Aaron Hicks, the surprising standout

Here's a sentence that nobody would have expected to read prior to the 2017 season: Aaron Hicks needs more playing time. Last season, his first in the Bronx, ended with an ugly .217/.281/.336 (64 wRC+) in 361 plate appearances. That came after a lackluster 81 wRC+ in 928 career plate appearances, all with the Twins. Simply put, Aaron Hicks didn't look like a major league caliber offensive player. Sure, his defense was impressive and he wound down 2016 with slightly above league-average offensive numbers in August (107 wRC+) and September (101 wRC+), but his body of work indicated that he was not a good player. Now, with nearly two months of the 2017 season complete, Hicks has performed like an elite player. Where did this outburst come from?

After last night's game, which included a three-run homer down the left field line, Hicks' batting line is up to .326/.464/.616 (195 wRC+) in 111 trips to the plate. Essentially, Hicks has exhibited elite plate discipline while punishing pitchers when they throw the ball in the strike zone. How good has his eye been at the plate? Take a look:

For batters with 100 plate appearances or more, Hicks has the lowest swing percentage at pitches outside of the strike zone (13.7% O-Swing%). Meanwhile, 46.3% of the pitches that Hicks has seen have been in the zone, which isn't much lower than the 47.3% league average. In simpler terms, Hicks is laying off far more bad pitches than his hitting counterparts despite seeing roughly the same ratio of balls and strikes. That's how Hicks has been able to reach base on balls 22 of his 111 times to this dish this year (19.8%).

Unsurprisingly, O-Swing% negatively correlates with walk rate. There's Hicks again, standing out along with a few other players with remarkably high walk rates. Only Robbie Grossman and Matt Carpenter have walked more frequently than Hicks has.

In additional to walking more, laying off pitches out of the strike zone has reduced Hicks' strikeout rate. Strikeouts weren't really a problem for Hicks, as his 18.8% strikeout rate last season was below the 21.1% league average. This year, Hicks is down to 15.3% with the league average rate remaining steady. It's not often that a player walks more than he strikes out, but this season, Hicks is one of the few. The others (min 100 PA):

  • Joey Votto
  • Dustin Pedroia
  • Mookie Betts
  • Robbie Grossman
  • Bryce Harper
  • Carlos Santana
  • Buster Posey

That's pretty darn good company to keep. Now, Hicks probably can't keep up a near 20% walk rate, as only Joey Votto (2015) and Jose Bautista (2011) have had a 19% or better walk rate in a full season in the last 10 years. That said, Hicks' on-base ability doesn't appear to have been a fluke. Based on Russell Carleton's research, walk rate stabilizes around 120 plate appearances (Hicks is at 111). That doesn't mean the rate at the 120 PA mark is predictive, rather, it just means that it's a reasonable result given the sample. And, considering Hicks' O-Swing%, it's hard to invalidate his walk rate at this juncture. Again, he won't keep it up, but he's certainly earned what he's gotten so far. Going forward, something like an 11% walk rate, which is what both ZiPS and Steamer project, would be reasonable to expect.

Alright, so we get that Hicks' plate discipline has been remarkable this year and should continue to be pretty good. Let's also touch on Hicks' power output to this point of the season. As mentioned earlier, Hicks hit his seventh home run of the season last night. With that, Hicks enters today with a .291 isolated power. That's going to regress, undoubtedly, but I want to point out what I find to be most impressive about Hicks' power surge.

Hitters tend to strike out more as their power output increases, as the above graph indicates. Hicks has bucked that notion in 2017. Can Hicks continue to be the rare high-contact power hitter? That's a bit harder to say, though it's doubtful. The low strikeout rate seems sustainable, as Hicks has always been above average on that end. However, the power may or may not be here to stay. Hicks' career-best ISO was in 2015, when he posted an unremarkable .142 mark (league average was .150 that year, it's been above .160 the past two seasons). So, history is not on Hicks' side. Additionally, Carleton's research found that ISO doesn't stabilize until 120 at-bats, and Hicks is still 34 shy of that mark. That said, if Hicks went 0 for his next 34, he'd still have an ISO of .209. Again, that would not predictive by any measure, but that certainly shows that he hasn't been overly lucky with extra base hits thus far. ZiPS and Steamer project ISOs just below .160 going forward, which would be right around league average.

Clearly, Hicks has been exceptional in early 2017, and it's hard not to get excited about this being a breakout year for the toolsy 27 year-old. Players who've struggled like Hicks did in their first 1,000 career plate appearances usually don't turn the switch, but perhaps Hicks could be the rare exception. In the past ten years, here are players with an 80 OPS+ or worse in their first 1,000 trips to the plate:

Results
Rk Player OPS+ PA From To Age
1Matt Dominguez8013572011201421-24
2Ruben Tejada8013592010201320-23
3Michael Bourn8011922008200925-26
4Jace Peterson7911522014201724-27
5Chris Owings7914112013201621-24
6Mike Zunino7812472013201622-25
7Jordan Pacheco7810202011201425-28
8J.P. Arencibia7813922010201324-27
9Aaron Hicks7712892013201623-26
10Ryan Flaherty7710512012201525-28
11Adeiny Hechavarria7717882012201523-26
12Alexi Amarista7712182011201422-25
13Zack Cozart7617992011201425-28
14DJ LeMahieu7612812011201422-25
15Donovan Solano7511452012201524-27
16Brandon Barnes7411442012201526-29
17Freddy Galvis7411532012201522-25
18Billy Hamilton7315472013201622-25
19Carlos Gomez7312812008201022-24
20Brendan Ryan7311332008201026-28
21Alcides Escobar7212882008201121-24
22Darwin Barney7117992010201324-27
23Jordan Schafer7111582009201322-26
24Andy LaRoche7111132008201024-26
25Jake Marisnick6810382013201622-25
Rk Player OPS+ PA From To Age
26Chris Getz6810992008201124-27
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/18/2017.

Hicks nestles in with a 77 mark. Outside of Carlos Gomez (and maybe DJ LeMaheiu), no one in that group ever became a threat at the plate. Interestingly enough, Hicks has been comped to Gomez in the past, perhaps because both were Twins center fielders. Anyway, the point is that though Hicks has been phenomenal in 2017, we should be cautious about anointing him as a great hitter. He may truly be breaking out in a fashion not too much unlike Gomez in 2012 with the Brewers, but we need to see more than just 111 plate appearances in 2017 to prove it. That's precisely why Hicks needs to play everyday.

To Joe Girardi's credit, Hicks has essentially become an everyday player, rotating in the outfield with Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury. When push comes to shove, though, Ellsbury should be the odd man out. Ironically, Ellsbury has been pretty decent this season, but ultimately has been inferior to Hicks and Gardner. Further, with almost two months of data collected, Hicks and Gardner are unquestionably favored in both Steamer's and ZiPS' rest of season forecasts. Projections aside, if Hicks keeps performing at this level (or more reasonably, a bit below it), it'll be next to impossible for Girardi to keep him out of the lineup.

If this is the real Aaron Hicks, my are we in for a treat. It's still fair to be skeptical given Hicks' track record, but maybe the front office was right all along. Hicks received a lot of flack last season, rightfully so given his performance, but optimism within the organization never wavered. Finally, the confidence shown in Hicks is paying off.