Before the 2016 season, the Yankees traded John Ryan Murphy to the Twins for Aaron Hicks. The swap looked like a wash on both sides early on. Murphy was demoted to Triple-A during his first season in Minnesota, and Hicks struggled mightily with injuries and ineffectiveness.
Hicks started to turn things around midway through the 2016 season, though. He finished well enough for the Yankees to give him another chance in 2017, and it was a chance he made the most of. He started 2018 off strong as well, prompting me to ask if he was turning into a star. After an excellent 2.5-season stretch in New York, Hicks looks to have cemented himself as an All-Star caliber player.
2018 Statistics: 137 games, 581 plate appearances, .248/.366/.467, 27 home runs, 79 RBI, 90 runs, 18 doubles, 4.7 WAR, 127 wRC+
2019 Contract Status: Arbitration eligible, free agent after 2019
Scanning Hicks’ 2018 numbers, he lines up startlingly well with a player we recently reviewed, Didi Gregorius. Both are late-blooming offensive players who play premium positions on defense. Both missed some time with injury this year, both can be free agents after 2019, and both would be surprisingly impactful losses if they left New York next season.
Hicks was once a highly-regarded prospect in Minnesota’s system, though it never quite clicked for him with the Twins. This year represented the first time where Hicks pretty much everything together for an almost-full season. He hit, he hit for power, he ran the bases well, and he defended, while staying (relatively) healthy.
In 2018, Hicks set career highs in walk rate, isolated slugging, and home runs. A depressed BABIP figure kept him from setting career bests in every triple slash category, but his offensive production was still good enough overall for his best-ever wRC+ mark. Hicks’ baserunnning was also outstanding. He didn’t steal many bases, but his ability to avoid outs on the bases and take occasional extra bases put him seventh in the league in FanGraphs’ baserunning runs.
That level of play on offense, while manning center field, made Hicks a premium player. His defense in center, however, didn’t rate as well as it did in the past. Defensive Runs Saved ranked Hicks as slightly below average, while UZR had him slightly above. Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric ranked Hicks as a bit below average as well.
Even if Hicks has regressed to merely an average fielder, an average defensive center fielder that does as much on offense as he does profiles as roughly a five-WAR player. The Yankees essentially found themselves a borderline star at the cost of their backup catcher three years ago.
The only real blemish on Hicks’ 2018 campaign was an injury that cost him time early in the year. Otherwise, Hicks was healthy and dependable all season, playing more games than ever before at a higher level than ever before. The Yankees can be thrilled about penciling him in as their starter in center in 2019.
Unfortunately for the team, Hicks can hit free agency after next season at the age of 30. In any event, hopefully Hicks can continue to play at a high level, both for the sake of the Yankees, and to keep him in line for a deserved pay day as a free agent. Until then, chalk this up as another magnificent move by Brian Cashman, a win for the Yankees’ player development, and a job well done by Hicks himself.