Aaron Hicks can expect to see regular at bats against left-handed pitching in 2016, and it appears that he will begin doing so against Dallas Keuchel when the Yankees open the regular season on Monday. In making this decision, and in turning a blind eye towards the honor of Opening Day, Joe Girardi provided an indication of the importance that Hicks will have for the Yankees this season, in addition to putting out the lineup with the best chance of succeeding against Keuchel.
When the Yankees gave up John Ryan Murphy to acquire Hicks this offseason, they made it clear that Hicks is just as much a part of their future as he is their present. While Hicks' biggest contribution in 2016 may be his ability to hit left-handers, Girardi and the Yankees' front office will be committed to finding Hicks regular at bats, and doing so in a way that optimizes his impact this season.
For Girardi and the Yankees, getting the most they can out of Hicks entails both putting him in situations where he can be successful, and inserting him into the lineup at times when he is well positioned to mask the weaknesses of the Yankees' three other outfielders. The clearest circumstance where these two criteria meet is against left-handed pitching, against which Hicks had .870 OPS last season in 112 plate appearances. Carlos Beltran (.752 OPS), Jacoby Ellsbury (.652 OPS), and Brett Gardner (.761 OPS) all were less effective than Hicks against southpaws in 2015.
Although Ellsbury is the obvious candidate to sit in favor of Hicks against left-handed pitching, Beltran actually had the largest OPS differential of the three when comparing his results against right (.831 OPS) and left-handers (.752 OPS) in 2015. Taken together, the numbers suggest that Hicks should be a regular fixture in the lineup against southpaws, but reveal less in terms of attaching him to a regular platoon partner. Hicks should be considered a starter for the Yankees against left-handed pitching, but who he starts for is likely to rotate considerably throughout the course of the season.
Hicks' exploits as a lefty masher will go a long way towards determining when he plays, but his talents as a defender should not go overlooked. Here, Beltran represents the clear candidate for a day off when Hicks' athleticism can be put on display as an outfielder. In 2015, Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia were the Yankees' two most fly-ball prone starting pitchers by a relatively considerable margin, featuring a 34% and 32% fly ball rate respectively according to FanGraphs. Look for Hicks to get the nod over Beltran in right field more frequently when Tanaka and Sabathia toe the rubber.
Yankee Stadium also features one of the cozier right fields in the American League, particularly when compared to the spacious right field pastures of parks such as Fenway Park and O.Co Coliseum. Given Beltran's diminished range as an outfielder, Girardi will also be inclined to start Hicks on the road, particularly in parks with larger right fields, where the discrepancy in Hicks' and Beltran's ability to cover ground will be most apparent. (His remarkable throwing arm doesn't hurt, either.)
While the health and performance of Beltran, Ellsbury, and Gardner will certainly play a substantial role in shaping Girardi's decision to give Hicks playing time, the flexibility that Hicks offers as a switch-hitter, lefty masher, and plus outfielder ideally positions him as the utility outfielder who can mask their shortcomings. As the team's right-handed outfielder off the bench, Chris Young saw 356 plate appearances in 2015. With the Yankees' commitment to Hicks as both a part of their present and their future, and given the multifaceted tools he brings to the lineup, expect him to exceed that number in 2016.