For the second time this season, the Yankees have lost Aaron Hicks to an oblique injury. He crashed into the center field wall running down a fly ball on Saturday afternoon. The team reported that he suffered a left oblique strain on the play. This comes after Hicks missed a month with a strain to the right oblique muscle suffered on a check swing.
According to Sweeny Murti, however, the extent of this injury isn’t as severe as the previous one. That’s good news. While it always hurts to lose a young, switch-hitting outfielder, there’s a silver lining here. Sending Hicks to the disabled list gives the Yankees a chance to see if Jacoby Ellsbury is catching fire.
This reasoning would have sounded preposterous in the first half, but the numbers suggest there’s something to it. Hicks hasn’t regained his pre-injury form since returning in mid-August. Ellsbury, meanwhile, seems locked in after spending time on the bench. The chart below compares their numbers up until Hicks’ injury.
Splits since August 10th
Ellsbury followed that up with a strong showing against Red Sox ace Chris Sale on Sunday night; he collected three hits and a walk. Granted, this is a small sample size. That said, Ellsbury has outperformed Hicks across the board during this stretch. He earned a closer look and more playing time.
What’s driven Ellsbury’s success of late? The main variable has been quality of contact. He’s regularly squaring the ball up, resulting in more hard contact and fewer groundballs. The harder a batter hits a ball, the more likely it is to fall in for a hit.
He’s also pulling the ball more. Per FanGraphs, Ellsbury ran a 37.6% pull rate from April 2nd - August 9th. That’s jumped to 47.7% once Hicks returned on August 10th. This could further signify a change in approach. As a left-handed hitter, it makes sense to play to Yankee Stadium’s dimensions. Taking advantage of it could explain the recent power outburst.
Given the importance of each game down the stretch, the Yankees need to run out their best lineup. Right now that includes Ellsbury. Had Hicks not gone down with an injury, it’s unlikely that would happen. He built up too much goodwill from the first half. Ellsbury, on the other hand, looked lost for long stretches. This opening might be exactly what the Yankees need, to ride the hot bat and construct an optimal lineup.
It sounds like there’s an outside chance Hicks returns before season’s end. Should the team make the playoffs, he could be an option. In order to get there, the team needs to fire on all cylinders. Ellsbury appears to have gotten hot at exactly the right time. At this point of the season, the past is prologue. His year-long struggles will hardly matter if he drives the team to the playoffs.
Moving forward, Hicks figures to have a more significant role with the club. He has a rather high upside and is about to enter his peak years. Right now, though, Ellsbury gives the Yankees a better chance to win. With such a narrow margin for error, the Bombers should jump at every incremental upgrade possible. In this case, that means playing Ellsbury every day.