What to Expect from Aaron Hicks in 2021
By Chris O’Connor
March 9, 2021
*All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, Fangraphs, and Baseball Savant
On November 11, 2015, the Yankees traded backup catcher John Ryan Murphy to the Minnesota Twins for a 26 year-old, former top prospect center fielder named Aaron Hicks. To that point, Hicks had struggled to live up to his prospect status through injuries and underperformance. The Twins felt good about dealing him because they had top prospect Byron Buxton waiting to take over the position as well as significant outfield depth in their system in Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler.
While Hicks struggled in his first year in New York, he broke out with a terrific 2017, though injuries limited him to just 88 games. He finally put it all together in 2018: in 137 games, he slashed .248/.366/.467 with 27 homers, 79 RBI’s, and 90 runs scored while playing solid defense at a difficult position. After the season, he inked a 7 year, $70 million extension with a team option for 2026.
Hicks struggled again with injuries in 2019, appearing in just 59 games and ultimately undergoing Tommy John surgery after the season. While he was able to play in 54 of the 60 games last season and did have a .379 OBP, he hit only 6 home runs and, according to the advanced metrics, his defense slipped significantly.
As Hicks enters his age-31 season with five years left on his contract (at a very manageable $10 million per year), he is a big part of the Yankees future. What should be expected of him in 2021? Let’s break it down.
Exceptional Plate Discipline
Hicks’ trademark skill over the past few years has been his outstanding patience at the plate.
Since 2017, he ranks 15th lowest among all players in percentage of pitches swung at outside of the strike zone and 18th lowest among all players in overall swing rate. He has only gotten more selective over the years: in 2020 alone, his rate of pitches swung at outside the strike zone was a career low 19.9% and a sharp decrease from the 25.1% he posted in 2020. This is a major reason his walk rate ballooned to a career high 19.4%. That ranked third among all big leaguers (between Bryce Harper and Ronald Acuna Jr.) and he was one of just seven players to post more walks than strikeouts. Thus, despite only hitting .225, he still posted a top-50 WRC+ of 123.
His plate discipline only seems to be getting better with age and shows no signs of slowing down as he gets more and more selective at the plate.
Will the Power Come Back?
After hitting 54 home runs in 284 games across 2017-2019, a pace of 28.5 home runs per 150 games, Hicks hit just 6 homers in 54 games in 2020. His numbers tell part of the story. His exit velocity fell from 89.7mph in both 2018 and 2019 to 88.2 mph in 2020, though that rate was still above the 86.2 mph he posted in his breakout 2017. I am not worried there. His hard hit rate (balls hit with an exit velocity of 95+mph) has fallen from a high of 43.2% in 2018 to 38.2% in 2020. However, that was higher than the 32.2% he posted in 2017 and the 37.1% he hit for in 2019, so nothing to be too concerned about there, either.
I think the reason for his drop in homers resulted from two things: his groundball/flyball ratio and his home run/flyball ratio. His groundball-flyball ratio increased from an average of 1.05 across 2018 and 2019 to 1.31 in 2020. His home run/flyball ratio decreased from about 19% in both 2018 and 2019 to 13.3% in 2020. He was hitting more balls on the ground, less in the air, and those that he did hit in the air were not leaving the park as frequently. Both of these stats were remarkably similar in 2018 and 2019, indicating that those are Hicks’ established levels.
I think Hicks performance over the larger sample of 2018 and 2019 is more predictive than 54 games 2020, so I am optimistic that his power will bounce back in 2021. Assuming he plays over 100 games, 20-25 home runs would be my projection.
As a center fielder, a huge part of Hicks’ value that he brings to the Yankees is his exceptional defense at an up-the-middle position. Hicks is entering his age-31 season, however, an age that is certainly on the older side for a center fielder.
According to the advanced metrics, his defense has slipped in recent years, staying relatively steady from 2018-2019 before cratering in 2020. The stats agree that his defensive peak was 2017. He posted far and away career highs in Baseball Reference dWAR, Fangraphs defensive score, UZR/150, and OAA. His defensive stats have been on a sharp decline in the years since. In 2017, among 30 center fielders with at least 400 innings at the position, he ranked 12th in Fangraphs defensive score (despite playing just 88 games) and third in UZR/150, a rate stat. In 2020, among 28 center fielders with at least 200 innings at the position, he ranked 27th in defensive score and 26th in UZR/150. His UZR/150 of -11.6 was easily a career low, far worse than any other season aside from an outlier 2014. Similarly, OAA ranks him 37th among 38 qualified center fielders in 2020. While defensive metrics in a single season are tricky, in Hicks’ case they demonstrate a continued pattern of decline from his highs of 2017.
Is he losing speed? Not significantly or abruptly. His sprint speed has declined from a high of 28.5 ft/s in 2017 to 27.5 ft/s in 2020, but that was nearly identical to the 27.6 ft/s he posted in 2019. His arm scores also very highly according to Fangraphs.
So if he’s not rapidly declining in speed, and his arm is still as strong as ever, what is it about his defense that keeps causing it to slip year after year?
There was nothing particularly notable among his yearly reaction time and burst metrics, which would indicate declining athleticism, but his routes score on Baseball Savant really declined in 2020. This is actually good news. While his athleticism will inevitably taper off over the years, it has not appeared to decline much from his peak. It is certainly possible that the weird nature of the 2020 season (like lack of practice time, difficulties scouting, etc.) contributed to subpar positioning from Hicks, which in turn may have screwed up his previous top-tier route running ability. Though erasing years of declining metrics appears unlikely, I think Hicks’ rapid decline in 2020 was an anomaly. He should improve on the metrics that rated his defensive performance one of the worst at the position in 2020, but most likely will never again approach the highs of 2017.
A league-average defensive performance would be nice.
Hicks has struggled with injuries in his career, but he did play 137 games in 2018 and 54 of the 60 games last season. With another year removed from his Tommy John surgery in 2019, he is poised to be fully healthy at the start of the season. ZIPS is projecting a slash line of .239/.359/.430 with 16 homers in 112 games while Steamer is projecting 23 homers with a .236/.356/.432 line in 134 games.
Hicks is undeniably one of the more talented players on the team, even if his low batting average makes it easy to underrate his impact. Aaron Boone loves him in the 3-hole for his ability to switch-hit, work counts, and get on base.
I would expect plenty of runs scored for Hicks in the heart of what should be a dangerous Yankees lineup.