2016 Statistics: .217/.281/.336, 64 wRC+, -0.2 fWAR
2017 Roster Status: Arbitration eligible
August 12th of this season might prove to be the pivotal moment in which the Yankees finally transitioned from an overpriced, veteran-heavy, and, frankly, boring team into one with a bright future, filled to the brim with exciting young talent. As Alex Rodriguez said his farewells to New York in his final game and Mark Teixeira prepared for his last month-and-a-half of baseball, Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge raked in Triple-A, about to be called up to the big leagues just hours later. It was a day in which fans said teary goodbyes to long time veteran presences, while the next generation was quickly ushered into the spotlight of Yankee Stadium.
Nearly everyone and everything fit together rather poetically, with players falling clearly on one side, the future, or another, the past, to create a turning point in the Yankees’ path. That’s not to say every single athlete had an easily defined place, though. Stuck in the fringes between hope and the vestiges of past success was Aaron Hicks, who was amidst his first season in the Bronx.
Still young (26) and not far removed from being an elite prospect, Hicks should have been welcomed in like the team’s other young players, but the crowd definitively decided his place in the top of the fifth inning after the right fielder’s cannon of an arm airmailed a throw home, allowing a run to score. “We want Judge!” chants reverberated throughout the stadium, and it appeared that Hicks’ opportunity with the Yankees was gone after 267 pitiful plate appearances.
Hicks couldn’t hit for average or power (as a meager .198/.259/.314 batting line and 51 wRC+ suggested), nor could he run (after more than half a season, Hicks had been caught stealing on all three of his attempts), and his defense was shaky at its best and incompetent at its worst. The former first round pick seemed to have blown his chance with the Yankees, and his heir apparent, Aaron Judge, hit a home run minutes after that errant fifth inning throw.
Just as soon as Hicks appeared to have seen his place on the team solidified, though, he jumped back into an undetermined future. In the bottom of the seventh, the former Twin crushed a solo home run to extend the Yankees’ lead, and, with a fire lit beneath him, he continued on a hot streak for the next 20 days.
From A-Rod’s last game until Hicks was injured on August 31st, he hit .288/.339/.462 with three home runs and three stolen bases over 56 plate appearances. Despite losing playing time to Aaron Judge, Hicks was one of the best hitters on the team over the next month, and he continued to hit around league average upon returning on September 20th. Although he did finish the season with a terrible batting line, there’s reason to have hope for Hicks going into next season.
That final hot streak that Hicks encountered may not have simply been a fluke, as he made one key adjustment during the season that backs up the improvement in performance. I could explain it, but simply looking at the fix is much easier.
In 2015, Hicks had what many considered a breakout season, and he attributed it to a leg kick he developed that offseason, as it gave him a “timing mechanism…to have my hands ready,” while also making him a more aggressive hitter. Mysteriously, the kick was gone in his first month in New York, and took several more months for it to creep back into its full 2015 form. While Hicks’ rebound didn’t perfectly coincide with the return of the leg kick, it likely took him some time to get used to the altered swing mechanics. Removing such a crucial part of his swing that offseason could have easily derailed the early part of Hicks’ season, and trying to work it back into the swing may have also created trouble for the young outfielder.
Outside of the swing change, some of Hicks’ struggles could be blamed on bad luck (.248 BABIP) and the move to a much bigger stage in New York. The former should be corrected next season, especially given Hicks’ speed, and the latter is hopefully becoming less of a distraction as the switch hitter becomes more acclimated to his new home.
Given Hicks’ prospect pedigree and strong 2015 with the Twins, there’s reason to hope he can still become at least an average starting outfielder in the big leagues. He’ll have to iron out the defense, which was supposed to be elite, and make more hard contact, but Hicks has all the tools to hit for power and speed while also providing a cannon in right field. Then again, there’s also a very fair argument for saying Hicks will never be more than a fourth outfielder given just how bad he was last season. Perhaps the “breakout” 2015 was just a fluke, rather than 2016 being the aberration.
The trouble with picking a side on Hicks’ future is that we know he has the talent to be a very solid player, but he wasn’t able to translate that ability into gameplay for the Yankees over an extended period of time. One thing we can say for sure, though, is that Hicks’ time to make a positive impression is quickly running out. Aaron Judge may start next season in Triple-A after a rough debut in the Bronx, but he’s not far away from reclaiming the starting right field job. If Judge takes longer than expected to make it the big leagues, Clint Frazier is also on the cusp of a call up, meaning Hicks will have a very short leash. To call 2017 make-or-break for Hicks, especially when it comes to his future with the Yankees, is certainly fitting.