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The curious case of Aaron Hicks

The New York Yankees are firing on all cylinders. Aaron Judge is making a mockery of all of us, and is on pace to demand a minimum $1 billion dollar contract. Gerrit Cole has returned to form, continuing to strike out batters at a high rate, while also keeping his ERA low. Their bullpen has been lights out, and even when they do blunder, their offense bails them out. The Yankees seem to be winning every single category, yet the biggest winner in New York is Aaron Hicks.

Aaron Hicks has been dreadful this season, and the Yankees are still winning, in spite of it.

Weaknesses on teams are better to absorb when the teams are winning. Just take a peek at the next borough in Queens and Francisco Lindor can prove that. While fans are certainly aware of Hicks’ offensive woes, it has been the likes of DJ LeMahieu, Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and others that have made Hicks’ struggles forgivable.

Hicks’ biggest downfall has been his inability to hit with runners on base, let alone with runners in scoring position. When no runners are on base, Hicks is slashing .255/.377./.255. In a year where the league-wide batting average is .230, that is an above average line, so nothing to scoff at. But, as soon as a runner gets on base, Hicks turns into a different player, slashing .156/.333/.281. The downfall continues with runners in scoring position, as he has only 3 hits in 20 at bats.

Manager Aaron Boone has tried to combat this by batting him in areas where he is less likely to have to deal with runners in scoring position, or even runners on base. Boone had him batting leadoff as recently as Wednesday against the Blue Jays. This has shown promising results, as he is getting on base nearly 40% of the time when batting leadoff. Having him bat leadoff allows players like Judge or Anthony Rizzo to drive him in, making Boone look like a genius. But then, there is the issue of when the bottom of the order gets on base, and the lineup flips over, and Hicks comes up to bat. Hicks has had as many at bats with runners on as he had with the bases empty, and yet, his performances are mirror opposites.

While on base aficionados may argue about his ability to get on base, even that seems to vanish when a runner is in scoring position, as his OBP drops to .280. Hicks isn’t obtuse, he hears the critics, and understands the narrative. Yet he does not seem to be doing anything to change it.

Baseball often poses the elusive argument of whether a clutch player exists. As fans, we have seen it with Derek Jeter, and even the rival David Ortiz. Personally, I think it does exist, and there are certain players you pray to see up in a big game and others you dread to see. Aaron Hicks is the latter.

On Friday, Boone tried to shuffle up the lineup once more, making Hicks bat 9th in the lineup. This proved to be a winning strategy, as he went 1-for-4 with 1 RBI. Even better, that 1 RBI was with a runner in scoring position!

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But the issue with Hicks isn’t that simple. Any struggling player can have a game with an RBI (again, I mention Lindor on the Mets).

The Hicks issue is bigger than that though. Hicks is not a consistent enough player that slotting him in the lineup is worth it. Unlike his teammates of Rizzo, Judge, or Stanton, Hicks doesn’t have a storied career. Hicks’ best season is a humble season for either Judge or Stanton. So every day Boone decides to slot him in is a choice that both Boone and the Yankees are actively making. This isn’t a slump or a mindset of “he will come out of it”. This is a player whose best seasons were in 2017 and 2018. The Yankees have him signed through 2025. This is a case of the Yankees trying to make it work and keep a guy’s mental health out of the sewer.

But it’s not working.

Before the additions of Joey Gallo and Josh Donaldson, Hicks was the easy choice to be in the field and lineup. But now, the Yankees can have Gallo, Judge, and Stanton in the outfield, while having Donaldson at DH. This gives them their best offensive lineup. Of course, this is not a lineup to be used for all 162 games, but would certainly serve them better offensively than making Hicks an everyday starter. This argument is all hypothetical right now of course, as the Yankees have the best winning percentage in baseball, and have no reason to tinker with something that is working.

As the summer months approach, and offense starts to wake up, maybe Hicks’ bat will as well. Or, maybe somewhat optimistically, the summer months could bring a trade ridding the Yankees of Hicks. Perhaps, say, for a catcher and former teammate of Rizzo in Wilson Contreras? Cashman has worked his magic with the Chicago Cubs in years past, maybe this year will bring the same success.

Regardless of what happens this summer or trade deadline, the Hicks problem needs some addressing. The Yankees have had the luxury of building a divisional lead and maintaining it. However, that lead may diminish as they begin to play the second place Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto begins an easier schedule. This stretch may lead Hicks and the Yankees to become exposed, in which Cashman and Boone will have to figure out an actual solution to the Aaron Hicks problem.