Room for Improvement: Aaron Hicks

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Aaron Hicks, a former top prospect now entering his age-31 season, is either considered a Yankees success story or a bust, depending on who you ask. When he came over from Minnesota in 2016, his career numbers were lackluster at best, with an 81 OPS+, a .306 OBP, and a strikeout rate of over 20 percent.  Since putting on pinstripes, the New York fanbase has seen flashes of Hicks’ potential.  After a mediocre 2016 campaign, Hicks turned it around in 2017 and 2018. His strikeout numbers dipped, he OPS’d .838 over the course of those two seasons, hit a career-high 27 home runs in 2018, and even earned a down-ballot MVP vote that same year.

2019, however, was an injury plagued, mostly disappointing season for Hicks, and after the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign Yankees fans are left wondering who the “real Aaron Hicks” is and what to expect from him as the 2021 season begins.  A few things stand out as areas to watch, including health, on-base skill, and producing competitive outcomes on balls in play.

Health has always been Hicks’ primary issue – he has only played more than 100 games in a season twice in his eight year career (2016 and 2018) and has only topped 400 plate appearances once.  He had two IL stints in 2017, started the season on the IL in 2018, and in 2019, he played only 59 regular season games due to a lower back injury and the elbow injury that would eventually require Tommy John surgery.  Staying healthy for a full season would be a major improvement for Hicks and a boon for the Yankees, whose outfield skews injury prone.

The shortened 2020 season pointed to some improvement for Hicks over 2019, and the Yankees hope he will be able to continue building on that. Although he had managed to bring his strikeout levels down from the highs of his early career, his strikeout rate ballooned to 28.2 percent in 2019.  In 2020, his strikeout rate fell back to 18.0 percent, which was more in line with his 2017-2018 numbers.  Hicks is at his most valuable when he keeps his strikeout numbers down and on-base numbers up.  The Yankees tend to field a lineup with a lot of high-strikeout batters, and if Hicks can manage to keep his K rate under 20 percent he will be an asset.

Hicks’ value to the lineup also depends heavily on his on-base skill.  His batting average has dipped every year since 2017, but Hicks managed a 121 OPS+ despite only hitting .225 in 2020 in large part because of his .379 OBP.  His walk rate was a career high 19.4 percent, well above the MLB average (9.2). If he can continue to get on base, even without getting hits, he will still be able to be a proficient table-setter for the Yankees’ formidable middle of the order.

One thing that jumps out about Hicks’ stat line, and where he may have significant room for improvement, is that his BABIP is consistently quite low. Over his Yankees career, his average on balls hit in play is only .268, whereas league average is slightly below .300.  There doesn’t seem to be a smoking-gun as to why that is – Hicks’ batted ball stats are pretty average, but don’t seem to explain why his batted balls turn into outs so much more frequently than others in the major leagues. The table below shows his BABIP, exit velocity, barrel rate, and groundball-to-fly ratio ball over his Yankees career as compared to league averages (noted in parentheses).

Metric20162017201820192020
BABIP.248 (.300).290 (.300).264 (.296).286 (.298).256 (.292)
Exit Velocity89.1 (88.5)86.7 (87.3)89.7 (88.4)89.8 (88.7)88.2 (88.4)
Barrel%3.8 (5.7)7.1 (5.7)8.5 (6.2)7.9 (6.8)6.9 (7.6)
GB/FB1.22 (1.29)1.09 (1.24)1.04 (1.22)1.06 (1.20)1.31 (1.20)

While nothing in that stat line is notably good, nothing jumps out as a singular reason why the outcomes of his balls in play are so far below average. His higher exit velo years don’t even correlate directly to higher BABIP or higher overall production. For what it’s worth, we may see some improvement on the power front from Hicks as his elbow heals, but it remains to be seen on how that translates in his stat line.

I will also note that over the past two seasons his spray chart has leaned very pull-heavy (see graphics below, courtesy of Baseball Savant, displaying Hicks’ spray charts as a left handed batter in 2016-18 and 2019-20 respectively). This could contribute to his BABIP struggles by allowing for easier defensive positioning; again, however, it doesn’t seem to tell the whole story, as a more diverse spray chart again doesn’t seem to directly correlate with more success on balls in play. His charts were similar in each of his ’16, ’17, and ’18 seasons, and led to wildly different BABIP outcomes and overall success.

Aaron Hicks spray chart as LHB, 2016-18
Aaron Hicks spray chart as LHB, 2019-20

At the risk of foregoing a satisfying conclusion, Hicks is a hard statistical nut to crack. However he does it, the Yankees would love for Hicks to get back to the 2018 version of himself, stay healthy, and play most of a full, productive season.  With Clint Frazier slated to start his first full season in left field and Aaron Judge dealing with his own injury history, Hicks will be relied on as a veteran presence at the plate and in the outfield, and how well he rises to that challenge could have a significant impact on the Yankees’ success in 2021.

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3 Comments

  1. John Anthony Fini

    Enjoyed your article thank you!

  2. MikeD

    What’s his BABiP’s righthanded vs. lefthanded? The pull-heavy approach from the left side would profile as someone who will have lower BABiP’s. That was compounded to some degree in 2020 as he wasn’t getting full extension on his swing from the left side as he was still recovering from TJS.

    Regardless, he’s had four straight seasons with better tha league-average hitting, including three of four years above 120 OPS+, including 121 last year when he wasn’t even fully healthy. We know his strength. He drives up counts, gets on base, switch hits. All positives. If there’s one area to keep an eye on is defense. His defensive ratings slipped last year, although I’ll give it a pass for now due to sample size during the pandemic season. Good news is he was available and stayed healthy.

    I think both Aaron’s are primed for very good 2021’s.

    • Mungo

      He did seem to be rolling the ball over on the ground more batting lefty last year, which is backed up by the chart above. He seemed to get more comfortable heading into September and into the postseason. A good sign for the coming year.

      The Yankees 2021 will be made and broken on overall health, both from the position players and the pitchers.

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