MLB: ALCS-New York Yankees at Houston Astros

What is Aaron Hicks’s future with the Yankees?

One year ago, Aaron Hicks’s career with the Yankees was in jeopardy. He had just finished a putrid debut campaign in pinstripes as a below replacement level caliber player. A three-year track record in Minnesota seemed to tell us that his 2016 shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone; how could the Yankees have been so foolish to think otherwise? Oh, how the pendulum swung after 2017.

A hot start put Hicks in the driver’s seat this year. He took the center field job from Jacoby Ellsbury early this season and didn’t lose his spot even after missing significant time due to injury. All else being equal, his competition for the position will be no different next year. Of course, the Yankees probably want to get rid of Ellsbury this winter, though good luck with that. Brett Gardner could be an option in center as well, but he’s firmly entrenched in left field assuming he survives another offseason of trade rumors. That leaves us with Hicks. Should we be comfortable with him in center field next year?

The sum of the parts of Hicks’s 2017 campaign was very good. In only 88 games around disabled list stints due to oblique injuries, the switch-hitter accumulated 1.9 WARP behind a strong .286 TAv. Though FRAA says Hicks was a poor defender, pegging him at -3.4 runs below average, he appeared to be his usual excellent self in the outfield (2017 is the only year FRAA has frowned upon his defense, so perhaps it’s an anomaly). Below average defenders don’t make plays like this:

Up until this season, Hicks was not much of an offensive contributor. His first season in New York was rough, to say the least, and his years prior with Minnesota weren’t inspiring. Regardless, Hicks has always been talented, and his tools shined brightly in 2017, particularly before he suffered his first oblique injury on a check swing in late June. Up until that point, Hicks was hitting .290/.398/.515 with 10 home runs, a 15.3 percent walk rate, and a 17.4 percent strikeout rate in 242 plate appearances.

Hicks rejoined the Yankees on August 10th, but only collected 115 more plate appearances in the regular season because of another injury interruption. Like in June, Hicks suffered an oblique injury in September, although this instance was to the muscle on the other side of his torso and not the one he had previously hurt. In those 115 trips to the plate to end the year, the 28-year-old didn’t keep the pace he set during the first portion of his season. Rather, he posted a measly .216/.322/.402 triple-slash in 115 plate appearances.

Why did Hicks’s performance suffer late in the season? A number of reasons could be at play. Understanding what happened could give us some insight about the outfielder’s prospects with the team going forward.

Health seems like a logical explanation for the switch-hitter’s struggles. It’s pretty easy to imagine how some soreness or pain in the oblique area could hinder one’s swing, right? It’s possible that Hicks never felt quite right after his first return from the disabled list. Without any corroboration from the player, it’s hard to corroborate this sort of explanation as anything much more than conjecture. It seems reasonable and very well could be part of the reason for what happened, but it’s almost impossible to say with certainty.

What about good ol’ regression? It’s always a safe answer for why a player isn’t matching previously unsustainable standards. And with Hicks, concern about regression to his pre-2017 self will always be a concern until he proves otherwise. He was a lifetime .223/.299/.346 hitter entering this season, which is pretty bad! Perhaps what we saw this August and after was a reversion to Hicks’s true talent level. That would be bad.

Further, batted ball luck can’t be ignored, especially in the sample sizes being examined here. Hicks’s torrid start to the season could be just as noisy as his lackluster finish to the year. Fortunately, Statcast can help get to the bottom of how “real” Hicks’s performance was.

4/2 – 6/25 8/10 – 10/1 Full Season
wOBA 0.393 0.316 0.367
xwOBA 0.338 0.328 0.335

Statcast tells us quite a different story than the actual results indicated. In fact, it deems the switch-hitter’s season to have been far more consistent than we likely realized. Hicks’s xwOBA, which tells us what a player’s wOBA should have been given launch angle and exit velocity inputs, didn’t fall as drastically as his actual wOBA in the splits I’ve called out. Instead, it tells us that Hicks was well over his head through late June, though still striking the ball well, as a .338 xwOBA is nothing to sneeze at (in 2017, the league’s xwOBA and wOBA were .314 and .327 respectively). His .328 xwOBA after his initial disabled list return was respectable too, and an indicator of some misfortune down the stretch.

There’s no question that results-wise, Hicks fell back as the season went on. This is going to be a cop-out answer, but all of the reasons I’ve outlined above likely contributed to his late-season swoon. His oblique(s) very well could have hampered his hitting while in the meantime regression and poor batted ball luck reared their ugly heads. On the other hand, maybe none of this means anything and I’ve looked far too much into two split small samples, and instead, we should squarely focus on his full-year output. Whether you prefer looking at Hicks’s season in two parts or as a whole, what he did has him positioned firmly in the team’s plans moving forward.

Hicks has two more seasons before he can become a free agent and appears to have carved out a role in the Bronx. Though he hasn’t suddenly morphed into the star that he seemed to be at the beginning of 2017, he appears to be a very good option in center field going forward. His underlying statistics, particularly xwOBA, indicated that Hicks hit like an above average player this past season. It is fair to still be concerned about the 2013-2016 version of Hicks reappearing at the plate, but he does have a pretty good amount of cushion to fall from if we don’t believe he’s truly a .335 xwOBA talent (his full-year mark in 2017). With his defensive skills, an average to slightly below average bat is absolutely playable every day in center field next year and beyond.

Don’t expect Hicks to remain in pinstripes after 2019, as he’ll be 30 and the Yankees probably will have other options on the table. The outfield could get crowded with Aaron Judge firmly entrenched and Clint Frazier and Estevan Florial coming, not to mention Bryce Harper’s free agency after 2018. For now, though, Hicks isn’t one of the Yankees concerns for next season.

wOBA and xWOBA data via Baseball Savant.

Photo Credit: Troy Taormina / USA TODAY Sports

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