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What should we expect from Starlin Castro and Aaron Hicks in the second half?

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The Yankees are due to get a pair of key veterans back soon

MLB: Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

For the most part, the Yankees beat expectations in the first half. A dismal final few weeks heading into the All-Star break notwithstanding, the team has outscored its opponents by nearly 100 runs on the season and has put itself in position to make the playoffs. That's a nice place to be considering forecasts prior to the season generally pegged the Yankees as a .500-ish fringe Wild Card contender.

The biggest reason the Yankees have been pleasantly surprising is Aaron Judge. There's no disputing that. Beyond him, much of the Yankees' success has stemmed from established players kicking it up a notch. Brett Gardner developed more power, Matt Holliday bounced back from a career-worst 2016, and even Michael Pineda pitched well for a minute there. Perhaps most crucially, mid-career veterans like Aaron Hicks and Starlin Castro established vastly higher levels of play.

Both are tracking to return soon. Castro, recovering from a hamstring strain, could be back this weekend. Hicks is on a longer timetable, as he isn't slated to resume working out until July 25th, putting his likely return sometime next month. After posting the finest starts of their careers, what's reasonable to expect from them as we head down the stretch?

Let's start by using projections as a simple baseline. Here's how Hicks and Castro's ZiPS projections have shifted from preseason to now:

Preseason vs. Current Projections

Player Time AVG OBP SLG wOBA
Player Time AVG OBP SLG wOBA
Castro Preseason 0.272 0.305 0.42 0.309
Current 0.283 0.317 0.437 0.32
Hicks Preseason 0.233 0.304 0.368 0.289
Current 0.248 0.332 0.408 0.32

The projections confirm that it's sensible to revise our expectations upward after seeing what Castro and Hicks did in the first half. That being said, the projections still don't look exactly rosy. They both project for about a .320 wOBA, an essentially average mark. League average hitting is better than was hoped for from them prior to the season, but it's still a pretty large step back from their sterling play of the first three months.

Is there any reason to expect more than average play from Hicks and Castro? There are conflicting signs when it comes to Castro. It's not easy to tell whether he's grown into a better hitter at age-27, or if he's simply gotten a nice, fortunate spate of results despite being the same player as always.

On the positive side, he does seem to be hitting the ball with more authority. His hard-hit rate is a career-high 32.6%, per FanGraphs. According to Statcast, over 40% of his batted balls have left the bat in excess of 95 mph, a better than average rate. He appears to have done a better job this year hitting the ball hard.

On the other hand, he's hitting the ball on the ground as much as ever (49% of the time), which means that a good portion of those well-struck balls are probably being pounded into the ground. Even more worrisome, it seems his plate discipline, always a problem throughout his career, has been eroding since the start of the season. From FanGraphs, here's Castro's 15-game rolling average when it comes to his swing rate on pitches in and out of the zone:

In the weeks before his injury, he was progressively swinging at more pitches out of the zone and fewer in the zone. Subsequently, here's his contact rate over time:

Castro has been falling into his old habits when it comes to free-swinging, and his contact rate has suffered for it. He's shown the ability to hit the ball hard, but not necessarily in the air, which negates some of the benefit of his well-struck balls.

Hicks seems to have provided better reason to expect more. Much of his progress has stemmed from a strikingly patient strategy at the plate. Among 201 batters with at least 240 plate appearances, Hicks' 37.9% swing rate ranks as the sixth-lowest. His swing rate on pitches out of the zone (20.4%) is seventh-lowest. He's essentially stopped swinging at pitches out of the zone, leading to his career-best walk rate (15.3%) and OBP (.388) figures.

Does the fact that Hicks is swinging less at bad pitches completely explain his increased success on batted balls? Maybe, maybe not. He's running career-highs in isolated power, slugging, and hard hit rate. He's clearly striking the ball better and seeing better results on contact, and part of that is probably due to his newfound plate discipline, but part of it is likely to due to luck and bound for regression.

There's another factor here that's tough to quantify: both are coming off injury. Will either be hampered deeper into the season by their respective ailments? Will the time away from the game disrupt their rhythms and push them to regress? There's no telling for certain, but the fact that they missed time due to injury should probably push our second-half expectations down a bit.

It's boring to say, but in totality, the projections might represent the best expectations for Castro and Hicks. Both were running offensive lines way above anything they'd ever done. Hicks at least demonstrated a clear new strategy to support his leap, while Castro's case is more muddled. Both will have to get back into the swing of things after missing time. Average offensive production seems like a reasonable middle ground to expect, between their career norms and their great first halves.

Yet even if average hitting is all that can be expected, there's nothing particularly wrong with that. That’s better than their preseason expectations, and average hitting from players capable of cogently playing up-the-middle positions can be quite valuable. Overall, Castro and Hicks may just be microcosms for the Yankees' season as a whole. Like the Yankees, they were better than expected. Like the Yankees, they probably can't post numbers as good as they did in the first half. But at the end of the day, Castro, Hicks, and the Yankees all profile better going forward than they did a few months ago.