For much of the last three seasons, Brett Gardner has been the first Yankee to step in the batter’s box, serving as the team’s primary leadoff hitter. He remained in that spot through the first month of this season, where he struggled badly at the plate and entered May with 74 wRC+. Gardner began to find his way in May, but has battled a knee injury in the month of June, causing him to miss some time.
While Gardner has been working his way back to full health, Aaron Hicks has come alive in a big way, as he holds a 148 wRC+ this month, even with a brief 1-for-15 stretch included. Hicks has already slugged six home runs this month, more than the previous two months combined. Despite the injuries that have plagued him since arriving in the Bronx, Hicks has always managed to put together a string of really good baseball. If he is able to continue this kind of production, he will have a very intriguing case to remain the team’s leadoff hitter the rest of the way.
Hicks carries an added value in his ability to hit from both sides of the plate, especially given the fact that he continues to hit well from the right side. Hicks holds a 108 wRC+ against southpaws in his career, but looking at just this season, that number improves to 135. Since Gardner tends to get his rest days against lefties, Hicks is the perfect substitute. When it comes to facing righties, Hicks and Gardner have posted almost identical production, as Hicks owns a 112 wRC+ against right handers while Gardner’s mark stands at 111.
Another benefit of starting the lineup with Hicks is his ability to work the count and allow his teammates to prepare for what they might see against the opposing pitcher. Hicks has had 39 at-bats result in full counts so far this season, which is in the top-20 in baseball. That also has come with just 250 plate appearances, which is just under 100 less than teammate Aaron Judge, who has worked the count full more than anyone in baseball not named Matt Carpenter. Judge also happens to bat second in the Yankees’ lineup, and a duo of him and Hicks back-to-back would give the rest of the lineup plenty of time to process their opponent and get a feel for his sequencing. It is also a good way to get the starter’s pitch count elevated early in the game.
Hicks has been at his best when batting leadoff this season. In spots in the order where he has at least 15 plate appearances, Hicks holds a personal best 152 wRC+ and a .394 wOBA when leading off. Some players are more comfortable in different areas of the lineup, and Hicks may have found a niche in the top spot. Gardner has been the primary table setter for years, but Hicks is showing tremendous value in that role, and it will be tough to remove him.
Despite his slow start, Gardner still shows his value at the plate and in the outfield, so he has to see playing time as well. In fact, he has already batted leadoff again since returning from injury. Still, in terms of the team’s plans for the rest of the season, Hicks deserves a long look.