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The Yankees’ Aaron Hicks is a stride away from stardom

An improvement in Hicks’ lefty swing mechanics could make the most of his elite plate discipline.

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

As Tom Krosnowski pointed out in a piece last week, Aaron Hicks’s value to the Yankees comes mostly from his ability to draw walks, and not from the balls he puts in play. Hicks has the fourth best walk rate in baseball despite hitting seven points below league average. Not only is his swing rate lower than than 70% of the league, he’s particularly discerning when he does. His chase rate at pitches out of the strike zone is the 15th lowest in baseball. Hicks, however, possesses an extremely limited repertoire as a hitter when he actually does put the ball in play. Though his discerning eye is a legitimate skill, he lacks the clean swing mechanics that might elevate his game to a perennial All Star-level player.

Hicks’s switch-handedness, and therefore ability to create a cross-match with every pitcher he faces, automatically boosts his walk rate. A batter can pick up the ball earlier out of the pitcher’s hand from opposite the pitcher’s arm-side, and breaking pitches move towards the hitter, giving them a longer time to make a decision on whether to swing. In 2020, same-handed hitter-pitcher matchups have resulted in walks just 8.6% of the time, whereas cross-handed matchups have led to walks 9.7% of the time.

Going further, Hicks walks most frequently as a lefty-facing-righties (12.9 career BB%), the side where he records 70% of his at-bats. Though his overall career BB% (12.2) pales in comparison to the 20.2 mark he’s posted this season, it’s still about three percentage points higher than the league average, at least a third of which can simply be chalked up just to his ability to bat from either side of the plate.

From the left side of the plate, Hicks is a dead pull hitter. Of Hicks’s 30 homers since the start of 2018, every single one of them has been to the right of center field.

When he barrels up balls with a launch angle of at least 20 degrees, he has enough power to take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short porch in right field. When he doesn’t, he often grounds the ball directly into the shift. His ground ball percentage is the 27th highest in the majors (50.0%), and his pull percentage is the 15th highest (52.8%).

In the spray chart of every field out Hicks made from 2018 on, look at the clustering of groundouts on the right side of the infield. Here is hitting coach, Avery Ware, breaking how things go wrong with Aaron Hicks’s swing, leading to this preponderance of topped grounders.

When Hicks attacks the fastball in this clip, he’s on-time, but he approaches the ball inefficiently. When he plants his front foot, he fails to match his exaggerated side bend with a corresponding sink into his hips. This sent his barrel out and around the ball instead of through it. This inefficiently transfers energy towards first base instead of back through the box, causing his ankle to roll. In Hicks’s lefty swing, his hand path looks more like he’s casting a fishing rod rather than trying to punch the ball with his barrel. This indirect route, paired with his good-to-early timing, leads to ground ball after ground ball into the pull-side shift.

Hicks doesn’t strike out particularly often, as he’s had a better-than-average strikeout rate in every season except last. However, when he does, his Ks typically follow the same pattern. Hicks’s propensity for being early helps him catch up to most fastballs (17.2 Whiff%), but by pulling everything, he struggles with soft stuff down-and-away (42.2 Whiff% on breaking pitches and 50.0 Whiff% on offspeed).

This chart tracks pitch types by location of every Aaron Hicks swing and miss since 2018. Most of Hicks’s whiffs come on the changeups in the bottom part of the zone that take advantage of his early and out in front approach.

Coach Ware also shared some insights as to how Hicks might be able to improve his lefty swing:

Though Hicks has better bat-to-ball skills and is more disciplined from the left side, his righty swing is actually more mechanically sound. This disparity is most likely due to the increased comfortability earned by hitting from the left side in 70% of his at-bats. From the right side, Hicks attacks the ball without leaking energy through a weakly planted front foot as he does on his left. This tighter turn to the ball, like Juan Soto’s, allows for deeper a contact-point and a greater ability to drive the ball to all fields. If Hicks were able to clean up his bat-path, he’d drive the ball to all fields more consistently, increasing his contact and power numbers as defenses wouldn’t be able to find success overloading the right side of the infield against him.

Since signing a 7-year, $70 million contract to remain the Yankees’ franchise centerfielder for the foreseeable future, Hicks has played in just 80 out of a possible 187 games. The most important thing for the club is that he remain healthy enough to approximate the production of an everyday starter. He’s a passable defender at the fourth most important position on the field, and his keen eye will keep his floor high. However, if he wants to raise the ceiling of his potential production to an All Star-level player, Hicks need to iron out the kinks in his lefty swing.