One of the joys of the information age in baseball is the ability to see which players are under or overvalued by the market. This is really the crux of Moneyball – discovering traits ahead of the market and acquiring them at a discount. For the last two seasons, there’s been little doubt that the most undervalued player on the New York Yankees has been Aaron Hicks.
A bit of a reclamation project at the time of his trade to New York, Hicks has blossomed into one of the premier center fielders in all of baseball. In 2018, Hicks ranked second among AL center fielders in the following offensive categories: home runs, RBI, walk rate, ISO, OBP, SLG, wRC+ and fWAR. The only player better than him across the board was one Mike Trout.
For those who pin him as an injury-prone player who can’t stay on the field, Hicks logged 581 plate appearances, against the average AL mark of 582. Center fielders just don’t appear in 160 games anymore, and Hicks is a reflection of that.
Since being swapped for our old friend John Ryan Murphy, Hicks has seen a steady improvement in his game, and indeed paralleled the improvements of his teammate Didi Gregorius. While Didi is beloved by Yankee fans, however, it feels like Hicks…isn’t. This comes despite them being more similar than you’d probably guess:
Does all this look like pretty much the same player? It’s because Hicks and Gregorius pretty much are the same player by absolute value!
With regards to Hicks specifically, it appears that he may have peaked. His 2017 and 2018 were remarkably similar in production. He just turned 29, and Steamer is bearish on his output. The projection system pegs him for a 113 wRC+ and 3.4 fWAR in 2019. Regression in projections is nothing new, but combining it with the other factors certainly could indicate that we’ve reached the apex of Hicks’ career.
But what an apex it is. I don’t think people understand how rare it is to get a center fielder as well rounded as Hicks is. He’s in the 90th percentile in performance in all of baseball:
Even with the regression projected by Steamer, he’s in the 81st percentile in offense. That’s unbelievably valuable from an arbitration outfielder, who also happens to be a switch hitter. The offense is relatively sustainable too, Hicks doesn’t produce because of high BABIP luck or footspeed. He’s incredibly disciplined at the plate, which is the best trait a player can have in my opinion.
Again, curiously, Hicks basically is Didi. Only Andrew McCutchen was a more disciplined hitter for the Yankees, and this particular skill is one that usually ages fairly well.
Where you could see Hicks depreciate is defensively. His UZR/150 declined from 13.2 in 2017 to 0.9 in 2018. His DRS was down 15 runs, from 12 a year ago to -3. His Outs Above Average, from StatCast, was down from four in 2017 to -3 in 2018. Like my thoughts on Miguel Andujar, if one defensive metric says something, that could be noise. When they all say the same thing, it’s safe to assume they’re correct. With Hicks, this is more concerning since again, he’s 29, and players begin to see their range depreciate pretty much from their sophomore season on.
Aaron Hicks is in his final season under team control, and will be a free agent in the 2020 class. The Yankees will have to carefully weigh his impressive and sustainable offensive output against his rapid decline in the outfield. Who knows where Hicks will be a year from now. Presently, though, we should see one more season of peak Aaron Hicks, and I hope everyone enjoys it. It’s been more than worthwhile.