You could take out two, maybe three regulars from the Yankees’ lineup and the offense still would be one of the very best in the league. Yet, if you take away center fielder Aaron Hicks for a considerable period of time, the run production of the unit as a whole would not be the same.
Aaron Hicks is that good. No, he won’t wow anybody with his batting average. After all, his .235 career mark and his .225 in 2020 won’t scare anyone and, even worse, will lead some fans and observers to believe that he isn’t a good hitter. However, his true value is in his ability to work counts, take walks, and get on base while also presenting a power threat.
2020 Stats: 211 PA, .225/.379/.414, 6 HR, 21 RBI, 18.0 K%, 19.4 BB%, 123 wRC+, 1.1 WAR
2021 FanGraphs Depth Chart Projections: 581 PA, .238/.358/.431, 22 HR, 75 RBI, 22.0 K%, 15.4 BB%, 111 wRC+, 2.9 WAR
Hicks’ calling card is his walk rate. His 19.4 BB% mark in 2020 was the third-best among MLB qualified hitters, only behind Juan Soto and Bryce Harper and right ahead of Ronald Acuña Jr., Carlos Santana, Christian Yelich, and Freddie Freeman. The Yankees’ slugger walked more than he struck out (18.0 K%) which is a rarity these days. His overall slash line of .225/.379/.414 and, especially, his 123 weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) show that he is, indeed, a comfortably above-average hitter.
We can expect more of the same in 2021, perhaps with a little more power now that his Tommy John surgery is further in the rearview mirror. Hicks just doesn’t offer at bad pitches, as his 19.9 O-swing % (percentage of swings to pitches outside of the strike zone), the sixth-lowest mark among qualifiers, attests.
For the Yankees, that kind of pitch recognition skills and OBP prowess is invaluable, because it means that the middle-of-the-order hitters will find at least one runner on base nearly 40% of the time, which is huge. Hicks sees lots of pitches per at-bat, and his approach, coupled with a two-walk game this week in spring training play, prompted one of the funniest lines of the young baseball season. As he told Yankees’ MLB.com beat writer Bryan Hoch, “I swear I’m going up there trying to hit something.”
His profile is ideal for a leadoff hitter, but manager Aaron Boone seems inclined to write his name in the three-hole most nights. As it turns out, Hicks can also do damage when he finds the right pitch to hit: in the last season he played more than 100 games, which was 2018, he knocked 27 balls out of the park in 137 games. Hicks has 25-homer power as a switch-hitter.
The 2021 season will also allow us to see whether Hicks can go back to being an above-average center fielder, which he was virtually every year before 2020. Last season, he was -3.3 Fielding Runs below average per FanGraphs, and had negative marks in Ultimate Zone Rating, or UZR (-3.9) and Defensive Runs Saved, or DRS (-8.)
Statcast’s Outs Above Average (OAA) didn’t paint a particularly good picture, either. Hicks was in the fifth percentile in OAA, with -4, and had notorious issues going “lateral towards 1B”, with -3. When healthy, he is talented and athletic enough, even at 31, to return to “good defender” status in 2021.
He may not hit .260, or knock 35-40 home runs like Aaron Judge or Giancarlo Stanton, but make no mistake: Aaron Hicks will be one of the most important pieces in the 2021 Yankees’ lineup.