There have been a lot of narratives surrounding the 2018 Yankees, too many to count. One that I think doesn’t get enough attention is the story of Aaron Hicks. No one would blame you for overlooking Hicks, because the Yankees outfield is full of great narratives. You’ve got the young sensation Aaron Judge, the 10 year veteran & fan favorite who is also constantly in trade conversation in Brett Gardner, and of course Giancarlo Stanton, the MVP with a contract that would make Alex Rodriguez blush.
On top of all that Aaron Hicks has been mildly unremarkable for a long stretch of his career. The former 14th overall pick never quite figured it out with the Twins, or with the Yankees at first for that matter. He hit .223/.299/.346 with 28 home runs between 2013 and 2016.
Something changed in 2017 though. Hicks raised his OPS 230 points from 2016. This was equal parts patience and power, as he almost doubled his ISO and BB%. He was drawing more walks and hitting the ball harder, both of which can be attributed to a fundamental change in his approach that occurred. In 2017, he started swinging at a lot less low pitches.
Here’s Hicks’ swing% heat map from 2016:
Here’s that same heat map from 2017:
Unfortunately Hicks’ 2017 campaign was mired by a pair of trips to the disabled list due to an oblique issue, and he only appeared in 88 games. So far in 2018 Hicks is proving that last season was no fluke. In 11 fewer games than last season, Hicks has already hit more home runs (16) than he has ever hit in a season.
On the surface, Hicks’ 2018 seems very similar to his 2017. He’s walking a bit less, and hitting a few more extra base hits, but at the end of the day it’s mostly a wash considering his wRC+ is actually exactly the same (127). When you dig a bit deeper, it’s clear that Aaron Hicks has improved once again in 2018, even if the results aren’t quite there yet.
Hicks has improved in almost every batted ball category you can think of. He’s hitting fewer ground balls (down to 41% from 45%). He’s pulling the ball and going the opposite way less, raising his straight percentage up to 45.2% from 35.8%. He has also lowered his weak contact percentage in favor of equally more barreled balls (batted balls that have an expected batting average above .500 and slugging percentage above 1.500).
The easiest way to highlight Hicks’ batted ball improvement is his average exit velocity. Over the course of one season Hicks raised his average exit velocity from 85.7 mph to 89.7 mph. Four miles per hour may not seem like a lot, but in baseball that’s the difference between being in the 68th percentile (where he currently sits), and the 14th percentile.
All these great improvements can be traced back to Hicks realizing where he excels as a hitter, and staying within that comfort zone as much as possible. Taking his excellent defense and base running into consideration, Hicks has been worth around six wins in his last 162 games. He often gets overshadowed by his peers in the outfield, but Aaron Hicks is becoming a star right before our very eyes.