Let’s get this out of the way: Aaron Hicks is a good baseball player and an important part of the Yankees. Due to a combination of factors his absence last season was largely overlooked, but make no mistake - he was missed. Due respect to Brett Gardner, who did well enough in a role that he’s no longer designed for, the Yankees would have been better off with Hicks playing 140 games in the outfield instead of Gardner. (Probably about two wins better depending on a few variables and which version of WAR you prefer.)
Of course, I wrote “let’s get this out of the way” because there’s been much frustration among Yankees’ fans with Hicks, and I’m expecting some pushback. Even prior to last season, he’d missed 208 games since joining the Yankees due to injuries to his shoulder, back, ribs, oblique, and hamstring. Yet I’m going to suggest today that we shouldn’t allow our frustrations to cloud our ability to see the big picture – which is Aaron Hicks is someone the Yankees should want in their lineup.
It wasn’t too long ago (2018 to be exact) that Hicks was the second-best center fielder in the American League. He finished that season second among AL center fielders in both WAR and OPS+, trailing only that guy on the Angels who I hear is pretty good. What was even more impressive was that Hicks was improving, as his OPS+ and WAR both increased from 2016 to 2017 then again from 2017 to 2018.
Then, in the shortened season of 2020, despite being on the receiving end of much vitriol from fans and media for not playing up to expectations, Hicks still had another strong season. His 123 OPS+ ranked fourth among AL center fielders and his wOBA ranked in the 81st percentile across all of MLB. Due to a down year defensively, his WAR numbers weren’t as high as they were in 2018, yet his fWAR and WARP would have been 3.0 over a 162 game season. That is to say, even with an off-year with the glove, he was still a quality starter whose name you’d want near the top of the lineup card regularly.
I’m sure by now you’re directing me to the elephant over in the corner of the room. Yes, those two seasons were when Hicks was healthy. Yet I’d still say there’s more reason for optimism than pessimism with Hicks heading into 2022. Also, considering he’s owed about $42 more million on his contract over the next four seasons, we may as well be optimistic, because it’s unlikely he’s going anywhere.
Let me remind you that I’m typically the skeptic when it comes to players with extensive injury histories (if you read my articles earlier this season about Corey Kluber and Luke Voit, you’re already aware of this). For starters, though, Hicks is only 32 years old. That’s not young from a baseball player standpoint, but it also isn’t problematic from an injury recovery standpoint; he should be able to recover from this wrist injury. It’s also obvious, but worth remembering that Hicks is a good athlete, and generally speaking, the higher degree of neuromuscular coordination one has (i.e., the more “athletic” one is) the better chances of a successful return. It’s also a safe assumption that Hicks is a highly disciplined and hardworking individual who’ll do what he needs to do to get back on the field and stay on it. (Folks who aren’t highly disciplined and hardworking generally don’t make it to the big leagues in the first place.)
You may be wondering how that’s different than the situations that Kluber and Voit have been in. Kluber is a pitcher, and pitchers essentially repeat the same movement over and over and over, which significantly increases the chance of injury. Unlike Voit, Hicks doesn’t have a history of posting videos of what can best be described as “questionable exercise selections” online. Obviously, both Kluber and Voit are professional athletes and are highly athletic as well, but not like Hicks. Hicks is a scratch golfer and a switch-hitter in the major leagues, one with a great arm, a great approach, and power – you’re more likely to get attacked by a shark and be struck by lightning on the same day than be born with that level of neuromuscular coordination.
I’m more inclined to compare Hicks’ situation to those of Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. Sometimes players just have bad luck with their health, and sometimes consistent activity helps the situation - it certainly appeared that way in Stanton’s case. There certainly are no crystal balls and no guarantees, but if you’re an Aaron Hicks critic and hoping the Yankees make a change to who their starting center fielder is, I’d be careful to not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Hicks is a very good player who like Judge and Stanton, may simply just be “due” for a healthy season.