I’ll be the first to admit that I was wrong about the talent Aaron Hicks has. I was willing to appreciate that Hicks was a former top prospect with many of the raw tools of a successful ballplayer, but the results never showed over his first 1289 major league plate appearances. I wrote about this back in March, largely talking about how his spring training performance shouldn’t influence their decision to make anyone other Aaron Judge the starting right fielder out of camp, a funny thought in itself now.
It’s not like this wasn’t coming from a place of ignorance: Hicks hit just .223/.299/.346 (77 wRC+) coming in to 2017, and just 1.9 WAR lifetime. Despite stellar defense, including a great arm, he showed no ability to hit for either power or average. He also struck out at a clip where you need to be doing some of both.
Yet, Hicks prevailed. There were some bumps along the road, which I’ll get to, but the end result was very important: he hit .266/.372/.475 (122 OPS+) with 3.9 WAR in just 88 games. The WAR tells that story, but the eyes also tell a ton. Hicks played an incredible center field, pairing homer-stealing range in center field along with an arm that could simultaneously nail a runner down at home.
There were splits regarding his offense, though, and they’ll require some further analysis. While he hit 144 wRC+ in the first half, he hit just 91 wRC+ in the second half, partially because of regression but also because of injuries. That’s generally what opened the door for Clint Frazier in the second half; Hicks went down with an oblique injury on June 25th and didn’t return until August 10th. He was slightly diminished all the way to the finish. He hit just .196/.260/.304 in the postseason.
Again, it’s not clear to make of all of this. On one hand, this was a resounding success, what with Hicks filling in for Jacoby Ellsbury after a concussion and going on a tear as the everyday center fielder. On the other hand, though, injuries and a second-half regression have to make you wonder if this is something more ephemeral.
Brian Cashman, long admirer of Hicks since his Twins, likely thinks these improvements are real. He always thought the analytics showed Hicks was better than his results. He has now been right about him a few more times than I have, and what do I know?
Hicks likely goes into next year as the favorite to start the year in center field, barring some trade. His performance probably leaves Ellsbury as the odd man out, and it could make it difficult to get Frazier in the lineup on a daily basis. Outfield gluts tend to resolve themselves over time, so either Hicks will continue to shine, or injuries will give a chance to others. Either way, we have an answer to whether this trade for Hicks was a success. This year’s performance played a crucial role in vaulting the Yankees to the postseason, and they got him for pennies. Anything more they get is house money.