After a 2019 campaign marred by injuries, punctuated by Tommy John surgery for Aaron Hicks, changes to the Yankees’ training staff were inevitable. As the 2020 season approaches, the outcome of those changes is far from certain.
As part of a program-wide overhaul, the Yankees hired Eric Cressey as their new Director of Player Health and Performance this January. Cressey is a widely respected performance coach at Cressey Sports Performance, a company he co-founded in 2007, where he trains over 100 MLB players. He has been at the vanguard of a philosophical shift throughout baseball, as highlighted by Lindsey Adler at The Athletic, one that’s focused on biomechanics and kinesiology. In 2020, Cressey’s new-school vision will be judged not only by structural changes, like a revitalized strength and conditioning department, but also by how his staff shepherds Aaron Hicks through the remainder of his Tommy John rehabilitation.
Hicks underwent the surgery last October to repair the torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. The procedure was the culmination of a troubling injury history. Since joining the Yankees in 2016, Hicks has spent six stints on the injured list, nagged by injuries to his hamstring, oblique, ribs, back, and arm for a whopping total of 208 days, per Spotrac.
When healthy, he has been a vital contributor, a disciplined switch-hitter capable of big plays in center field. When he played a career-high 137 games in 2018, he led the Yankees with a 15.5% walk rate and posted a .360 wOBA, just a tick below Miguel Andujar’s team-best .361. The restoration of Hicks to his highest level would add a patient and productive bat to an outfield corps that already promises to make opposing pitchers work.
The road back is fraught with unknowns, even with Cressey on board. There’s no guarantee Hicks will return to his peak form. Though the number of Tommy John surgeries for position players has been trending up since Paul Molitor had the first in 1984, pitchers still account for about 90 percent of all cases in baseball, as documented by Ginny Searle at SB Nation. The relative rarity of surgically repaired UCL injuries to position players makes it difficult to define their cause and to standardize an approach to rehabilitation.
The Yankees have experienced firsthand how unpredictable rehab for Tommy John surgery for position players can be. Gleyber Torres had the surgery in June of 2017 on his non-throwing elbow after injuring it during a headfirst slide into home plate. Eight months later he was healthy and attending camp down in Tampa, preparing for his breakout season. On the other hand, Didi Gregorius’ recovery from a Tommy John procedure in October of 2018 wasn’t so smooth. He struggled when he returned to the Yankees’ lineup the following June, tailspinning to a .297 wOBA, the worst of his career in New York, and paving the way for his eventual exit in free agency.
The parallels between Gregorius and Hicks are worrisome. Gregorius was 28 at the time of his injury. Hicks was 29. Both players tore their UCL in their throwing arms while fielding their positions, not in a fluky base running accident. And like Gregorius, Hicks underwent his surgery in October, meaning the timetable for his return could be similar. If he rejoins the Yankees midsummer, as Gregorius did, a comparable decline in production might be likely.
All this puts the onus on Cressey and his staff to navigate Hicks’ uncertain rehabilitation with an eye to the future. Hicks is signed to a seven-year deal that ends in 2025. The goal for his recovery shouldn’t be getting him back on the field; it should be getting him back on the field at his best. Ideally, the training program Cressey’s team is now implementing will just be the first step in a long-term effort to keep Hicks healthy for the rest of his career.
We might not know until the end of the season—or beyond—if that program is a success, but if Hicks can play sustainably anything like the guy who patrolled center field in 2018, it will be a huge victory for him, for Eric Cressey, and for the Yankees.