When Aaron Hicks finally returned to the Yankees in mid-May after an extended stay on the injured list, he appeared to have a large layer of rust that needed shedding. Through the first 10 games of his return, Hicks posted an OPS of just .554, hitting one home run, and walking seven times compared to 15 strikeouts. Hicks may have still been working counts—something he did at an elite level in 2018—but he clearly had trouble getting into a groove.
While a rocky beginning shouldn’t have come as a surprise given how much time he lost, neither should his recent performance at the plate. Hicks, who has been one of the more valuable center fielders in the league in recent years, has started to discover his stroke, recording an OPS of .925 in his last 10 games—all while launching a trio of home runs. After striking out more than once per game through his first 10 games back, Hicks cut the strikeouts down to six while rediscovering his power swing. He smacked six extra-base hits in that recent 10-game stretch, compared to one in the previous 10.
So, what changed? One of the most glaring differences is the strikeouts, or lack thereof. After striking out 30.9% of the time through his first 55 plate appearances of the season, Hicks dropped that mark to 13.3% over his next 45 plate appearances. It should be no surprise that his wRC+ during that first stretch checked in at 71, and then later climbed to 144.
Now that Hicks is striking out less and making more contact, it also helps to improve the quality of contact. Hicks’ spray chart has remained about the same throughout his season so far, but through the month of May, his groundball percentage was at a painful 56.7%. His hard contact rate, however, was at 36.7%. So far in June, Hicks has cut the groundballs down to 27.6%, while his hard contact rate has risen to 44.8%. Obviously, these are all highly encouraging trends that suggest Hicks is getting back to his old self.
As Hicks began to increase the lift on his batted balls, he has also—unsurprisingly—increased his production. His average launch angle was at an uninspiring four degrees in May, and has ‘lifted’ that number to 23 in June, a far more optimal mark. That launch angle improvement can be seen during the Yanks’ trip to Cleveland, when Hicks went deep from the left side in the opening game of the series, then laced a huge double from the right side in the series finale.
The Yankees’ road trip may not have gone as planned team-wise, but they can at least walk away with the encouragement that one of their most important hitters is starting to come around.