Aaron Hicks Has Consolidated His Gains

The Yankees for so long had seemingly been the favorite to win the Bryce Harper sweepstakes. After all, the Yankees have the largest war chest to pursue one of the most coveted free agents in major-league history. The Yankees were determined to stay under the luxury threshold last winter for the first time in the tax era to restart their tax-paying status, and they were motivated to do so with an eye on this historic forthcoming class of free agents. While Harper has had some struggles this year, he is still going to be a 26-year-old free agent who has a nine-win season under his belt and is regarded as an elite talent. His left-handed swing is a natural fit for the right-field porch of Yankee Stadium II.

But now the Harper-to-Yankees match hardly seems like a sure thing. It is at least less of an obvious fit for reasons beyond just the $400-plus million. The Yankees saw an opportunity and pounced to add Giancarlo Stanton and his MLB-record contract this offseason. He’s bookended in the outfield by Aaron Judge. And for the purposes of this post, in center field, they have another asset in Aaron Hicks, who is proving his 2017 breakout is anything but a fluke.

The only major knock against Hicks last year was his inability to stick on the field, as he dealt with injury. He is also better from the right side of the plate, though he’s been above average as a left-handed hitter (119 wRC+ in 2017, 106 this season) the past two years. While Hicks is certainly not the talent that Harper is, and while he’s a couple years his senior, he’s solidifying himself as a solid regular, a three-win-type player with perhaps further upside to be extracted. Hicks, who is under club control through 2019, gives the Yankees the ability to throw $300-plus million at a free agent other than Harper this winter, a player such as Manny Machado, who is perhaps a better fit. While the Yankees infield is crowded, there’s a way to fit an elite left-side infielder on any MLB club. While Hicks remains a short- to mid-term center-field option, Estevan Florial and Clint Frazier give the Yankees longer-term, non-Harper outfield options.

Of course, to not pursue a Harper, to trade a Frazier, you have to believe in the short- to mid-term in Hicks, and we should believe in Hicks.

Just over a year ago, Jeff Sullivan wrote that Hicks and his breakout looked more legit by the day. Two markers Jeff noted at the time were that pitchers were increasingly less likely to throw Hicks fastballs or any pitch type within the confines of the strike zone, suggesting they were treating Hicks with a much greater respect level. Pitchers are continuing to throw Hicks fewer fastballs and pitches in the zone, with four-seam fastball usage dipping to a career-low 26.6% against Hicks, though he has hit sliders, curves, and cutters at above-average rates the past two years in addition to major-league fastballs. The percentage of pitches in the strike zone to Hicks this year is, at 42.2%, another career low .

Hicks’ breakout has largely been tied to becoming a more disciplined hitter than he was early in his major-league career. And he’s only become a more disciplined hitter this season.

Hicks trimmed his out-of-zone swing rate from 24.4% in 2016 to 21.5% last year and to 17.9% this season, which ranks second in the sport, trailing only Joey Votto. He ranks ahead of Mike Trout, Matt Carpenter, and Mookie Betts in the top 10. It’s fueling another double-digit walk rate (12.2%), which is well above average.

While his strikeouts are up a percentage point, his swinging-strike rate has actually declined — 9.8% in 2018 to 9.2% this season — while his contact rate has improved from 74.5% in 2017 to 77.9% this season.

Many of the league’s recent breakouts been experienced by hitters with strong discipline and contact skills who have added loft and power, taking advantage of a super-changed ball and launch angle. What makes Hicks so intriguing is that he plays a legit center field (+12 DRS for his career in center, +12 in 2017, and -1 this season). He also has an elite outfield arm and has added burgeoning power to his strong discipline and solid contact skills. Last year, his isolated mark climbed over .200 (.209) for the first time in which he’s qualified as a hitter at a professional level. This season, it has inched up to .210.

After posting a 127 wRC+ last season, that number has gradually climbed to 120 before Hicks cooled the last week. It rests at 116 at the moment. Still, after a sluggish May, Hicks has posted a 139 wRC+ and five home runs in June. He posted a 124 mark in April.

What’s fueling the power gains?

Hicks hasn’t dramatically changed his ground-ball/fly-ball profile, as his GB/FB ratio last season (1.09) and this season (1.00) is consistent with his minor-league numbers and 2016 mark with the Twins (1.16). Where Hicks has directed balls from left-to-right compared to up-and-down has changed. As an avid golfer, Hicks should have a particularly keen understanding of the value of trajectory.

Hicks has increased his pull percentage by three-and-a-half percentage points, from 42.9% last season to 45.8%, which ranks 28th in the game. Jose Ramirez and Betts lead the pull leaderboard, so its not a bad place to reside. With the Twins in 2015, Hicks pulled batted balls at a 35% rate.

Digging a little deeper, one finds that Hicks has pulled or hit to center more of his air balls than about 90% of qualified hitters. Of 281 major-league qualifying hitters, Hicks ranks 19th in lowest percentage of air balls distributed to the opposite field (25.3%). That’s significant at Yankee Stadium II, particularly for a switch-hitter like Hicks, who can take aim at the ridiculously close right-field and right-center wall as he takes the lion’s share of his at-bats from the left-side of the plate.

He’s also hitting with a bit more authority.

While Hicks doesn’t have elite-level underlying power, he has above-average exit velocity on air balls this season, ranking 88th per Statcast data (94.1 mph) out of 256 qualifying batters. Last year, he ranked 162nd (387 qualified batters) at 92.8 mph, and in 2016 he ranked 198th in 2016 (92.4 mph) out of 391 batters.

Whatever the Yankees choose to do with the center-field spot between Judge and Stanton in the short term, Hicks has emerged as an asset either to trade or include as a supporting cast member. Hicks isn’t quite a star, perhaps, but he’s a very good major-league player who continues to make skill gains. While this author would bet on Harper having multiple MVP-caliber seasons ahead of him, he will also be expensive and not without risk. Hicks is a reason, at least in the short term, that the Yankees do not have to sign Bryce Harper.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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5 years ago

That subline had me laughing out loud at how nonchalant it was. Well played.