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Aaron Hicks is the X-factor for the Yankees’ outfield

How Hicks performs will determine the true ability of the Yankees’ outfield in 2021.

Division Series - New York Yankees v Tampa Bay Rays - Game Five Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

At this point in his Yankees and MLB career, Aaron Hicks should be a constant. He’s signed through 2025, is entering his sixth year with the team and ninth in the bigs, and is right at the tail end of his prime at age 31. In some ways, Hicks has been that steady presence for the Yankees – since becoming a starter in 2017, his OPS has never dipped below .769 but never exceeded .847, he’s posted an OPS+ greater than 120 three times, and he’s been a mainstay in center field.

At least, that’s what has happened when Hicks has actually been on the field. He only played in 88 games in 2017 and 59 games in 2019, and although he played through the full (shortened) season in 2020, he was doing so while still recovering from his 2019 Tommy John surgery. Hicks said after the season that his elbow still didn’t feel “100 percent” more than a year removed from the operation, and that lingering injury definitely affected his power production in 2020. Hicks slugged just .414, his lowest figure since 2016, and only hit six home runs. For a man with a 27-homer season to his credit and a .464 slugging percentage from 2017-2019, there’s definitely more pop in Hicks’s bat.

A dive into Hicks’s analytics doesn’t show too much change, which is why we can likely point to that nagging elbow soreness as the culprit for the reduced power. His exit velocity, launch angle and hard-hit rate were all within his career norms, and although his ground ball rate increased a little, it didn’t jump enough to be a real concern. Hicks even pulled the ball more than usual, which usually points to a sound power hitting approach.

Thus, it will be very important for the Yankees to find out if Hicks still has his usual power in 2021, or if that Tommy John surgery could have long-lasting impacts. Other position players who underwent the procedure — such as Corey Seager, Shohei Ohtani and Didi Gregorius — took awhile to reestablish their power. With that in mind, it’s OK to write off Hicks’s 2020 power outage as a post-TJS side effect, but the Yankees will be counting on another 20-home run season from him in 2021.

Even without his usual pop at the plate, Hicks was still very productive last season, and that’s due to his terrific batter’s eye. Hicks has always had top-notch plate discipline, but he reached another level last season. Hicks walked in almost 20 percent of his plate appearances and only chased out of the zone on 15.5 percent of his swings (the MLB average is 28.2 percent). Even though he only hit .225 and slugged .414, he posted a .379 on-base percentage, a figure 154 points higher than his batting average. This ability to get on base helped him post a positive net offensive value to the Yankees, as evidenced by his 121 OPS+. Somewhere, Billy Beane is smiling.

One other area of importance for Hicks has nothing to do with his power, or even his arm at all. The numbers say that Hicks’s defensive range is shrinking, and that could be problematic for a Yankees team relatively short on other center field options. His Ultimate Zone Rating consistently fell from 2017-2020, and finally reached the negatives last year. In 2018, Hicks made a play on 93 percent of balls hit into his “zone,” but in 2020, only made 88 percent of those plays.

2020 was a small sample size, but if Hicks’s range isn’t what it used to be, the Yankees could be in trouble. Statcast shows that Hicks’s main problem area in 2020 was on balls hit to his left. Hopefully, having a full season of the rangy Aaron Judge patrolling right field will help Hicks out on some of those plays.

When it comes to discussing the Yankees’ outfield, most of the conversation centers around Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Clint Frazier. However, Hicks might be the linchpin to the unit’s success in 2021. If he stays healthy and sees his power and fielding numbers improve, he’ll be his usual rock-steady presence in the middle of the Yankees’ order. But if 2020 was the beginning of a potential decline, the Yankees would be ill-prepared to handle a regression from Hicks.