We’ve had a full day to absorb the news that Aaron Hicks has agreed to a long extension with the New York Yankees. It is a seven-year, $70 million deal that kicks in in 2019 and includes an eighth-year option. There isn’t a no-trade clause, but Hicks does get $1 million bonus if he’s traded over the length of the deal.
It’s kind of a weird agreement, since you don’t usually see extensions for this long and relatively so little money. Seven guaranteed years means Hicks will be 36 at the end of the contract and will almost certainly no longer be a center fielder. It feels like a longer version of the Brett Gardner extension, with the same end goal - a good center fielder transitioning to the corners as he ages.
Hicks has been a lot better than Gardner though, even if you just look at their most recent season before the extension:
Hicks is in red, while below Gardner is in yellow:
Not only was Aaron a better player in total value - 4.9 fWAR to 3.3 - but his offensive contribution is more sustainable. In my opinion, the most important and reliable aspect of hitting is strike recognition. Quality of contact and such is really important, but if you’re consistently swinging at balls and taking strikes, it’s going to be hard to be a good major league player.
To that end, Hicks is legitimately one of the best players in baseball, even better when comparing to his position group. His 3.6% K-BB% puts him in elite company with the likes of Mike Trout and Mookie Betts, and while he’s not as good as either of those two, this does indicate that his offensive performance is probably pretty reliable moving forward.
Compare that to Gardner, who’s just not as good all around. Hicks got more money and years than Gardner - $28 million and three years, respectively. His contract also buys out many more seasons of free agency, six to Gardner’s two.
Teams nearly always have an incentive to extend young talent, and we’ve talked about that before with respect to Luis Severino’s recent extension. Unlike pitchers, position players have much less incentive to take extensions, since the likelihood of career-threatening injury is much lower. Aaron Judge might decide to wait until free agency since he is much less probable to blow out his UCL and lose a year and a half of his career.
The driving factor behind Hicks’ decision to work out an extension, meanwhile, appears to be his own injury history. Again, comparing him to Gardner, with a little larger sample size this time, here’s their respective games played in the four seasons before contract extensions:
Despite Gardner having the most significant injury of the two of them - elbow surgery in 2012 - he managed more total games and a higher average per season than Hicks in the run-up to signing an extension.
Of course, Hicks hasn’t really had a huge injury with the Yankees, but it’s been a series of small nagging ones. Three weeks on the DL here, a pulled hamstring there, the kind of recurring injuries that could exacerbate over a long career, especially defensively. We already saw Hicks take a step back in the field in 2018:
Yadda yadda, defensive stat caveats. But look at the trend where all three major metrics saw Hicks struggle hugely relative to previous performance last year. A lot of this is because he has a great arm but not great routes; as that one tool gets tested less and less, your weakness actually running down balls in the outfield is exposed. Of course, those nagging injuries can be expected to take an even further toll on his defense. That’s why I think Hicks chose the money now rather than bet on himself to be good and healthy in 2019 and target a Lorenzo Cain-type deal in the winter.
Hicks is around for a while now, and I like it. He’s a good player and came over in one of the better trades Brian Cashman has ever made. The low cost of the deal offsets the risk of injury and continued defensive decline, but the actual loss in performance three or four years down the road might be a real cause for concern.
Last thought I have on this whole thing: I wonder what kind of momentum this creates for other extension candidates? In hockey and to a lesser extent football, you often see groups of players agreeing to team-friendly extensions to maintain a core of talent. The Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings in the NHL did this really effectively, and combined to win five Stanley Cups in six seasons. Being as there’s no real hard cap in baseball, that incentive to bond together for less money doesn’t exist to the same extent, but it does have to create some kind of pressure on the likes of Judge to agree to an extension when he has seen his teammates do the same. We’ll have to wait and see on that front.