The Yankees entered 2021 hopeful that they’d get to see a fully-recovered Aaron Hicks for the first time since 2018. Although he played 54 out of 60 regular season games in 2020, it was only eight months post-Tommy John surgery. Thus, it was reasonable to be optimistic that his somewhat down year power-wise was due to not being fully fit, and another year removed from the procedure would bring him close to his days as a top AL centerfielder. Unfortunately, the opposite came to pass.
2021 Statistics: 32 games, 126 PA, .194/.294/.333, 4 HR, 14 RBI, 11.1% BB%, 23.8% K%, 73 OPS+, 76 wRC+, 1 OAA, 0.1 fWAR
2022 Contract Status: Entering fourth year of seven-year, $70 million contract
2021 was about as bad as it could get for Hicks. He appeared in only 32 ineffectual games before seeing another year cut short to injury — this time a torn wrist tendon sheath which required surgery and gave him no shot of returning late in the season. It’s becoming a common refrain for Hicks, who has played more the 100 games only twice in his career — 123 in 2016 and 137 in 2018. He has now missed significant chucks of time with injuries to his hamstring, oblique, and back in addition to the major elbow and wrist injuries.
For the short time has was on the field, Hicks was scarcely better than replacement level. His calling card at the dish, particularly as a Yankee, has been his plate discipline. That’s why it was so shocking to see him regress in a pair of critical areas. First, his zone swing rate fell by almost four points relative to his prior three seasons. He was less effective at identifying good pitches to hit, and as a result was falling into a hole early in the count.
Second, his walk rate was the lowest it’s been since 2016 — a full four percentage points lower than his walk rate across the previous four seasons. Hicks’ walk-driven OBP is a large part of what buoys his overall offensive production — even in 2020 when he batted .225 with diminished power, his 19.4 percent walk rate meant he was still producing 24 percent better than league average, or right in line with his 2017-18 production. Without those walks, Hicks provides little offensive value to his team.
Speaking of diminished power, Hicks posted his lowest ISO (.139) since 2016, a mark more than 70 points below his average from 2017-2020. As I examined back in May, part of the culprit for his power loss traced to inefficient swing mechanics, particularly batting left-handed, which caused him to post a career high in average launch angle (19.1 degrees) and career-worsts in popup rate (13.8 percent) and the percentage of batted balls he got underneath (31.3 percent).
On the bright side, the defense rebounded a touch relative to the previous few years, going from slightly below average to right around league average. That said, his sprint speed has declined every year in pinstripes, and anecdotally (there are no reliable public metrics for outfielder arm strength) his arm looks less like the cannon it was in his physical prime.
It’s impossible to say whether Hicks’ poor play in 2021 was representative of his current talent level or a symptom of trying to play through an injury that eventually became unbearable. On one hand, the loss in power, sprint speed, and arm strength are all hallmarks of age-related decline for a player who recently turned 32. On the other hand, batted ball metrics like exit velocity, barrel rate, and hard hit rate have all stayed relatively constant since 2018. At the end of the day, it all becomes moot if Hicks can’t stay on the field, and his inability to do so once again in 2021 means he can only earn an Incomplete grade for the season.