Spring training always comes with its share of positional competitions. Miguel Andujar is going to have to prove he can hang at third base, while Ronald Torreyes and Tyler Austin will be duking it out to see who fills the last bench spot on the team. The most intriguing competition for the Yankees, though, is in center field, where Aaron Hicks finds himself the presumptive starter, despite Jacoby Ellsbury finishing 2017 on a high note.
By now you know all about Hicks, the three partial seasons in Minnesota where he showed more promise than production. His 2016 trade to the Yankees has yielded a sub-replacement level campaign and a sparkling 2017, where he posted a 127 wRC+ in just 88 games. Nagging oblique injuries cost Hicks half a season, but a 3.3 fWAR in just over half a season puts him in the elite of center fielders given 650 plate appearances.
The question, of course, is whether Hicks can maintain that pace over a whole year. There’s always cynicism around a career year, and doubly so over a career half-year, but there’s good evidence that the 2018 Hicks will be more like the flashes of brilliance we saw for most of last season.
The first clue is the rising floor of his performance. Due to their defensive importance, center fielders can be forgiven for not being as offensively-minded as other players, and posting a wRC+ above about 90 is indicative of a successful season. Prior to 2017, Hicks managed a single season above that mark, his 96 wRC+ in 2015. Outside of that, his best offensive performances were Romineian.
Along comes 2017, and Hicks’ offensive peak is a 144 first-half wRC+, which is MVP calibre for any player in baseball. More importantly, his second half “struggles,” where he battled injury virtually the entire stretch run, resulted in a 91 wRC+. While that’s below league-average, it’s more than solid for a center fielder, especially one of Hicks’ calibre defensively, when he posted 12 DRS and 13.5 UZR/150 patrolling Yankee Stadium.
If, while battling oblique injuries and a league adjusting to better performance, Aaron Hicks can produce at roughly the same offensive level as his best season ever, he’s shifted the entire projectable floor of his career, and become far more valuable to the Yankees.
The other telltale sign of a Better Aaron Hicks is how he managed to raise his offensive floor. By reducing his overall swing rate by 9%, and his Z-Swing (swings at pitches inside the zone) by 11%, he’s been able to extend his at-bats, walk far more often, and drive the pitches he makes contact with with more authority. Hicks fully embraced the fly ball revolution, getting more than 40% of his batted balls into the air in 2017, well above his career norms.
Aaron Hicks isn’t the first player we’ve seen adopt this strategy. Cut down on throwaway at-bats and hit as many fly balls as possible worked wonders for another 2017 breakout player, Toronto’s Justin Smoak. Hicks’ defensive value makes him even more valuable than Smoak, however, and also gives him more wiggle room should the bat fall off a little bit in 2018.
Hicks appears to be in the middle of a career turnaround, and timed it perfectly. With Jacoby Ellsbury on the downside of his career, and the Yankees boasting arguably the best corner outfield in baseball, the only path onto the field for Hicks is in center. After a monster 2017, he appears to have the tools and floor necessary to hold onto that role for the foreseeable future.