The breakout of Aaron Hicks ranks among the most interesting storylines of the 2017 season. After a disappointing 2016 campaign for the Yankees, Hicks stood as an afterthought in the minds of most fans. A terrific spring training left many writers — including myself — incredulous with the idea Hicks could beat out top prospect Aaron Judge for the starting right field job. He ultimately lost the contest, but the impression stuck.
When the regular season started, Hicks didn’t stop hitting. His success carried right over from spring training, and he forced his way into the starting lineup. When paired with his calling-card elite defense, Hicks’ suddenly dynamic bat made him a can’t miss player. At 27 years old, and not far removed from his days as a top prospect, it appeared that he finally reached his potential. Late bloomers aren’t unheard of, after all.
Through 242 plate appearances, he posted a .290/.398/.515 batting line with 10 home runs. That worked out to a ridiculous 145 wRC+. His walk and strikeout rates also played far better than his career norms. Given the notable adjustments he made in his approach, it looked like he turned a corner. The new and improved Hicks appeared here to stay.
Until he got hurt.
On June 25th, Hicks checked his swing in the first inning against Texas Rangers right-hander Nick Martinez. "It's very frustrating," he told reporters after the game. "I want to be out there battling with my team and now I can't do that." A strained oblique would sideline him for 39 games.
As the offense sputtered, Hicks’ return went from a luxury to an outright imperative. The Yankees desperately needed his bat in the lineup. Many wondered, however, if his success from the first half would carry over. After missing such a prolonged period of time with an injury, it made sense to assume some he had some rust needed shaking off.
Thankfully Hicks hasn’t missed a beat since returning to the lineup. While it may not reflect in the 24 plate appearances — a 117 wRC+ is above average but not game changing like the first half — the impact has been felt on the field. Take Friday night for example:
He also hit a go-ahead solo shot last night. The Yankees don’t get back into those game without Hicks’ heroic home runs. That’s the kind of offense the team desperately lacked for the last several weeks. He lengthens the lineup and, as a switch hitter, provides much-needed balance.
There exist reasons to believe that Hicks’ success will be sustainable. When a player returns from injury, one looks at the quality of contact to determine if his swing is in good shape. Two measurements that prove useful in assessing this are hard contact percentage and groundball rate. If a batter hits the ball with authority, he’s more likely to succeed. A strong swing is also less likely to produce groundballs.
For Hicks, these signs stand out as positives. While he’s not hitting the ball as hard as he did during his peak moments, he’s trending upwards. His groundball percentage has also declined. That’s exactly what you want to see from a player returning from injury. His swing has come around, the results will inevitably follow.
It’s no secret that the Yankees have struggled to score runs of late. For over a month the lineup has been short a bat or two. Hicks’ return should alleviate some of those pains. His new approach paid enormous dividends in the first half. All signs point to that continuing down the stretch. If the Yankees do make a playoff run, it will partly be on Hicks’ back.