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What’s behind Aaron Hicks’s slow start?

It’s obviously early, but Opening Week has not gone well for Aaron Hicks.

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

It’s no secret that I'm an Aaron Hicks supporter. I’ve called his ability to get on base “the single best trait in the Yankees’ lineup,” and bestowed the title of “2021 Yankees X-Factor” on him before this season. He’s a five-tool player when he’s right, and — much to Hal Steinbrenner’s delight, I’m sure — he only costs the Yankees $10 million per year.

Although almost no meaningful analysis can be taken away from a four-game sample size, Aaron Hicks’s start to 2021 hasn’t just been any ordinary four-game sample. It’s been a downright abysmal one.

The Yankees’ switch-hitting center fielder has turned the three-hole in the starting lineup into a black hole, going 2-for-20 with 9 strikeouts while leaving 11 runners on base. Although Aaron Boone usually gives his regulars a day off every now and then, it was pretty easy to read into the decision to sit Hicks on Tuesday.

The team is hopeful that Hicks’s 2-for-20 stretch is just like any other ordinary slump that happens over the course of a 162-game season. Because it’s happening right out of the gate and coming from the man hand-picked to bat between Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, it’s understandably ringing a few alarm bells.

When Hicks is at his best, he’s using his plate discipline as a weapon. No Yankee has a better batter’s eye, which helps Hicks get into good hitter’s counts, and he did manage to work a key bases-loaded walk on Monday. Hicks has the power to turn on 3-1 pitches, and the patience to generate as many free passes as hits over a full season.

So far though, Hicks’s timing has been a bit off. Of his eight batted balls, all of them have either been classified as “topped” or “under” by Baseball Savant. Again, it’s just eight batted balls, but Hicks has yet to make solid, square, barreled-up contact on even one pitch so far this season.

The more concerning part of Hicks’s slump is his elevated whiff rate and seeming lack of strike zone aggression. Hicks is a selective swinger to begin with, but he usually swings when the ball is in the strike zone. This year though, he’s only swinging at 55 percent of strikes. Of those swings, he’s only making contact on 66 percent of them. This is a big decline from Hicks’s lifetime 65.8 percent zone-swing rate and 79.8 percent zone-contact rate. That low contact rate is anchored by his 43.8 percent whiff rate and 25.6 percent chase rate through four games.

When Hicks is at his best, he spits at bad pitches, but five Blue Jays pitchers got him to chase different spots outside the zone during the opening series:

Even acknowledging that some of those pitches were well-executed, Hicks usually doesn’t get fooled to that degree.

Now, which numbers are more likely to show up over the course of the 2021 season – his lifetime averages over 712 MLB games, or this four-game cold stretch? I shouldn’t have to answer that question. But in the immediate future, it might benefit the Yankees to at least consider temporarily dropping Hicks in the batting order. He’s currently getting the third-most plate appearances of any hitter in the lineup, even though he’s doing relatively little with them. There is no shortage of mashers on this team, and in the meantime, the Yankees could bump Stanton up to the three-hole, or give Clint Frazier or Gleyber Torres some reps higher in the order.

In an ideal world, Hicks’s lineup position between Judge and Stanton makes perfect sense. He’s usually an on-base machine, and Judge and Stanton need runners to drive in. Hicks’s plate discipline forces pitchers to be careful anyway, and when the alternative is facing Stanton with runners on, that protection should give Hicks some hittable pitches. Over time, this look could prove valuable to the Yankees, even though the actual importance of lineup construction tends to be a bit overstated. But Hicks could still use some low-pressure at-bats to find his rhythm, which might come batting sixth.

It’s way too early to push the panic button on Hicks this season. Right now though, he is far from locked in. Moving him down the order to get his groove back could pay dividends, and before long, he’ll be driving pitchers crazy again with his stellar plate control. With Luke Voit out, the Yankees need Hicks to fill the gap in the heart of the order.