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What to make of Aaron Hicks’ impressive start

Hicks is off to an amazing start to this season, but how good he can be moving forward?

Houston Astros v New York Yankees Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Back in March, I wrote a pretty scathing criticism of the Yankees’ handling of Aaron Hicks, a fourth outfielder who was seemingly set up as another option as the starting right fielder. This seems all the more ridiculous now considering how well Aaron Judge is doing. I was wrong, however, in one key aspect. Maybe Hicks just isn’t as bad as we thought. This is why I’m a blogger, and not the general manager of the Yankees.

Let’s start with the obvious: as of May 18th, Hicks is hitting .326/.464/.616 (195 wRC+) with seven home runs. His Ruthian performance across 29 game is all the more incredible when you consider he only had eight home runs last year. The question, of course, isn’t whether he’ll actually be this good forever, but how far will he slide and whether he’s actually a different player.

Early indications would say that, yes, Hicks is a different player than he was in 2016, and for a few reasons. Jeff Sullivan pointed to one of those reasons a couple of weeks ago, which can be summed up by this graph:

It makes a ton of sense that he would make a conscious change in where he’s swinging, because look at where he’s most effective as a left-handed hitter (who’s now in Yankee Stadium):

That’s definitely a good approach, and something we saw with Starlin Castro as well: swing at pitches in the places you’re most effective, and lay off everything else.

Patience is definitely at the heart of this approach. Last year, he saw 3.8 pitches per plate appearance. He’s is now at 4.1. Not only that, but consider his spike in walk rate. He already has 22 walks while he only had 30 all of last year. There’s also the fact he has swung and missed at just 8.6% of pitches. You get a better picture; selectivity really matters.

Does this maintain itself? That’s where things get tricky. You have on one hand, an indication he isn’t all that different from where he was before: his hard-hit profile isn’t all that different from his career norms. In fact, he has more soft-hit balls! Plus, he sports a .333 BABIP that might indicate that he may not be as lucky anymore.

There’s that, and pitchers adjusting to the adjustments. Pitchers are absolutely going to be pitching Hicks lower in the zone, and I would argue they have already started. Here’s how he was pitched to in 2016...

...and here’s how he’s being pitched to this year:

There is also an argument to be made that the better a hitter is, the more pitchers tend to move away from the zone. This in of itself could be an indicator that he’s a better hitter.

I think he is, but by how much? I would say that if he came into the season with a preseason 94 wRC+ Steamer projection that is now updated to 105, that tracks reasonably well, right? I’m not going to be as bold to say that he’s somehow a “great” player, but he very well could be an above-average hitter with this new approach at the plate. If that’s the case, then kudos to the Yankees for cracking this nut. Let’s hope that Hicks sticks with the program when the league continues to pound his weak spot.