Aaron Hicks had a pretty good 2020, though as I’ll get to in a moment, his production really picked up toward the end of the campaign. Overall, the switch-hitting center fielder batted .225/.379/.414 (123 wRC+) with 6 dingers in 211 plate appearances. Perhaps the batting average left a bit to be desired, but considering that he walked more often than he struck out (19.4 percent vs. 18.0 percent of the time), he was very productive. Let’s break down his year.
A slow return from Tommy John surgery
The good news is that Aaron Hicks didn’t have to spend any time on the injured list this season. Obviously, a big part of that is due to the pandemic shortened season. Otherwise, he likely would have been on the Didi Gregorius 2019 return timeline after having offseason Tommy John surgery. Gregorius returned on June 7th last year, and one figures that Hicks would have been back around the same time under normal circumstances. Instead, the center fielder was ready for the July 23rd opener.
The bad news is that Hicks struggled a bit out of the gate offensively. Not unlike Didi, who didn’t rediscover his power stroke until later in 2019. Hicks wasn’t bad per se, but he certainly wasn’t himself. Through August 29th, he owned a .198/.343/.383 (102 wRC+) in 99 plate appearances. His always stellar walk rate was still in tact (18.2 percent), but his power hadn’t shown up yet (2 homers). Additionally, Hicks was far better hitting left-handed (114 wRC+) compared to right-handed (61 wRC+), though I wouldn’t make too much of that as we’re making an already small sample even smaller (21 PA as a righty).
Now, Hicks may have been the victim of some bad luck here if the difference between his actual wOBA (.315) and expected wOBA (.339) is any indicator. He also had an abnormally low .233 BABIP, below his lifetime .271 mark entering 2020. Really though, Hicks was beating the ball into the ground. He had a 50.8 percent ground ball rate and 53.2 percent pull rate, which made him quite easy to shift against. It’s pretty hard to match or exceed your expected stats when you’re hitting right into the shift, as Hicks was doing.
It’s quite possible that Hicks was still working out the kinks of his swing in the early going. The guy was playing with a repaired elbow, after all. Not to mention that he’s a switch-hitter, which gives him two swings he had to get back into a groove with.
A strong finish
As the section title indicates, Hicks broke out before the season ended. He hit .250/.411/.433 (142 wRC+) is his final 112 plate appearances. He also hit 4 homers and walked 20.5 percent of the time. The success came from both sides of the plate, too: 130 wRC+ batting left-handed and a 154 wRC+ on the other side.
The big difference here? Besides likely feeling more comfortable as he got further away from his surgery and rehab, Hicks lifted the ball a whole lot more. His average launch angle stood at 15.9 degrees, up from 4.9 through August 29th. Meanwhile, his BABIP and xwOBA rebounded to .277 and .386, respectively. This was much more like the Hicks we have become familiar with at the plate.
Interestingly enough, this uptick in performance coincides with when Gregorius started to hit better in 2019. The current free agent shortstop hit four dingers in his first 106 plate appearances in 2019 and then smacked 12 in his final 238 opportunities. It could be just a total coincidence, but it’s interesting that both players took off right around the 100 PA mark.
Hicksie also came to play in the postseason, particularly against the Rays in the ALDS. It seemed like he was the one guy in the lineup consistently giving Tampa Bay pitchers a hard time. In 22 plate appearances, Hicks batted .389/.455/.444 in the ALDS. He also had a team-leading 0.20 win probability added.
Has his defense slipped?
Hicks came over to the Yankees as an elite defender, but his numbers really slipped this season. Granted, I’ve beaten this drum a number of times regarding advanced metrics being a black box especially in a short season, but still. Hicks isn’t getting any younger and likely won’t stick in center fielder for the duration of his contract. He’s 31 now and is signed through 2025.
Look, I’m not going to try to make any proclamations based on these particular stats. I must say I was surprised that his 2020 numbers were that poor, but this is just a wacky year for many reasons.
For whatever it’s worth, it seems that Hicks’s range took a step back this season. Based on catch probability, the center fielder caught 29.6 percent of fly balls with a catch probability between 0 and 90 percent. Last year, he made 46.7 percent of those plays and 39.2 percent of them in ’18.
Based on my completely amateur eye test, I don’t think Hicks is a bad center fielder at this point. He still runs well and has a strong arm, even if he admitted he wasn’t always comfortable throwing this year. Perhaps he’s not a terrific outfielder anymore, but players at premium defensive positions don’t get better on the other side of 30. Whether you buy into the advanced metrics or not, this sort of decline was coming.
Hicks will be back in center field in 2021, likely as the team’s three-hole hitter. ZiPS foresees a good but not great year: .239/.359/.430 (112 OPS+), average defense, and 2.4 WAR. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s also projecting him for 459 plate appearances. Hicks tends to hit the injured list at least once per season, 2020 notwithstanding.
I think Hicks will hit a tad better than what ZiPS projects, particularly in the power department. He had a .214 isolated power from 2017 through 2019, but ZiPS estimates a .192 mark and 16 homers. But otherwise, everything else seems pretty reasonable. Hopefully he can just stay on the field.