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Is Aaron Hicks the next Yankees star?

Now on his third season with the Yankees, Aaron Hicks is looking more and more like a stud.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at New York Yankees Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

The Didi Gregorius trade will go down as perhaps GM Brian Cashman’s finest move. With Derek Jeter retiring in 2014, Cashman was tasked with replacing a legend, in name if not in performance by that point. Cashman flipped literally (literally!) Shane Greene for Gregorius, a first-division starter who just might be breaking out as a full-fledged star.

Pretty high up on the list of clever Cashman maneuvers also has to be the move to acquire Aaron Hicks. After the 2015 season, Cashman traded John Ryan Murphy, coming off a solid campaign as the Yankees’ backup catcher, for the center fielder. Hicks was a former top prospect who had lost some of his shine after three up-and-down, inconsistent years with the Twins.

Murphy put up a disastrous .146/.193/.220 slash line in 26 games in Minnesota and was quickly demoted. The Twins sent him to the Diamondbacks in 2017, with whom he is clinging as a reserve catcher. Murphy may best be remembered for his Yankee days, specifically for his thoughts after clinching a playoff spot:

Hicks, on the other hand, will be remembered for more than a humorous celebratory remark. He had a poor 2016 as well, struggling to stay on the field and putting up unimpressive numbers when he was on it. He was stuck with a sub-.600 OPS in July, and the Yankees were mostly better off trying to convince Jacoby Ellsbury to stay healthy enough to patrol center.

Hicks started to put things together at the end of his first season with the Yankees, though, and the progress he made carried over into 2017. He’s gotten off to a big start in 2018 as well. His performance is starting to get to the point that it’s fair to ask: Is Aaron Hicks just a star?

The answer is still most likely no. Star players are stars not only because they play at a high level, but because they can stay healthy enough for their skills to really shine. Even as Hicks excelled last year, he was hampered by various injuries, and he’s already missed time this year.

Yet over the past couple years, Hicks has left little doubt that when he is actually on the diamond, he is essentially an All-Star. Since August 1st, 2016, here are Hicks’ numbers, along with those of two unnamed players:

Aaron Hicks since 8/1/16

Aaron Hicks 0.266 0.365 0.459 13.3 18.7 0.356
Player A 0.273 0.362 0.469 12.1 17.5 0.355
Player B 0.282 0.361 0.469 10.6 19.4 0.352

Since midseason 2016, Hicks has morphed into a great all-around performer at the plate. He’s a near-exact offensive match for Player A, Andrew McCutchen, and Player B, Miguel Cabrera. Those two stars haven’t been at their peaks the past few years, but they provide context for the kind of company Hicks has kept in the batter’s box recently.

Now, the end point of 8/1/16 is entirely arbitrary. It’s chosen because it makes Hicks look good, but it’s also chosen because it represents Hicks’ nadir. On that date, he had a .185/.249/.284 slash line. Since then, he’s been excellent.

Since bottoming out in 2016, Hicks has simply grown into a more well-rounded player. He’s become more patient, disciplined at the plate. For one, he’s simply swung at far fewer pitches since August 2016, allowing him to boost his walk rate from 8.3% in 2016 to an excellent 14.1% in 2017 to 20.0% in a small sample in 2018. Moreover, he’s swinging at better pitches. Take a look at his rolling average swing rate at pitches out of the zone since 2016:

This trend has come in handy, as opposing pitchers are challenging Hicks less than ever. The rate of pitches he’s seen in the zone in 2018 falling to 38%, well below league average.

We can drill deeper though. Not only has Hicks swung less as he’s progressed, and not only has he swung at fewer pitches out of the zone, but when he’s actually swinging judiciously. From FanGraphs, here’s a career heatmap showing Hicks’ slugging per pitch:

Hicks excels when swinging at pitches in the middle or up in the zone, and struggles at the bottom of the zone. In order to reach his potential, Hicks obviously would be best avoiding the areas in which he struggles and attacking with his strengths. Now, here are his swing rates, split before and after August 2016:

Clearly, Hicks has set his sights higher, swinging at the pitches he does the most damage on, and laying off when pitchers attack his weak spots. This combination, of being smarter within in the zone, and laying off out-of-zone pitches more, is potent. It allows Hicks to do the most damage when he attacks, and to take the free pass more often when it’s offered.

It would be enough had Hicks molded himself as a savvy, veteran hitter, but he couples that with a full set of tools. He was a top prospect in large part because he projected to become a complete center fielder, with range, speed, and an arm, and that is what he has become.

Hicks’ cannon was readily apparent, with his Statcast-record setting outfield assist from early-2016 turning heads. Plus, he’s maintained the speed that had scouts forecasting him as a plus fielder. Statcast records players’ top sprint speeds, and while it’s still early in 2018, Hicks’ 28.4 ft/s top speed placed him in the league’s top quintile in 2017, and was nearly the same as his 28.5 ft/s. He isn’t really losing a step as he ages.

His defense has benefited as well. Per UZR, he was seven runs above average in center in 2017, and 15 runs above average per DRS. Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric pegged Hicks as above average in 2017. He has become the total package.

Overall, injuries have been the only thing keeping him from a total breakout. He’s hit the DL multiple times with the Yankees. Since that 8/1 date, he’s only recorded 540 plate appearances. But in those appearances, he’s put up just about 5 rWAR, the rough standard for an All-Star.

As a Yankee, when on the field, Hicks has been a success story. He’s made good on the promise he showed as a prospect. He’s grown as a player, developing into a multi-faceted threat, and an intelligent hitter. He’s played to his strengths and minimized his weaknesses. Hicks should be lauded for overcoming a tough start to his career to get to this point, and the Yankees deserve credit for helping him become the best player he can be. If he can keep up his strong start to 2018, maybe Hicks will soon have a real All-Star nod to show for it.