The Yankees are hoping Aaron Hicks can turn back the clock in 2023

aaron hicks, yankees
Jul 9, 2022; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; New York Yankees center fielder Aaron Hicks (31) rounds third after hitting a home run during the fifth inning against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

When you look at the Yankees, there isn’t a player that’s more universally disliked than Aaron Hicks. There are people who believe Josh Donaldson can be a good player this year due to his MVP pedigree, but what about the Yankees’ projected left fielder? It’s a situation where Aaron Hicks has underperformed for his second straight season, and while he isn’t the worst player in the world, the Yankees have already flirted with alternative options at the position. It almost feels as if Hicks is only here because the Yankees couldn’t find his replacement, making it hard to believe there’s much faith to be had with the 33-year-old outfielder.

2023 is Aaron Hicks’ last shot to change the narrative surrounding him, but does he still have it in him to be what this team needs in left field?

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Breaking Down Aaron Hicks’ Offensive Woes

Let’s first start by establishing what Aaron Hicks was offensively in 2022. A .216 BA ranked as the 15th-worst mark by any hitter with 450 or more PAs in 2022, so that means Aaron Hicks was a bottom-15 hitter in baseball, right? Well not exactly. Due to his approach, Hicks has always been a low-BA hitter, performing significantly better in the OBP department, where he ranked 70th, tied with Kyle Tucker of the Astros. The difference between Aaron Hicks and Kyle Tucker is that while Hicks slugged just .313, Tucker slugged .478. This led to a 90 wRC+ for the former 1st Round pick, which puts him in the bottom 25% among hitters with 450 or more PAs.

While not the worst hitter in the league, Aaron Hicks was a below-average hitter last season, and that all stems from his inability to hit for power last season. A .313 SLG is the worst mark of Hicks’ career, and coming off of wrist surgery in 2021, you can’t reasonably project that he returns to his 2020 power numbers, right?

When we look at Aaron Hicks’ Max Exit Velocity between 2017 and 2022, we see a sharp decline from 2018 and 2019, but does his ISO (Isolated Power) reflect that number? Isolated Power is calculated by taking your SLG% and subtracting BA from it, and when we evaluate this metric, we see that a decline in ISO doesn’t begin until 2020, but he walked at a 19.4% clip, so his wRC+ was still excellent. In fact, we don’t see Aaron Hicks begin to see an offensive decline until 2021 when his wRC+ was 76. The issue comes down to a regression in swing decisions, something that could be explained as a “mental” skill.

Swing decisions aren’t just about not swinging at pitches out of the strike zone, it’s also about swinging at pitches inside the strike zone. When we evaluate Hicks’ 2020 and 2022 plate discipline, we notice a negative trend in both his in-zone swings and his chases.

SeasonO-Swing%Z-Swing%Swinging Strike%CSW%K%BB%
202015.563.910.626.518.019.4
202220.859.89.728.824.113.7

More chases will lead to fewer walks, which directly impacts your OBP and thus your overall production. Hicks hit .225 in 2020, but he still posted a 124 wRC+ and that was all thanks to his .379 OBP. Average is not the issue here, it’s plate discipline (sort of). This isn’t to say that Hicks has bad plate discipline, but that he’s straying from what made him such a good offensive weapon. His power isn’t what it was in 2018, and the baseballs don’t carry nearly as much either. Hicks is never hitting 25+ HRs again, but he can definitely get his OBP around .340.

In an article with Chris Kirschner of The Athletic, Hicks discussed his plate discipline and approach at the plate in 2022:

“I was forcing myself to get big hits. I was forcing myself to swing out of the zone to do something to help the team win. A lot of that got me into trouble. Essentially, I just lost my approach.”

– Aaron Hicks

This tracks with Hicks’ struggles, as entering the All-Star break, he had a 110 wRC+ and .361 OBP, all with an abysmal .116 ISO. He wasn’t hitting for power, but he was still a good player offensively. His 2nd half wRC+ wasn’t sparked by pitchers “figuring him out” rather, Aaron Hicks seemed to allow the Yankees’ struggles to become his own. Instead of staying within himself, Aaron Hicks posted an ugly .246 OBP and 27 wRC+ in a stretch where the Yankees went 19-28. When we try to look at what went wrong, we see an alarming trend.

Aaron Hicks started chasing a lot more than he usually does. We see that there were two distinct spikes where Hicks decided that working a bunch of walks and not swinging at pitches was cool. Unfortunately, his wRC+ did not agree with that assessment. There’s a direct correlation between the Yankees playing poorly and Aaron Hicks crumbling because of it. People may read this segment and call Hicks “soft”, but these are human beings at the end of the day. Getting booed and knowing that a team’s struggles are being squarely blamed on you can’t be good for one’s mental health, something that I imagine Hicks is working on right now.

It seems Hicks carries a mentality of having to constantly prove himself and do more than he needs to in order to compensate for struggles individually or as a team. That isn’t going to work for him or the Yankees, baseball’s a game of ebbs and flows, and Hicks is relied upon to get on base and have a good at-bat; not to swing his way to a World Series ring. There are legitimately good skills here, especially in his swing decisions despite the fact that he had a worsened approach in the 2nd half.

(via @Tstokey on Twitter)

That’s right, even when Aaron Hicks makes poor swing decisions, he’s still making really good ones. It’s really hard for me to look at a list full of guys who posted strong wRC+ numbers last year and think that Hicks can’t figure it out offensively, but the question of whether his power will return or if his swing decisions still loom large. Health and age are also two factors we have to adjust for here, which is why his projected wRC+ sits between 95-100 for most systems. There is the potential to be a good hitter again, but it involves a lot of things going right.

If you’re a Yankees fan wondering what the conclusion should be from all of this; there isn’t just one conclusion here. Aaron Hicks isn’t the worst hitter in the world, but his median outcome isn’t a good one either. There is obvious OBP upside here alongside some positive regression for his ISO, but there are also health concerns and aging concerns as well. Just as Hicks could have a 110 wRC+, he could also have a 70 wRC+, it’s a matter of whether things click or not, which can only be determined during the 2023 season.

Regardless of where you stand on Aaron Hicks, though I’d assume the average Yankee fan doesn’t believe in him, there are reasons to believe in a positive or negative outcome offensively. What isn’t up for debate is the defense and baserunning, which I believe are under-discussed by the majority of fans.

Make WAR, Not Peace When Evaluating a Player

Pointing out that Aaron Hicks is projected to be a slightly below-average hitter should be enough for us to scream at the Yankees for not signing a left fielder, right? How can Aaron Hicks be a solid left fielder if he isn’t a good hitter? Well, Aaron Hicks might just be one of the best defensive left fielders in baseball, and that goes a long way toward the universally-loved and non-decisive metric in Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Last season, Aaron Hicks posted a 1.5 fWAR in 453 Plate Appearances, while the MLB average for fWAR for 453 PAs was 1.0.

This is within the margin of error for WAR, meaning that you can assume that a 1.0 WAR player and a 1.5 WAR player are roughly contributing the same amount of value. Aaron Hicks was either providing more value than the average LF or was in line with league-average production, and that speaks to how good he is at the other aspects of baseball. Being 10% worse than the league-average hitter is undoubtedly a bad thing, but when you have 8 DRS and 1 OAA in just 413 innings in LF, it’s not nearly as detrimental to team value.

People will point at the awful play he made against the Rays with Frankie Montas on the mound, but there’s no denying that Aaron Hicks is a really good defensive left fielder. His +2 rARM and +1 OAA suggest that he has good range at the position and also makes great throwing decisions, which are fueled by his 92.3 MPH average throwing velocity. That’s in the 92nd Percentile, so it’s safe to say that his arm isn’t remotely “cooked” yet. Hicks also hit better when playing LF, posting a 108 wRC+ at the position, though I admit there’s a real chance it isn’t predictive of future results.

Hicks isn’t a good defensive CF anymore, with 0 OAA and -4 DRS at the position. That being said, his ability to play the corner outfield and occasionally start in CF makes him a valuable defensive player, and the Yankees certainly appreciate the outfield defense. That’s not all Hicks brings to the table, however, as he had a 2.5 BsR, a sign that he can still make good baserunning decisions. Many clowned his now infamous 30-30 quote, but he’s a strong weapon on the basepaths. I imagine he’ll get more green lights with bigger bases, so that should be interesting to watch as well.

aaron hicks, yankees
Jul 21, 2022; Houston, Texas, USA; New York Yankees left fielder Aaron Hicks (31) reacts after crossing home plate to score a run against the Houston Astros during the ninth inning at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

When looking at his offense, it’s easy to see how one could see Aaron Hicks as a bad baseball player, but when we account for defense and baserunning, suddenly we’re looking at a league-average one. I know, it’s not really that exciting to be average, but quite frankly the Yankees have won with worse-than-average out there. Joey Gallo was a bad defensive LF and a bad hitter, and yet the team won at a historic pace with him in LF. This isn’t to say the Yankees shouldn’t explore upgrades, but if you’re viewing Aaron Hicks as the reason this team won’t do anything, we might be overexaggerating how bad it is to have a league-average player in your lineup.

This article so far reads as a “You should like Aaron Hicks” piece, but the point I’m attempting to get across is that Hicks is average; not terrible. The Yankees should not let Hicks stand in the way of acquiring someone else for LF, but they also shouldn’t throw out Oswaldo Cabrera at his worst defensive position and limit him to LF just to keep Aaron Hicks on the bench especially since you’d still have to roster him. Cabrera profiles as a 105-110 wRC+ hitter, but with average defense in LF he could end up being a sub-2 WAR player if he was stuck there.

yankees, oswaldo cabrera
Oct 14, 2022; Bronx, New York, USA; New York Yankees left fielder Oswaldo Cabrera (95) is unable to make a catch on a ball hit by Cleveland Guardians third baseman Jose Ramirez (not pictured) during the tenth inning in game two of the ALDS for the 2022 MLB Playoffs at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Boone already made it clear that Cabrera will primarily play the infield, and this makes plenty of sense. He’s a seriously talented infielder defensively, and right field is the only spot in the outfield I love having Cabrera at. Hicks on the other hand probably has the same WAR ceiling as Cabrera does in LF because of his glove and baserunning, whereas Cabrera can be a 3+ WAR player as a UTL guy. If Hicks is brutal, then you can make the temporary change of Cabrera in left until you acquire an outfielder, but the Yankees are going to let Hicks enter March with a clean slate.

WAR tells us that Hicks isn’t a DFA-worthy player, in fact, FanGraphs $/WAR calculator would tell us that Aaron Hicks was worth $11.7 million in 2022. That means Hicks was right in line with his 2022 AAV in terms of value, something that would shock many Yankee fans (including myself). Age and injury risk are the reasons the Yankees can’t move Hicks, but a prominent one is that moving Hicks would create a larger hole in LF. They would most likely free less than $10 million because no team will take on all $30 million without prospect capital going the other way, so who could they even afford after moving him?

  • Kevin Kiermaier
  • Wil Myers
  • Adam Duvall
  • Trey Mancini
  • AJ Pollock
  • David Peralta

Listed here are outfielders who signed for under $10 million AAV in 2023, only David Peralta had a higher fWAR, and it was by a grand total of 0.2. The market for outfielders would tell us that the Yankees would have to spend more than just $10 million to get the quality replacement they were looking for, and Bryan Reynolds is the only trade option that’s 100% better than Aaron Hicks currently. It comes down to just the poor outfield market, Hicks’ ability to be average even when his wRC+ is below average, and the Yankees’ belief in a resurgent 2023.

What Should the Yankees Expect From Aaron Hicks in 2023?

Ask anyone in that organization and they’ll speak glowingly about what Aaron Hicks can provide in 2023. Personally, I think the Yankees can expect to get league-average production, with above-average defense and slightly below-average offense. They’ll move him to a bench role, and that’s the best place for him on a team hoping to enter the postseason as the favorite to win it all. The Yankees haven’t been the 1st seed in the AL since 2012, which partially explains their postseason exits in the ALCS and ALDS to better teams.

If Aaron Hicks lives up to his projections, he’s an average outfielder that the Yankees should view as a stopgap at the position. Whether it’s the emergence of one of their outfield prospects or the acquisition of a left-handed bat for the position, the ceiling for Hicks isn’t high enough to expect that he’s capable of being a high-level position player. That being said, he still possesses the offensive profile to post a 105-110 wRC+ without stretching our imagination too much.

aaron hicks, yankees
Jul 21, 2022; Houston, Texas, USA; New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone (17, left) and left fielder Aaron Hicks (31) watch the action from the dugout against the Houston Astros during the first inning at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

A return to his 2021 ISO (.139) with a better OBP due to better swing decisions could get Hicks past the 100 wRC+ point, and with his glove and baserunning, we suddenly are looking at an above-average player in LF. That’s all the Yankees can really ask of Hicks, who has a shot to be a positive asset for a contending squad. It’s easy to understand why fans are giving up on Aaron Hicks, but as of writing this article, he’s the projected left fielder. I don’t doubt that a lot of their excitement around Hicks is solely to defend having him on their roster, but we have data telling us Hicks is an acceptable outfielder at his price point.

When it comes down to it, we have to evaluate a player’s value based on the contracts of players around their talent level. Joey Gallo, JD Martinez, and Kevin Kiermaier all received contracts around Hicks’ AAV for 2023, and Hicks had the highest WAR in that group; is Hicks’ money really the detriment it’s advertised as? At this point, it’s up to Aaron Hicks to prove to the fanbase that he’s up to snuff, as he enters the season with low expectations and plenty to prove.

2023 might be Hicks’ last in pinstripes, regardless of his performance this season. He has a chance not just to contribute to a team that may win the World Series, but a chance to improve how the fanbase views him for a while. Hate him or love him, the Yankees are looking at Hicks to hold the fort down in left field, but their leash and the fanbase’s leash are shorter than it’s ever been. He isn’t a terrible player, but mediocrity won’t keep him in the lineup with the abundance of young talent and trade targets at the Yankees’ disposal.

Stick to a patient approach, continue to play strong defense, and continue running the bases well. If Hicks can accomplish those three things in 2023, people will be pleasantly surprised with Aaron Hicks in 2023.