After a so-so 2020, the Yankees put a lot of faith in Aaron Hicks, specifically by naming him the number three hitter to start the season. It’s a move I thought made sense, but it hasn’t paid off yet. Hicks is off to a troubled start with an ugly .148/.258/.259/.517 line in the early going. Of course, that caveat applies; it’s still early and a hot week or so could have this line looking much better.
On the plus side of things, he does have four walks already and his walk rate puts him in the 63rd percentile per Statcast. It’s not much, but given the above batting line, we should take our positives where we can get them. The biggest problem for Hicks so far has been the opposite side of that coin: strikeouts.
He’s racked up 11 already. While I normally don’t mind a middle-of-the-order hitter whiffing a lot, it’s been excessive this year, with a strikeout rate pushing towards 40%–37 to be exact. This is a stark departure from 2020, when he had a career low strikeout rate of 18%. Let’s take a look at the early strikeout returns and see what’s up.
My first thought, as it is with most high strikeout rates, was that Hicks was having trouble with breaking balls. Breaking stuff is, generally speaking, pretty nasty these days and plenty of guys swing and miss at it. But his overall swing and miss percentage has actually dropped on breaking balls, going from 31.4% in 2020 to 22.2% so far in 2021. In fact, per Statcast, he actually hasn’t whiffed on a breaking ball in the zone so far this year. That’s encouraging. But…
With that decrease, there’s probably an increase elsewhere. And there is, both with offspeed pitches and fastballs. There’s been a moderate whiff increase with offspeed pitches from just under 45% to 50%. The incline has been much less subtle for fastballs: up to 35.7% from 20.7% in 2020. In the zone, he’s missing 23.8% of fastballs, up from 18% last year, up from 10% in 2019. That’s a semi-worrying trend, no?
In terms of out of the zone misses on fastballs, he’s double what he was last year, over 70%! That last one is a bit preposterous, driven by early season small sample sizes; but it’s still shocking to see, especially considering he is chasing a slightly higher percentage of out of zone fastballs which compounds the effect of the whiffing.
There’s also been a negative trend so far when he does make contact. After hitting too many grounders last year, Hicks has corrected in 2021, but perhaps a bit too much. His GB% now sits under 30% and he’s hitting fly balls at a career high rate of 35.7%. However, the lack of grounders so far isn’t all good.
His line drive rate is a touch under where it normally is and his pop-up percentage is a career high 14.3%. Indeed, Statcast tracks his contact as him getting under the ball 50% of the time so far. For reference, his career average there is just over 26%.
So he’s striking out a lot. And when he makes contact, he’s popping up too much. This is not a great combo! But, luckily, it is still way early and these numbers are definitely going to correct. That he’s still walking a lot is a good sign. Hopefully, he cuts down on the whiffs slightly and finds the balance between ground and air.