Aaron Hicks’ amazing plate discipline

When you think of Aaron Hicks, you probably think of speed and defense. There isn’t much to say about the offensive side of his game, as he slashed a meager .217/.281/.336 last season and .223/.299/.346 for his career. Heck, even his speed mostly manifests itself on the defensive end, as he doesn’t steal many bases or post particularly strong baserunning scores.

He’s essentially Billy Hamilton with the bat — the issue there is that a player of Hamilton’s offensive caliber (or lack thereof) needs that blazing speed and outrageous defense to be a quality major leaguer, and while Hicks excels in those categories, he’s probably one to two full grades below Hamilton on defense and three below on baserunning value. In other words, the current iteration of Aaron Hicks is not a usable MLB player.

However, the good news is that speed and defense don’t tend to fluctuate as much as the bat — they’re more reliable skills to have as a base. And fortunately, there is hope for Hicks on the offensive end.

The first ray of hope is Hicks’ former prospect pedigree. He was in the Baseball Prospectus top 100 prospects four times as a minor leaguer, finishing no worse than 51st in any of those rankings. He also had strong numbers in the minors (.808 OPS), and he’s still young enough (age 27 in 2017) that there is still room for improvement as he enters his prime. If you’re looking for bright sides, his career minor league .276/.379/.429 looks a lot like a facsimile Dexter Fowler-type player, and his current MLB failures and skill set at this moment in time aren’t too different than Jackie Bradley, Jr. pre-2015.

However, all of those reasons are more or less blind hopes rather than statistical indicators that would objectively project success next season. Thankfully, there is one thing going for Hicks at the plate, and that’s his amazing plate discipline.

Aaron Hicks posted a fantastic chase rate of 23.1 percent (per Pitch F/X data) in 2016, which ranked second among Yankees (min. 75 PA) behind Brett Gardner (22.9 percent). In simpler terms, Hicks offered at fewer than one out of every four pitches out of the strike zone thrown to him last year. For reference, the average in the MLB is always around 30 percent, and only 10 qualified MLB hitters finished with a lower rate than Hicks:

Player Chase Rate OPS+ PA
Dexter Fowler 19.4 126 551
Carlos Santana 20.2 121 688
Jose Bautista 20.2 117 517
Ben Zobrist 21.2 124 631
Logan Forsythe 21.5 113 567
Russell Martin 21.6 96 535
Mike Trout 22.3 174 681
Matt Carpenter 22.5 135 566
Paul Goldschmidt 22.5 134 705
Brett Gardner 22.9 92 634

This table should illustrate:

1) Just how elite this chase rate is, and

2) The extremely strong positive correlation between plate discipline and offensive success.

Among these leaders, you’ll find baseball royalty in guys like Mike Trout and Paul Goldschmidt, while the aggregate OPS+ of this group is 124, meaning that the collection of the ten most disciplined hitters in baseball hit a combined 24 percent above the league average. And it’s no coincidence.

Even if Hicks was the worst of these hitters, also known as Brett Gardner, he would possess a Brett Gardner skill set while being able to capably handle center field, making him quite a good player. Alas, Hicks’ OPS+ was just 65 last season.

Hicks didn’t quite have enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, anyways, but he would’ve placed 11th on this list, and he had more than enough of a sample size, checking into the batter’s box 361 times last season. (Swing rates stabilize around 50 PA, making this way more than enough of a sample size to be legitimate.) Even further proof that this plate discipline wasn’t a fluke is the fact that his 23.1 percent mark in 2016 was right around (and even slightly worse than) his career mark of 22.0 percent.

The good news doesn’t end there, though. Chase rate doesn’t fully encapsulate plate discipline because many players with elite chase rates accomplish the feat largely by not swinging as much in general. It makes sense — if you never offer at any pitches, you will not be offering at plenty of balls out of the zone.

However, Hicks also posted a career-high 68.1 percent in-zone swing rate, meaning that he swung at over two-thirds of pitches in the strike zone. How does that compare to the other deans of plate discipline? Take a look for yourself:

Player Chase Rate In-Zone Swing Rate (Chase minus In-Zone) Rate
Dexter Fowler 19.4 61.8 42.4
Carlos Santana 20.2 60.1 39.9
Jose Bautista 20.2 56.9 36.7
Ben Zobrist 21.2 52.0 30.8
Logan Forsythe 21.5 56.6 35.1
Russell Martin 21.6 56.8 35.2
Mike Trout 22.3 57.9 35.6
Matt Carpenter 22.5 55.7 33.2
Paul Goldschmidt 22.5 58.2 35.7
Brett Gardner 22.9 50.8 27.9

As it turns out, his in-zone swing rate is leaps and bounds higher than his fellow non-chasers. In addition, as you can see in the column on the far right, the gap between Hicks’ in-zone swing rate and chase rate of 45.0 percent is better than every one of those in the top ten. In fact, only Andrew McCutchen’s 45.3 percent “chase minus in-zone rate” was better among qualifiers than Hicks last season.

This combination of plate discipline is exactly what you want your hitters to do, and it’s what coaches have been preaching since Little League — swing at strikes, don’t swing at balls.

Aaron Hicks follows this advice to a tee — so it’s baffling as to why he doesn’t have more success at the plate, especially because his contact rates aren’t outrageously low, either.

The answer I have for you is — well, I don’t really have an answer. He did suffer from an extremely low .248 BABIP, which should rebound enormously for a player like Hicks that has speed and has a relatively normal batted ball distribution.

This would explain most of it, but it still doesn’t quite explain why he didn’t do more damage with regards to power last season. Maybe he was swinging at the right pitches but just not punishing opposing pitchers. Maybe, though, he just suffered from the machinations of ‘baseball is unpredictable’, and he might find more success in 2017 from hitting the exact same way.

If the latter is truly the case, as it very well might be, hopefully the Yankees’ coaching staff and/or Aaron Hicks himself doesn’t panic from last year’s lack of success and try to drastically change Hicks’ approach, because it’s excellent. It’s just time for luck to turn his way.

Photo: Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today Sports

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