After signing Aaron Hicks to a long-term extension ahead of the 2019 season, the center fielder’s ensuing campaign had to concern the Yankees at least a little. After a pair of All-Star-caliber seasons, Hicks struggled with injury for much of 2019, and produced his lowest average, OBP, and slugging marks since 2016. The Yankees must’ve questioned whether they’d locked in a near-decade’s worth of declining performance in the middle of their outfield.
No matter. During another injury-battered year in the Bronx in 2020, Hicks stayed on the field and anchored the Yankee lineup. While he did continue to show some signs of decline as he entered his thirties, Hicks’ core skills remained ever-present, making him one of the team’s most valuable hitters across the 60-game sprint.
2020 Statistics: 52 games, 211 plate appearances, .225/.379/.414, 6 HR, 21 RBI, 121 OPS+, 1.1 fWAR
2021 Contract Status: Signed through 2025, $53MM
Any discussion of Hicks’ production has to start with his exceptional discipline at the plate. It’s the bedrock of his value on offense, and perhaps one of the most underrated singular skills on this Yankees roster. Hicks’ discerning eye at the dish rivals Aroldis Chapman’s fastball velocity, Aaron Judge’s raw power, and Tyler Wade’s sprint speed in terms of pure excellence when compared to the rest of the league.
For proof, take a look at the league leaderboard in 2020 for O-Swing rate, or the rate at which a hitter swings at pitches out of the zone:
For every seven pitches opposing hurlers threw out of the zone, Hicks spit on six of them. Note those two names he sits just above: Mike Trout and Juan Soto. That pair represents the league’s absolute best in terms of patient power hitters. In this particular arena, Hicks is their equal.
Such discipline in the batter’s box allowed Hicks to pump his walk rate to a career high, as he took a free pass to first in one out every five plate appearances. He jacked his OBP up to .379, also a personal best. While curious fans often wondered why Aaron Boone kept penciling Hicks into the upper-third of the lineup with such a low batting average, Hicks’ proclivity for reaching base ahead of the team’s sluggers rendered Boone’s decision rock-solid.
It should be said that Hicks’ average did fall to a concerning depth; his .225 mark was his lowest in four years. His .414 slugging was also the lowest in that span. His stellar on-base figure easily counteracted those declines, and resulted in an overall 123 wRC+, but the Yankees should still keep an eye on Hicks’ falling power numbers.
Also worrying was Hicks’ apparent regression on defense. Every advanced metric at our disposal — metrics that a couple years ago painted Hicks as a plus in center — suggested that Hicks was plainly below average on the outfield grass in 2020. That prognosis matches the eye test, as Hicks simply looked a little slower, failing to get to balls that he may have speared in his twenties:
Statcast indicates that Hicks ranked in just the 23rd percentile among outfielders in terms of jumps on batted balls. Yet Statcast has long indicated that Hicks gets poor jumps on balls, and previously, he’d manage to play a strong center field. Perhaps Hicks was once able to compensate for poor jumps with high-end foot speed and smart, direct routes to the ball. However, Hicks’ foot speed fell to 27 ft/sec in 2020, whereas he hit 28.5 ft/sec as recently as 2017. Mediocre straight-line speed and poor reads off the bat sounds like a recipe for a few more singles and doubles dunking in on the center field grass.
Hicks’ regression on defense and slightly deflated power figures are still some cause for concern as we head through the 2020s. At some point, the Yankees may have to consider moving Hicks off center, if he proves entirely unable to handle the demanding defensive assignment. But as Hicks showed in 2020, he can slip a bit in terms of raw power and on defense and still turn in an excellent campaign, largely because of his top-tier plate approach.
Perhaps more than anything, that plate approach is what will stay with me in the future when I reflect on the 2020 Yankees and their too-short playoff run. Even as their pitching faltered, the Yankee lineup continued to grind out unbelievably tough at-bats against pitcher after pitcher with genuine ace stuff. Shane Bieber, Carlos Carrasco, Tyler Glasnow, Blake Snell — all ground into dust by a veteran, patient group of hitters who yield no quarter.
Hicks embodies that ethos as well as any player on the card. He gives away nothing, and any out a pitcher records against him is earned. As long as that skill remains intact, Hicks will prove an invaluable cog of the Yankee offense.