On November 11, 2015, the Yankees traded backup catcher John Ryan Murphy to the Twins in exchange for outfielder Aaron Hicks. As far as baseball trades go, this one was about as uncontroversial as you can get. Both teams traded from positions of depth to fill a need. The Yankees sought a young outfielder who could mash left-handed pitching, and Hicks fit the bill. With Gary Sanchez waiting in the wings, Murphy became a trade chip. It seemed like a good deal for everybody.
As the All-Star break approaches, however, the trade has yet to work out for either team. Murphy currently catches for the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings, and has shown no signs of getting his bat going. Hicks hasn’t fared much better. He’s put up a weak .206/.259/.316 (50 wRC+) slash line to date. Outside of top-tier defense, he’s playing below replacement level.
That production begs a few questions. What has gone wrong with Hicks in 2016? What are the glaring holes in his game? Where does he factor into the team’s future plans? Let’s take a deeper a look and try to make some sense of his season.
When the Yankees acquired Hicks, he came with the reputation of mashing left-handed pitching. Last year, he swatted .307/.375/.495 (139 wRC+) against southpaws. That’s exactly what the Yankees wanted. It gave them an opportunity to replace Chris Young with a younger, cost-controlled player.
This season left-handers have picked Hicks apart. Entering the Rangers series he managed just a .172/.239/.250 line versus lefties. Southpaws are especially getting him down and inside, where he is prone to swing-and-miss. Look at the chart below:
Hicks is vulnerable low and in, and pitchers are taking advantage of it. If he wants to rebound in the second half, he’s going to have to lay off of those pitches. The Yankees have had a reputation for being susceptible to quality left-handed pitching. Hicks has been exacerbating that problem, not helping it in 2016. Laying off pitches down and inside could be a key to normalizing his numbers against southpaws.
How else can Hicks turn things around in the second half? The simplest answer just might be to let him play more. Hicks has only appeared in 63 of the team’s games this season. He’s not getting the Garrett Jones treatment, but he’s also not playing everyday, which was the thought at the time of the trade.
The Yankees have to find ways to get Hicks in the lineup because he shouldn’t be thought of as a career fourth outfielder. His ceiling is far too high for that. It’s going to be hard to justify sitting a white-hot Carlos Beltran, or a resurgent Brett Gardner, but juggling the outfielders is going to have to be one of Joe Girardi’s priorities. Both Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury play extremely hard and tend to wear down late in the season. Maybe Hicks takes over for one of them on a more regular basis. Or maybe the at-bats come if Beltran gets traded. Whatever the configuration, Hicks has to play. The Yankees are doing themselves a disservice by keeping him glued to the bench.
It’s difficult to defend a player who has struggled at the plate as much as Hicks has this season. It’s also easy to forget about him while Aaron Judge goes on a home run binge in Triple-A. That said, the Yankees have a switch-hitting 26-year-old outfielder with a cannon for an arm. He also has a track record for crushing left-handed pitching, and might be an adjustment or two away from making things work at the plate. Given his skills and age, he’s an important part of the team’s future. He should be more than just an afterthought.