The Yankees’ rebuild began long before last summer’s sell off. General Manager Brian Cashman focused on acquiring young talent in the 19 months leading up to the 2016 trade deadline. Instead of blue chip prospects, however, he targeted players who fell out of favor with their former clubs. Sometimes it worked out, as in the case of Didi Gregorius. Other times it didn’t. Sorry, Nathan Eovaldi and Dustin Ackley.
Some acquisitions, however, prove more difficult to evaluate. There exists a gray area between success and outright disaster, a middle ground of mediocrity. Starlin Castro and Aaron Hicks have occupied this space for most of their time with the Yankees. They haven’t been replacement level bad, per se, but they haven’t been good either. At least until now, that is.
Through the season’s first 15 games, Castro and Hicks have played at elite levels. The pair has combined to hit .332/.427/.679, with a 205 OPS+, across 97 plate appearances. That’s a far better output than anyone reasonably expected from the duo. We’ve talked about their potential and high ceilings for some time. Now the results are beginning to pour in and it’s just as fun as one would expect.
The inherently small sample size, however, complicates matters. Are there substantive factors driving the success, or are these numbers just noise? A closer look reveals a few encouraging trends.
Castro might be hitting the quietest .368/.410/.579 on the planet. His 182 wRC+ gets buried among discussions of Aaron Judge, Matt Holliday, and the resurgent Chase Headley. One of the factors integral to his success is a slightly improved plate discipline. Through 61 plate appearances, he has an O-Swing rate of 32.5%, which is down from 36.4% last season. O-Swing% measures how likely a player is to swing at pitches outside of the strike zone.
He’s also drawing walks. Note that I didn’t say more walks. The fact that he’s taking any free pass proves significant. Last season his walk rate registered at an abysmal 3.9%. That contributed to an embarrassing .300 on-base percentage. In the early goings of 2017, however, that’s up to 6.6%.
While these numbers aren’t particularly good on their own, they make a world of difference for Castro’s offensive profile. His hitting skills have been well documented, and recently he saw an uptick in the power department. If he has addressed this weakness, then it’s not crazy to consider him a complete hitter.
As for Hicks, he’s hitting .296/.444/.778, with four home runs, across 36 plate appearances. The power numbers stand out here. Hicks is working in a very limited sample size, but he also had a strong spring training. He narrowly lost out on the starting right field job to Judge, remember.
What makes Hicks’ power display notable, however, is the location of the pitches he hit. In 2017, his home runs came on pitches in the upper-half of the zone.
Last season, however, he only hit home runs off of pitches in the middle or down in the zone.
We know Hicks can hit those pitches. That’s his sweet spot. It’s encouraging to see adaptability, however. For most of his career, he couldn’t turn on pitches up in the zone. He’s doing just that in his early season power binge. These adjustments make you think that his success has staying power.
It’s not out of the ordinary for a hitter to put it all together after a few seasons in the big leagues. Plus, both Castro and Hicks are entering their peak batting years. It wouldn’t be the biggest surprise in the world if something suddenly clicked. Baseball has a lengthy history of late bloomers. Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion all come to mind as recent examples.
Hicks and Castro have a quite a bit in common. They’re both 27-yearMay-old, former top-prospects, and were acquired as change-of-scenery characters. Their first go around with the Yankees was uninspiring, but the team remained committed to them. Now the team’s patience has been rewarded. Time will ultimately tell if their success proves sustainable. In the meantime, we can appreciate their contributions to the Yankees’ impressive start.
Data courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, and Baseball Savant.