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It took time, but Aaron Hicks shook off Tommy John surgery with aplomb [2020 Season Review]

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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.

Metric2017201820192020
Innings (CF)440.21138.1499.1393.2
DRS+12-8-1-8
UZR+5.0+0.7+0.6-3.9
OAA+4-4-2-4

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.

What’s next?

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.

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6 Comments

  1. MikeD

    Hicks, as you noted, was beating the ball in the ground in the early going, which I suspect was related to his recovery from TJS. Still put up a 121 OPS+ for the year and is now positioned well for 2021. His main issue is one that afflicts all the Yankee OFers not named Gardner–injuries. He’s had his own variety of soft-tissue, rib cage and leg injuries that seem to knock him out of action for 30 to 40 games a season. I’m hoping he breaks that this upcoming season. If he does, they’ll have a good 4+ WAR season from him.

    Not too worried about the defensive numbers yet. He’s still solid out there. One out-of-the-box thought. Instead of bringing Gardner back, the Yankees could go in on Jackie Bradley Jr., add a lefty bat who they can sit against lefty pitchers, and install plus-plus defense in CF, and then have Hicks serve as the all-purpose rotating fourth OFer. Hicks is a rarity in that he can cover CF well, he’s built for the wide LF, and has the arm for RF. Ultimately, I think that’s his future with the Yankees. Why not have that future arrive now?

    • CentralScrutinizer

      I’ve heard this JBJ idea a couple of times now and I don’t get it at all. At best JBJ is a lesser version of Hicks at the plate and since I’m not a fan of Hicks as a hitter that’s not saying much for JBJ. I don’t think the Yankees really need “plus-plus” defense in CF – there’s no evidence that CF defense is a problem they need to deal with especially to the extent of bringing in a glove-first guy to play as a regular.

    • Because the hitting will suffer. Give me Frazier/Hicks/Judge over Hicks/JBJ/Judge any day, every day.

      • MikeD

        Depends on what they believe about his improved hitting in 2020. Was it a mostly SSS issue? Certainly possible as Bradley is a very streaky hitter. He can give a team two months of All-Star level performance at the plate, and then go stone cold for another two months. With Gary showing similar streakiness, it would concern me if there were two hitters like that in the lineup at the same time, unless they believe Bradley made changes to his approach that finally allowed him to tap into his batting potential we’ve been hearing about for year.

        As for the other point, it’s not Frazier/Hicks/Judge over Hicks/JBJ/Judge. It’s Frazier/Hicks/Judge/JBJ over Frazier/Hicks/Judge/Gardner. I’m viewing the OF as a four-man unit. The reason Gardner is a necessity is his ability to play CF and play it effectively. If they don’t bring him back, they need someone else on the roster who can play CF, hence my suggestion for Bradley. Beyond even rest, we know HIcks is likely to miss at least 40 games next season. That’s his history. It’s why the three man OF fans focus on is outdated, particularly with this Yankee team with all three OFers having injury histories. Add in the inevitable Stanton injuries, and the four man OF with the DH will all get plenty of ABs. So it’s really a question of Bradley over Gardner in this equation. They need one of them to man CF for the large chunk of games Hicks will likely be absent, so my solution is simply suggesting Bradley at this stage would make the Yankees stronger than Gardner, and since Bradley is a superior CFer to Hicks, have JBJ play center for 2/3rds of the games, and move Hicks into the rotational 4th OFer role who is going to get 500 PAs, assuming Hicks is even capable of that. He’s only once had a season with 500+ PAs.

        This team needs a 4th OFer who can play CF. My guess is it will be Gardner. He still can hit righties, and he’s probably willing to accept a more traditional 4th OFer role at this stage, but I do think the Yankees should be looking at alternatives to make the team stronger.

  2. CentralScrutinizer

    There’s no way Hicks should batting third in the order. He beats too many balls into the ground and into the shift and that tendency was apparent before 2020. I’ve seen him kill rally after rally with men on base by grounding or lining out to the first baseman resulting in double plays and other missed opportunities. Yeah, he has a good eye and walked a lot but sometimes you need a big hit instead of a walk to take advantage of a rally and break open a game. Extreme passivity at the plate is not an attribute to be prized in a third-hole hitter. Bat the guy in the lower third of the order – please Boone!

    • I agree. It’s more important for the #3 hitter to have a good average than walk a lot, although the best hitters do both. Hicks has a good eye but his average is nowhere near good enough for the 3-hole.

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