The Yankees entered the offseason with a litany of roster issues of varying urgency. Shortstop was clearly the biggest concern, but one could argue that center field slotted right behind as a close second. The Yankees sat in the bottom third of the league in terms of value produced at the position, with a 37-year-old Brett Gardner getting the majority of the reps. Of course, Gardner’s mere presence on the leaderboard was due to the frequent unavailability of the incumbent center fielder, Aaron Hicks.
2021 Stats: 32 games, 126 PA, 4 HR, 14 RBI, .194/.294/.333, 11.1% BB%, 23.8% K%, 76 wRC+, 0.1 fWAR
FanGraphs Depth Charts Projection: 126 games, 546 PA, 19 HR, 67 RBI, .228/.343/.407, 14.2% BB%, 22.8% K%, 109 wRC+, 2.4 fWAR
Hicks represents one of the biggest conundrums on the team. Between 2017 and 2020, he graded out as the 10th-best hitting (123 wRC+) and 11th-most valuable (10.5 fWAR) center fielder in baseball despite missing 208 games. Of course, no conversation about Hicks is complete without discussing those absences.
Hicks has appeared in only 145 out of a possible 384 games across the last three seasons since signing his seven-year extension in February 2019, and he has eclipsed the 100-game mark only twice in his career. He has seen entire seasons cut short by elbow and wrist injuries while missing shorter stints to hamstring, oblique, rib, and back maladies. At this point, it’s a safer bet that he’ll miss games than play an entire season.
Because of this perennial risk of injury, Hicks has some of the widest error bars of anyone on the roster and is therefore one of the hardest players to project. When healthy and performing at peak capacity, he’s one of the premier players in the league at drawing walks and can add three-to-four wins to the ballclub. On the low end, he can miss over 80 percent of the season and perform at replacement level in the few games he does manage to take to the field.
FanGraphs’ Depth Charts projections expect him to play the majority of the season and put up numbers in line with his best years in pinstripes. Although the projections see the hit tool regressing slightly, they still view Hicks as a top-20 center fielder in the league. I’m sure the Yankees would love to receive 126 games with above-average offensive production and roughly 2.5 wins.
The issue is that even if Hicks does manage to stay healthy, his most recent season suggests that offensive production near this projected level feels unrealistic. He just had by far his worst offensive season since his inaugural Yankee campaign in 2016. The 76 wRC+ tells most of the story, and the reasons underlying such a sheer drop off in production are alarming.
As I mentioned before, Hicks’ offensive calling card is his elite plate discipline. From 2017 to 2020, Hicks owned the 12th-highest walk rate (15.1 percent) and 15th-lowest chase rate (21.9 percent) in baseball. There are few players who displayed a more advanced understanding of the strike zone over that four year period.
That disappeared in 2021. Hicks’ walk rate cratered to a career-low 11.1 percent while playing with the Yankees. In addition, his chase rate jumped roughly three points and zone swing rate fell more than two points relative to the aforementioned four-year period. The sharp acuity of his eye at the plate went blurry seemingly overnight. Not only was he swinging at more balls out of the zone, he was failing to recognize the best pitches to hit. It’s possible that his injury bothered him longer than he let on and that affected Hicks’ quality of contact, but that doesn’t fully explain what happened to his batting eye.
The other major red flag from his 32 games last season was the bizarre reversal of his left-handed vs. right-handed hitting splits. I wrote about this back in May, but long story short, Hicks became almost unplayable batting left-handed, which is a problem considering they comprised the majority of his plate appearances.
Then there’s the sticky issue of his defense. Hicks’ center field glovework had declined every year in pinstripes until he showed signs of a slight bounce-back to roughly league average last season. That said, I think it’s safe to say Hicks is a below-average defensive center fielder at this point in his career, which makes this revelation from Max Goodman particularly intriguing:
Worth noting...— Max Goodman (@MaxTGoodman) March 27, 2022
In #Yankees defensive drills right now, Aaron Hicks is in left field, Joey Gallo is in center and Aaron Judge/Giancarlo Stanton are in right.
From the minute Hicks returned from Tommy John surgery, there have been doubts as to whether his arm was strong enough to stay in center. Throw on top his declining sprint speed and the limiting effect that has on his range and it’s fair to question whether Hicks is better suited to a corner outfield spot.
The Yankees’ best offensive outfield consists of some combination of Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Joey Gallo tending the long grass. If Hicks cannot recapture some of the form that made him one of the top all-around center fielders in the game in 2017-18, he could quickly find himself on the outside looking in when it comes to the Yankees’ starting lineup.