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Aaron Judge and the unnecessary right field competition

Joe Girardi insists that the starting right fielder competition is too close to call. Should it even be a contest?

Toronto Blue Jays v New York Yankees
No, Ellsbury, this story isn’t about you.
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The Yankees love spring training competitions. There seems to be one every year. Sometimes they’re legitimate, such as the utility infielder job in 2014. Sometimes they’re not, like the fifth starter competition last season. This year the club is running a number of contests that range across the spectrum. There are real competitions, such as the fourth and fifth starter jobs, and ones with predictable outcomes, like naming Greg Bird the Opening Day first baseman.

There’s one competition, however, that doesn’t seem necessary, and it involves right field. The Yankees are deciding between Aaron Judge and Aaron Hicks to determine who will start at the position. Considering the Yankees’ future plans, this one seems lopsided. Yet that’s not the case, as a decision doesn’t appear imminent.

According to Joe Girardi, the contest remains too close to call. On the surface, this makes sense. Both Judge and Hicks have had quality springs. In fact, their numbers are eerily similar.

Right Field Competition 2017

Aaron Judge 47 .298 .377 .511 2 6 12
Aaron Hicks 41 .268 .362 .537 2 6 7

That’s really close, identical in a few of the important categories. In fact, each picked up an RBI double on Thursday afternoon against the Rays. Neither can seem to separate himself and run away with the job. They’re neck-and-neck as the finish line approaches.

In any other spring training, this would be a very interesting race. Yet this year it feels bothersome. That’s because of the context surrounding the players involved. Judge is a top prospect with monumental power. That’s no exaggeration. When he makes contact, there’s a legitimate chance that the ball will leave the yard. Remember this moonshot off of the scoreboard at George M. Steinbrenner Field?

That type of power is what Hicks is going up against. A former top prospect himself, there are reasons to think that Hicks can put together a campaign. Back in 2013, Baseball Prospectus offered an optimistic scouting report on the outfielder, noting “he has the range and speed to stick for a long time. not just a defensive-minded player; he owns a good amount of power which should play as above average in the show. Pair that future power with the good on-base ability he’s shown already in the minor leagues and that could make a very valuable player for the foreseeable future.”

Unfortunately the numbers haven’t backed this up. Over parts of four big league seasons, he’s accrued just 0.8 fWAR. He’s also averaged a 77 wRC+, which doesn’t cut it for a big league outfielder. Hicks has the tools and athleticism, but they haven’t translated into results. At some point a team has to look in another direction.

Judge certainly struggled in his big league debut, but he’s the future at right field. Hicks already had an extended audition. What he’s done this spring doesn’t make up for his poor showing over the last four years. He could still have a quality career as a fourth outfielder type, but starting him in a corner outfield spot doesn’t seem prudent.

If the contest is just to put healthy pressure on Judge, then it makes sense. There’s nothing wrong with a little healthy competition. The same holds true if it’s to kickstart some life into Hicks’ bat. If it’s as earnest as Girardi insists, however, then I’m stumped. Judge represents the future, a linchpin of the youth movement. It should only be a matter of time before he’s named the right fielder, not Hicks.

Data courtesy of FanGraphs and