New York Yankees: Aaron Hicks needs his respect

New York Yankees, Aaron Hicks
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Aaron Hicks is one name to get many Yankees fans talking. For one side, the argument is the baseless “Aaron Hicks should not be on this team.” For the other, it’s a matter of seeing it how it is. The reality is that Aaron Hicks is one of the most balanced players we have on the entire squad, and his contributions need more recognition than they’ve received. Hicks’ 2020 season was one of the more complete seasons put together by anyone on the team. Additionally, there were some great signs to take note of, going forward.

The first main argumentative point for Hicks deserving more credit is that this last year he suited up in 54 out of 60 possible games. For him to have put together a full season under his belt, following the plagued ’19 year, is great to see. While Hicks has never really been injury-prone, a few of his injuries have resulted in long-term recovery processes. To see him log 54 games, second to only Voit on the squad, means that Hicks may be out of that wary injury cloud. I do think it is worth noting as well that he only appeared in five more games in 2019, at 59.

Carrying on further from that point, taking a look at what Hicks did in 2020, compared to his three seasons prior, there’s a lot to like (info via Fangraphs):



YEAR AB WRC+ OPS fWAR wOBA
2017 301 128 .847 3.4 .363
2018 480 129 .833 5.0 .360
2019 221 102 .769 1.1 .325
2020 169 123 .793 1.1 .351

While this last season wasn’t as productive or exciting from a baseline statistical perspective, I do believe that there’s a lot to be happy about judging his 2020 season. Across a full 162 game season, Hicks would’ve accumulated roughly 4.0 fWAR, which is considered all-star levels. Although his .225 batting average is bleak, the thing I love about baseball is that it’s ever-changing. What I mean by that is that the correlation between having a high batting average and being a good player is being done away with. There are still many fans and writers that analyze based on traditional stats — AVG / RBI / WL / R –, but the general prognosis from the mass majority of baseball fans and analysts alike is that advanced stats mean far more than the eye test. Hicks’ .225 AVG seems atrocious, and in a past era, he likely would’ve been long gone from the Yankees. However, for this current state of baseball, the things he does well supersede his poor average. His .793 OPS ranked 12th amongst all CFers last year, and his 19.4% BB rate led the American League. Despite the ugly average, Aaron Hicks was still a very solid and contributive player.

Although there is an argument to be made about whether or not Dominguez will be seeing MLB playing time within the next two years, as of now, Aaron Hicks has centerfield firmly in his control. To me, having a switch-hitting bat with plus power and solid speed is a luxury. Amongst all the chaos throughout this last year, Hicks’ play and performances remained fairly consistent. Aaron Hicks is the Yankees’ 5 Tool player at the moment, in which I mean he is the only player on the roster that has all 5 ‘tools’ — although there is an argument for Judge. While he isn’t entirely a steal threat when on base, his plus speed — only one negative BsR season (-0.1) since ’17 — and plus power is a great combination. From one side of the plate, he offers more power (.194 ISO as L, versus a .178 as R), and from the other, he boasts a better contact rate (.244 AVG as R, versus .218 as L). Add to that consistent solid play defensively, a fantastic eye, and a good batted ball profile. Having that balance is what makes him such a versatile and valuable asset on this team.

Taking a closer look at his 2020 advanced peripherals, one would notice some great upward trends from the season prior (info via BaseballSavant):

xBA

HH% K% BB% Barrel %

Sweet Spot %

.251

38.2% 18.0% 19.4% 6.9%

29.8%

The most immediate one to note is that Hicks’ xBA — expected Batting Average — is nearly thirty points higher than the one he posted (.251 – .225). One thing I am interested in watching going forward is if Hicks is able to up his Barrel % and HH% next season. While 38.2% isn’t bad, if he can once again get that up over the 40% line, as he did in ’18, he could be an even more dangerous player. As for his Barrel %, one would have expected it to be higher and more in line with his Sweet Spot %, but if that gap does close next season, great things are in store. Once again, Hicks’ advanced peripherals and batted ball profile are all on the upward trend. While ’18 may be the most dominant season we see from him — 27 HR / .833 OPS / 5.0 fWAR / 129 wRC+ — if his ’21 performance track is on the same trajectory as his ’20 season indicates, then we may get that 5.0 fWAR version once more.

Hicks is taking the proper steps forward in becoming a well-rounded player. If he is to bat around his career xBA of .250 next year, assuming luck and some other things shift his way, Hicks is once more a .840 OPS player. I think his eye and plate approach are here to stay, and clearly, he is one of the most disciplined in baseball. It is very difficult to sit back on pitches, especially those that sit in the zone for a bit too long. Although Hicks has seemingly shifted his approach at the plate, in that he’s no longer swinging at the same rate he once was, I prefer this version. Comparing last season’s numbers to the ’19 season’s (as the sample size is similar), it shows that Hicks changed his approach from ’19 and adjusted formidably. This last year, he was as patient as he’s ever been. Not to mention, not having to battle various ailments at different points of the year helped tremendously (info via Fangraphs):

zSW%

oSW% swST% Chase % 1st Pitch Sw% Whiff %

2019

62.1%

25.0%



12.2%

22.7%

24.3%

31.7%

2020 66.1% 19.9% 10.6% 15.5% 23.2%

27.9%

Hicks improved on nearly every batted ball statistic he possibly could last season. His discipline was amongst the best of the best in baseball, and combining that with an upward-trending contact profile, Hicks could very well be the best player on this team in pure value next season. The most glaring positivity from that compilation of his “discipline stats” via BaseballSavant is his Chase % and Whiff %. Earlier I touched on how Hicks just needs to barrel up the ball a bit more and continue to work his counts. Him not swinging as often and freely, especially not out of the zone, means Hicks is getting more and more comfortable as time goes on. Every statistic shows that he is looking on the up, and if there was ever a guy to bet on, he’s the one.

Another interesting thing is, despite all the hate for Hicks’ 2019 showing, he still came through when it mattered. His Clutch Rating, which is how well a player does in high leverage situations in comparison to neutral situations, was 1.65. That mark landed him 6th in all of baseball, considerably above the next Yankee at the time — Austin Romine at 1.33. While it is a small stat that may seem insignificant, it shows that Hicks didn’t just roll over and die last year, as some people seem to believe. Add to that, his “High Leverage” OPS in 2020 was 1.091 across 11 ABs, and in ’19, it was 1.147 across 25 ABs. Simply put, Hicks LOVES the big moments. For reference, his “Low Leverage” OPS in 2020 was .643 and was .612 in ’19. He lives for the crucial at-bats, seemingly craving them and flourishing in his chances. To me, that is the definition of a big-game player, and if he just garners more consistency in the “less important” ABs going forward, he will be one not to reckon with.

Hicks’ 2021 season should be a good one, as it looks as, for the first time since his fantastic 2018 campaign, we get a full year’s worth of him. His ZiPS projections, as recently released by Dan Szymborski, have him projected to be the fifth most valuable member of the team. I believe that some projection systems, especially with ZiPS, can be skewed one way or another. In this instance, the projection of 2.4 fWAR seems very shallow and floor-levels for Hicks. Assuming his BB profile continues to progress as it has, coupled in with a bit of luck, he could very well be a 5.0 fWAR player. Mind you, that projection by ZiPS is also only projecting 16 HR and an OPS of .789 across 381 ABs. 

I expect Hicks to play in, say, 130 or so games next season and accumulate 450+ ABs. Predicting a .820 OPS year with 15-20 HR & 7-10 SBs, whilst playing great defense is completely reasonable. There are still talks about resigning Gardner, and that may eat into Hicks’ playtime, but that is one thing that shouldn’t happen. Gardner posted some decent peripherals this last year, where his advanced stats — similar to Hicks’ situation — indicated a better season should’ve been in store. However, Gardner took an even bigger step backward versus LHP last season. Unfortunately, Brett only posts offensive value versus RHP, and even then, Hicks outperformed him by a substantial margin. Below is a comparison of Gardner & Hicks’ 2020 seasons:

OPS v L wRC+ v L wOBA v L OPS v R wRC+ v R wOBA v R
Gardner .628 76 .282 .712 96 .312
Hicks .793 123 .350 .793 124 .351

Now that’s not meant as a slight toward Gardner, as overall having Brett in Pinstripes is one constant in life. Death, Taxes, and Brett Gardner as a Yankee. However, the sad reality is that Gardner has no true place on this team. With the emergence of Clint Frazier last season and the announcement of Stanton being named the full-time DH, LF is locked up. Assuming the team keeps Andujar, and runs another go at the LF experiment, what then for Gardner? I am and will always be a huge Gardner fan, but time is, unfortunately, one thing that is uncontrollable. Gardner’s moments and highs will be remembered forever, but to resign him for even $5,000,000 is money that could be used elsewhere.

As for Hicks, the next two or so seasons look to be on the upward trend. If this next year he can combine the power and barrel % of his 2018 year with his poise and discipline from this last season, the Yankees have ANOTHER superstar value player. The outfield trio of Frazier, Hicks, and Aaron Judge could be amongst the best in baseball. Add to that the depth of Tauchman, Andujar, and occasionally the addition of Stanton or Wade, and that group means business. It’s well past time to give Hicks his due and accept the fact that he is a good player who’s caught some unlucky breaks. I, for one, don’t think we’ve seen the best of him yet.

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