Currently in year two of his seven-year, $70 million contract, Aaron Hicks is earning his money for the Yankees, even if he’s not doing it in the flashiest of ways. Hicks is only hitting .236, and his home run on Monday was just the second of his season. In a season where the Yankees’ lineup has mostly either dominated (pre-injury Judge, Stanton and LeMahieu) or slumped mightily (Torres and Sánchez), Hicks has just kind of been chugging along, not really rocking the boat either way. He’s doing his job, and the Yankees can fit him anywhere in the lineup.
However, there is one trait of Hicks’s that has stood out even more than in the rest of his career. Hicks’s plate discipline and batter’s eye have reached elite-tier levels in 2020, and they’ve fueled what could become his strongest offensive season to date, even if his power numbers are a tick below his career norms.
Hicks’ batting average obviously seems a little low for someone as a good a hitter as Hicks. Yet .236 is also his career average, a fact that surprised me. Although Hicks doesn’t usually strike out a ton, he’s not exactly a high-average hitter – he has only topped .250 twice in his career, and he didn’t play 100 games in either of those seasons. Although he only has one multi-hit game in 2020, this isn’t necessarily a decline. His batted ball data (BABIP, pull-center-opposite percentages, soft-medium-hard hit rate) is mostly within its norms, although he is pulling the ball more often than usual and his low launch angle has resulted in more groundballs. These changes haven’t affected his overall numbers, though, which are as consistent as ever.
So, how is Hicks having his best offensive season (a 140 wRC+) if he’s been mostly the same with the bat? Here’s Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill from Moneyball to tell you how:
There are very few MLB players that get on base better than Aaron Hicks. His .408 OBP is the 18th-best in Major League Baseball, and easily the highest mark of his career. Now, it’s only been 17 games, but Hicks has paid the opposing first baseman a visit in every game so far. His 17-game on-base streak comes with just 13 hits, but a whopping 16 walks. Hicks’s walk rate is an astronomical 22.5 percent, which is in the top 1% league wide (behind only Carlos Santana and Anthony Rendon).
Hicks only gets a hit 23.6 percent of the time, but he still gets on base more than 40 percent of the time. That is a bona fide skill! It’s nothing new for Hicks, who has always been a high-on-base guy. However, the refining of his stellar plate discipline from just an individual positive into a downright impact skill that helps the team has given Hicks added value, even as he hits at the same solid level as in the past.
The MLB average chase rate is 28.2 percent. Hicks’s career chase rate is 20.6. This year, it’s all the way down to 16.8 percent, which is among the top-25 best in the whole league. Hicks just has excellent plate awareness; he swings at strikes and lets balls go. His mastery of this seemingly-basic skill (that is not so easy to do with the game’s best pitchers throwing several different pitches at high velocity) has turned a slightly above-average hitter into the Yankees’ biggest on-base threat.
There are several benefits to this for Hicks in the long run. If Hicks keeps making pitchers pay by looking at their pitches outside the zone, they’ll have to throw him more strikes. Once they start throwing Hicks more strikes, it stands to reason his power numbers will improve. He’s a good enough hitter to jump on a fastball or a hanging breaking ball, and perhaps those slugging numbers will get back to 2017-2019 levels, when he hit 54 home runs in 284 games, an average of 31 over a full season.
Hicks isn’t the best hitter in the Yankees lineup, but he is among their most valuable. His batter’s eye serves him better than any other Yankee, and leads to more runs when he gets on base in front of the big boppers. Like Billy Beane said in Moneyball, you can’t win unless you get on base, and Aaron Hicks is among the best in baseball at doing that.