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What if Aaron Hicks is good again?

The centerfielder is off to a hot start in 2022, and could be the team’s biggest X-factor.

New York Yankees v Baltimore Orioles Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

It’s been a tough couple years for Aaron Hicks. After putting up eight and a half wins in 225 games between 2017 and 2018, he’s since only appeared in 156 games — although he did play in 54 of 60 games in 2020 — putting up 2.7 fWAR. He’s had Tommy John surgery, wrist problems, back problems...the injuries have taken their toll on his onfield performance too, and this was especially evident last year, which produced a paltry 76 wRC+ and 0.1 fWAR in 32 games.

But hope springs eternal, and 11 games into 2022, Aaron Hicks looks real, real good. It’s hard to use OPS or even wRC+ at this point in the season, but there are smaller building blocks that can be really useful even in stretches like this — Eno Sarris has his table that I might delve into later this week, and Hicks has his own stats that I think are helpful to check in on how he’s doing.

First of all, he’s walking more than he’s striking out, but making more contact at the same time. Plate discipline has always been a vital part of Hicks’ game, but the last time we saw him play a major proportion of games (2020), he whiffed at the second-highest rate of his career. In the early goings of 2022, he’s still walking a lot, more than 18 percent, but when he goes after a pitch, he’s making contact at his highest rate since 2017, the first season where we realized the Yankees really had something in him.

He’s running better, and faster, than any season since 2019, and that’s led to him grading out as neutral defensively, which when you have two really strong defenders flanking you in the corners, works out to a net positive for the Yankees.

There are still things to be a little cautious of for Hicks — he’s not really driving the ball, his barrel rate, which as Sarris discusses above is probably the most useful stat this early in the season, is very low — and there’s always gong to be injury concerns when you have his history, mandating some kind of careful load management.

But what if he’s good? Not 170 wRC+ good, of course, not a .459 OBP like he is now, but what if he’s 2017 good again? That looks like a .370ish OBP, a little more pop than expected, good enough baserunning and defense to not be a liability. Toss that somewhere near the top or the bottom of the lineup card, and all of a sudden this team gets a whole lot deeper.

Center field was a major area of concern for the club over the winter, even if there wasn’t a great realistic option available. The same load management that the Yankees are employing for Hicks will be used for Aaron Judge and Joey Gallo, meaning they couldn’t be full time center fielders. I don’t love Starling Marte, and the Yankees weren’t going to make a trade for Bryan Reynolds.

Last season, the Yankees got just a win and a half out of the center field slot, 23rd in the game. You get more out of not being stupid than you get by being smart, so for the Yankees, if they can go from the 23rd most productive CF to something like the 12th or 11th, not even an elite center field, merely a good one, we’re talking about a pickup of a couple wins. That in a tight AL East, can make a major difference.

Hicks is getting on base, running well, and whether he’s batting leadoff or 6-7th in the order, lengthens this lineup considerably, especially when both the heart and bottom of the lineup has been underwhelming at best thus far. The next step for him is to drive the ball with real authority — his current ISO would be the second lowest of his career — and if he starts doing that, I might be willing to say he’s back for real.

Even with that caveat, Aaron Hicks is off to the start the Yankees needed out of him this year. He and DJ LeMahieu have quickly become the two most un-benchable bats in the lineup for the time being, and when you combine their ability to lengthen the lineup with the sky-high ceilings of hitters like Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, it might not take much for this team to pull out of this early season stagnation.