings are encapsulated by a player like Hicks, who had one of the better defensive seasons in recent memory recorded in 2017, but followed it up with slightly below average numbers for last season.
While the numbers may waffle, I have no qualms about saying Hicks is a plus defender. His arm has always been his greatest asset, with some scouts even thinking he may become a pitcher when he was a young prospect. And while his sometimes inefficient routes can hurt him with UZR, he rarely makes mistakes and occasionally makes breathtaking plays with his glove. In his best defensive season, he posted a monumental 13.2 UZR/150 in center and had 12 DRS in just under 450 innings.
But, even if last year’s numbers prove correct and Hicks is truly just an average defender, that still will provide a massive boost relative to the current outfield arrangement. With Gardner’s prime defensive years long behind him, he has posted an abysmal -7.2 UZR/150 and already has -4 DRS in just over 300 innings in CF this year. When he presumably moves back to his more natural and comfortable LF following Hicks return, he will hopefully return to the player who posted a 9.9 UZR/150 and 8 DRS manning the corner in 2018.
Any way you cut it, Hicks is both a good defender in his own right and makes this outfield group stronger as a unit once he’s inserted back into CF. Once again with health as the qualifier, Hicks should provide an immediate upgrade to the defense once he returns to the team.
It’s often easy for Hicks to get overlooked when he is flanked by superstars Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. But, by the numbers, Hicks should be considered one of the most valuable players on this roster, if not in the entire MLB. He is criminally underrated, but will have the opportunity provide an extra jolt of adrenaline and shine in this current team. As long as the back issues are truly behind him, Hicks can look to build on his transcendent 2018 and craft another top quality season patrolling centerfield in the Bronx.