Many Yankees fans were left confused after the team announced a seven-year contract for Aaron Hicks prior to the start of the 2019 season. Hicks, who had just come off a season in which he was the most valuable center fielder in the American League not named Mike Trout, posted a career-high 127 OPS+ in 2018 while appearing in 137 games, and it earned him that seven year, $70 million deal with an option for the 2026 season.
Despite the fairly low annual salary, many wondered if signing Hicks for a such a long-term deal made sense given his injury history, which included playing in just 88 games in 2017. Those on that side of the argument had more ammunition after Hicks missed the bulk of 2019, though he did come back to hit one of the Yankees’ biggest home runs of the year in Game Five of the ALCS before needing Tommy John surgery.
We’ve seen how Tommy John surgery can affect a position player once he makes his return, particularly with players like Corey Seager and former Yankee Didi Gregorius. It takes time, sometimes a lot of time, to shake off the rust and return to form. Hicks certainly went through that in 2020, but more importantly, he showed that even when he isn’t making the quality of contact that he would like, he can still work productive at-bats and give the Yanks value near the top of the lineup.
Hicks’ .414 slugging percentage in 2020 was his lowest since his first season with the Yankees in 2016, yet he still managed to finish the year with an OPS+ of 121. He did this by posting a walk rate of 19.4 percent, the third-highest in all of baseball behind only Bryce Harper and Juan Soto — imagine those two guys in the same lineup. Hicks was an on-base machine, which is particularly helpful when you’re batting in front of guys like Luke Voit and Giancarlo Stanton, who are capable of clearing the bases with one mighty swing. Hicks has also been among the best in baseball at working the count full for years, which also gives the big boppers behind him an added advantage of seeing the opposing pitcher’s full arsenal.
Of course, you would like to see improved contact and an encouraging trend as Hicks moves further from his surgery, and Hicks showed that, finishing the month of August with a 116 wRC+ before bumping that to 128 in September. He also carried that momentum into the postseason and was among the most valuable bats in the lineup, putting up an OPS of .899 across 22 plate appearances against a Rays pitching staff that is among the best in baseball. Hicks continued to get better as the season progressed, and perhaps more importantly, he stayed healthy, missing just six games between the regular season and postseason combined.
Hicks’ production at the plate and an ability to stay in the lineup will be crucial for the Yankees moving forward, given the fact that there is no other center field option on the team. With Aaron Judge having injury concerns of his own, and Brian Cashman confirming that Giancarlo Stanton will be primarily used as a DH from here on out, the outfield depth could be tested, and having Hicks as a regular in center would be a massive weight off of Aaron Boone’s chest. If Hicks can stay healthy, he’s shown why he was paid $70 million, and he even showed it while working his way back from major surgery.