2022 Outlook: Aaron Hicks
By Andy Singer
Photo Credit: Vincent Carchietta, USA TODAY Sports
Aaron Hicks is one of the most divisive players on the Yankees roster heading into the 2022 season, which is saying something considering the number of embattled players the Yankees have retained following a disappointing 2021 season. On many levels, Aaron Hicks is a microcosm of the team’s performance in 2021. On the back of excellent, stable performance in center field during the 2017 and 2018 seasons, Aaron Hicks was given a 10 year, $70 million extension in 2019. While he has flashed solid performance since the extension, injuries have largely overshadowed any good that we’ve seen from Hicks, with back, oblique, and a devastating elbow injury (one that required Tommy John Surgery following the 2019 season) marring the 2019 season, and a tear to the tendon sheath in his left wrist ended his 2021 season prematurely. Worst of all, Hicks has not really been the same caliber of player since the injuries began to mount in 2019. Some combination of injuries and underperformance worked to undermine the Yankees’ 2021 season, and Hicks really is the poster boy for those struggles.
Coming into 2022, many fans would love to cut bait with Hicks. I am part of the minority that doesn’t necessarily want to see Hicks jettisoned, but I also hadn’t really dug into the numbers in attempt to figure out who Aaron Hicks really is as a player coming into 2022. What is Aaron Hicks’ status right now, and who can he be for the Yankees (or any team) in 2022?
Is Aaron Hicks Healthy?
Luckily, the answer to that seems to be yes. I raised an eyebrow when Brian Cashman said at his end of season press conference that he expected Aaron Hicks to get some at-bats down in the Dominican Winter League (LIDOM). While I was surprised that the Yankees would allow a recovering player in whom the Yankees have made a significant investment to risk re-injury in offseason games away from the Yankees’ complex, I really liked the decision so that Hicks could see competitive pitching prior to 2022 if he is indeed healthy.
Well, Hicks played 12 games in LIDOM, batting .265/.321/.408, with 1 HR, 9 RBI, 4 BB, and 10 K. A couple of quick notes regarding those numbers. One skill that even Hicks’ detractors cannot knock is plate discipline. Hicks has shown an aptitude for patience at the plate while laying off of pitches outside of the strike zone. While his bottom-line numbers don’t pop, it might surprise some that Hicks struck out 10 times against just 4 walks in 12 games. That doesn’t concern me at all for two reasons: one, Hicks almost certainly went down to the Dominican with an intention to swing the bat and test his wrist; two, Hicks was almost certainly a bit rusty after 6 months without game action and wrist surgery in-between.
Lastly, 12 games is an incredibly small sample size. I wouldn’t read anything into the numbers after 12 games of play. The most important thing is that Hicks appears to be in great shape (more on that in a minute) and he left the Dominican Republic healthy. For now, mission accomplished.
Part of Aaron Hicks’ value has always come from his ability to play center field at an above-average or better level. Many of the advanced metrics that loved Hicks’ defense in CF through 2017 have been decidedly more mixed in the years that have followed. Defensive Runs Saved has graded Hicks’ performance as at least below-average in center field since 2018, with significant drop-off in 2020 and 2021 in shortened seasons at -8 and -4 dRS respectively. Total Zone’s Total Runs Fielding metric was even more mixed, grading Hicks as a well below-average center fielder in 2018 (-13 runs total), but above average in 2019 and 2020 (9 and 5 runs, respectively), before falling off in 2021 (-4 runs).
With Statcast, we can dig a little deeper. Statcast’s defensive metric, Outs Above Average (OAA), has generally graded Hicks as a below-average center fielder, though strangely it is the only publicly available defensive metric of which I’m aware that graded Hicks’ defensive performance in 2021 positively at +1. How does Statcast arrive at that number? According to Statcast, he made the high probability catches (75% probability and up), and had a 67% success rate on 3 attempts on balls with a catch probability between 25% and 60% when Statcast would only expect a 52% success rate (obviously an impossible catch success rate in just 3 real life chances). Statcast shows us the problem with grading Hicks’ defense in recent seasons: sample size. We really need large data sets to evaluate defense reliably, and we just don’t have that with Hicks.
Hicks’ skillset in the outfield is solid, but there are a few factors about which I worry. I remain unconvinced that Hicks has the same arm after Tommy John Surgery, which was his greatest asset as an outfielder; he’s going to be 32 in 2022, an age when skill position players begin to decline; Hicks’ sprint speed has decreased in every season since 2017 according to Statcast, dropping to the middle of the pack in 2021; and in pictures available to us this offseason, Hicks looks very bulky (muscular, but bulky). These are all factors that bear monitoring in 2022, and I’m not sure we can expect Hicks to be anything more than an average defender in centerfield in 2022.
A Point Of Interest Offensively
We’ve discussed Hicks’ offensive profile in exhaustive fashion over the last couple of seasons, so I won’t rehash many of the same arguments right now. Hicks is capable of being a valuable hitter, particularly through his plus-plus plate discipline, but there is one factor in his performance that gives me real pause: his ability to hit fastballs. Aaron Hicks has made his career feasting on fastballs. Check out Hicks’ numbers against fastballs from 2017-2021:
Aaron Hicks against fastballs, 2017-2021, according to Statcast
Those are great numbers, period. Aaron Hicks has been a guy you want at the plate in a fastball count. The numbers remain excellent against fastballs at 95 MPH and harder over that timespan:
Aaron Hicks against fastballs 95+ MPH, 2017-2021, according to Statcast
Again, Hicks shows solid performance, making contact, getting on-base, showing some pop, and he hits the ball hard with a solid average launch angle.
However, all of this fell apart in 2021. Hicks struggled mightily in all facets of the game in 2021, but his performance against fastballs really tailed off:
Aaron Hicks against fastballs, 2021, According to Statcast
Hicks still hit the ball hard, but the performance just wasn’t there, and the launch angle went way up, rising 5 degrees above his previous average.
The numbers look even worse against fastballs 95+ MPH:
Aaron Hicks against fastballs 95+ MPH, 2021, according to Statcast
Hicks’ exit velocity was down, he struggled to make contact, and he hit the ball with almost zero authority. It’s a small sample size, but there are real concerns here.
I’m not sure when Hicks was initially hurt, but the numbers show that something was going on with Hicks mechanically. His launch angle was way up, which tells me Hicks was trying to compensate for something at the plate. Maybe the wrist was an issue for longer than fans were led to believe, but in any case, Hicks’ performance against fastballs is the key to whether or not he’s a viable player in 2022.
Aaron Hicks might still be a valuable player in 2022, but there are every bit as many question marks as his detractors would lead you to believe. As much as Hicks is still likely capable of justifying his salary, it would behoove the Yankees to hedge their bets and look for some insurance in center field, even if they don’t go with one of the big names.
Aaron Hicks would likely be a great 4th outfielder, but it’s hard to count on him as the starting center fielder coming into 2022.