Aaron Hicks Looks More Legit by the Day

Writers have a tendency to fall all over themselves in their haste to identify the newest breakouts. I do it, myself, because that’s the kind of stuff that’s most exciting, and you always want to be first. So this is why, every April, you’ll see enthusiastic articles about players who seem to be over-achieving. Once April is in the books, then only April is in the books, and surprisingly strong numbers stand out. Potential breakouts make themselves known, and few writers have the willpower to resist.

What’s less common is the eventual follow-up. Absolutely, some of those potential breakouts turn into actual breakouts. Far more often than not, the potential breakouts end up having been just regular players on hot streaks. This specific article — this is a follow-up. The Yankees are in first place in large part because the Aaron Judge breakout seems to be real. And yet Judge isn’t alone in being a major contributor, because there’s also increasing reason to believe in Aaron Hicks. Hicks right now is tied for sixth among position players in WAR, and he started as one of the Yankees’ backups. He is a backup no longer.

I think it’s important to acknowledge that hot streaks aren’t always just random hot streaks. The classic idea of a player on a hot streak is someone who’s just getting an unusual number of bounces, but that’s not always what happens. Frequently, a hitter succeeds after making some manner of adjustment. He closes a hole, or something like that. And then he lifts his numbers, but in a short amount of time, pitchers adjust back, and the player regresses. It’s like a very short-lived true-talent boost.

This is why follow-ups can be useful. I wrote about Hicks at the beginning of May. Back then, he had a month of baseball under his belt. Now he’s up to about two and a half, meaning pitchers have had another month and a half to figure him out. And when I look at the leaderboards, I see that over the past 30 days, Hicks has run a wRC+ of 150. He’s hit more fly balls, and he’s lifted his hard-hit rate, while continuing to draw walks without striking out too much. Pitchers have become more aware of Hicks, but he’s kept up playing like a quality regular.

Is it a matter of pitchers just not thinking about Hicks enough? I don’t think that’s it, because an adjustment has been made. Allow me to pull an excerpt from Ken Rosenthal’s latest notes.

Aaron Hicks is not Aaron Judge, but after Friday night’s game his former Twins teammate, Torii Hunter, called him, screaming and yelling like a little kid.

The two had spoken before the game about hitting off-speed pitches. Hicks responded by hitting two home runs in an 8-2 victory over the Orioles — one on an 81.2-mph changeup by Dylan Bundy, the other on an 89.1 slider by Edwin Jackson.

That doesn’t declare very much, but it does hint at something. Why would Hicks and Hunter be talking about hitting offspeed pitches? Because Hicks has been seeing so, so many offspeed pitches.

Back in April, Hicks saw fastballs around 54% of the time, which was unremarkable. That was basically average, and Hicks was productive. Since then, Hicks has seen a different approach, which you can see in the following plot, which covers Hicks’ entire big-league career.

Aaron Hicks, over the past month, has seen 43% fastballs. There have been 187 qualified hitters over that stretch, and the only hitter to see a lower rate of fastballs has been Rougned Odor. The reason for fastball avoidance against Odor is pretty obvious — he’s a fastball hitter, and he’s willing to chase. Odor has one of baseball’s highest out-of-zone swing rates. Hicks, however, has baseball’s second-lowest out-of-zone swing rate. Hicks isn’t like Odor at all, in terms of his aggressiveness, but pitchers have shied away from heaters anyway, because they’ve gotten tired of watching him hit them. Pitchers have adjusted, but Hicks has stayed successful.

What that doesn’t mean is that now Hicks is a lock. What it does mean is that he’s survived the first wave of counter-attacks, which bodes well. Plenty of thriving players wilt as soon as opponents start to do something new. Hicks has earned himself a regular role, because he hasn’t given in to his opponents’ collective new gameplan. Here’s a similar plot to the first one, only this time showing Hicks’ rate of pitches thrown in the strike zone:

On average, this year, 48% of pitches have been in the zone. For Hicks, that rate is 46%. On average, this year, hitters have swung at 30% of would-be balls. For Hicks, that rate is 19%. He’s gotten a little more aggressive lately, after being unusually patient in April, but that hasn’t been enough to knock him off his game. The walks are still there, and the solid contact is still there. Hicks has given back very little of his early surge.

When I first looked at what Hicks was doing, it was as if he was targeting pitches in the upper half. He was barely swinging at low pitches at all. As you presumably understand, elevated pitches are more likely to be fastballs, and low pitches are more likely to be non-fastballs. So, given that Hicks was showing a preference for heaters, pitchers decided to try to exploit the lower areas. That much made sense, but Hicks was ready. He’s started to swing at a few more low pitches, but he still hasn’t chased very often. Hicks’ knowledge of the strike zone is too good. That trait, he’s just about always possessed. Now he has a more potent swing to go along with it.

If you look at the Statcast data, Hicks’ average exit velocity doesn’t exactly jump off the page. Yet, in terms of *air-ball* exit velocity, Hicks is in the 85th percentile. In the more meaningless ground-ball exit velocity, he’s in the 8th. There’s a 17.7mph gap between his two average EVs, and that ranks fifth-highest in the game. Last year, the gap was 5.8mph. The year before, 8.8. Hicks is concentrating his good contact, making sure it happens on flies and line drives, and so that’s where the power has come from. That’s how Hicks has an ISO of .265, despite a career mark of .141.

When Hicks has made solid contact, it’s generally been when he’s hit the ball in the air. No one really cares about hard grounders. This reflects Hicks’ improved swing from both sides. In the early going, Hicks got a step ahead by targeting fastballs in the upper half. Pitchers have attempted to respond to that, and Hicks has somewhat cooled off, but I’ll cite once more that 150 wRC+. With pitchers working Hicks lower, with fewer and fewer fastballs, Hicks has responded with success, which will frustrate his opponents only further. It’s tough to pitch to fastball hitters who aren’t prone to chasing. Secondary pitches are designed to make people chase.

Long story short — Aaron Hicks has graduated. No longer is he just a guy who had a good month. He’s a guy who had a good month, and then followed that up by reacting well to the adjustments that were made. It doesn’t mean adjustments are going to stop, and it doesn’t mean Hicks is going to remain exactly this good moving forward. But there’s less reason for doubt here than ever. The toughest thing to do is to get good. It’s almost just as tough to stay there, but Hicks has jumped all of his hurdles.





Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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ARodTheGOAT
5 years ago

I gotta admit, I was in the anti-Hicks camp going into this season. I remembered hearing about him when he was called up in MIN in 2013 as a good prospect with raw talent that needed development, and figured by this point, it was safe to say that progression was not going to happen. Oh how I’ve enjoyed being proven wrong!

CARiedmann
5 years ago
Reply to  ARodTheGOAT

We’ll give you John Ryan Murphy back… please?

ARodTheGOAT
5 years ago
Reply to  CARiedmann

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OBIKjhVcmzQ

Ironically, this is the only moment I remember in Murphy’s career (Sorry!)

OddBall Herrera
5 years ago
Reply to  CARiedmann

Man, I wish I had enough time to go dig up the Fangraphs post on that trade where Yankees fans were going on and on about how Murphy was so great and this was such a fair trade. Classic case of overhyped Yankees player.

A first rounder who just had his best half season in the majors for a career backup catcher…The only thing that kept this from looking bad for the Twins right off the bat was the Yankees screwing around with his playing time last year.

And what did the Twins get back? A guy who’s currently hitting well below average…compared to his AAA peers.

ok I went and found it, comments section is precious:
http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/yankees-acquire-aaron-hicks-a-potential-bargain/

ARodTheGOAT
5 years ago

I’m sure you’ll find unintelligent comments made by fans from every fan base about every trade. What’s your point Professor?

OddBall Herrera
5 years ago
Reply to  ARodTheGOAT

Certainly! And I wouldn’t argue that Yankees fans are any worse or better about this than anyone else.

My point was (1) to revisit just how bad a trade that has turned out to be, and that if you look at the players involved it should have been obvious at the time (2) a little accountability now and then in the vast free for all that is the internet can be a nice thing and (3) that I do think sports media’s penchant for hyping Yankees prospects to the skies colors peoples’ abilities to impartially judge trades they make. We’ll call this the “Jesus Montero Effect”.

Joey Butts
5 years ago

Eye roll. “Career backup catcher.” That “career” consisted of less than 300 PA. He was a middling prospect with an encouraging track record in MLB. Hicks was a very good prospect with a disappointing track record. The trade itself was pretty even. But the luck and coaching factor has favored the Yankees.

OddBall Herrera
5 years ago
Reply to  Joey Butts

You’re probably right that I’m overselling it, I just feel slightly vindicated as someone who predicted this was the Carlos Gomez trade all over again, and was met with a chorus of “But Murphy is so great, in fact the Yankees got the worst of this deal!”

Imagine where they’d be if he Twins had had the patience to let both Hicks and Buxton develop (Buxton by not rushing him up to replace Hicks), instead of trading the former away with several years of arb left and rushing the latter to the majors with very few high minors PAs

LHPSU
5 years ago

Yeah well, you just wait until the Pirates trade for Murphy.

Joey Butts
5 years ago

Wow. You really de-escalated that nicely. I agree with your while comment.

bpd
5 years ago

Fair enough. I thought Murphy looked like a reasonable young starting C. I still liked the trade for the Yankees based upon positional need.

But absolutely the twins rushed Buxton like they’d rushed hicks like they’d rushed Gomez.

bpd
5 years ago

And that right there internet is how you have a discussion today doesn’t turn into a shit fest. Decency on the internet even while having a controversial opinion!?

Matt1685
5 years ago

Hindsight is 20/20, OddBall. From the Yankees perspective, Hicks could have easily turned out to be Dustin Ackley, and John Ryan Murphy could have turned out to be Ben Gamel.

You mention Hicks’ numbers. A 24 year old catcher (Murphy) that’s hitting as well as a 25 year old outfielder (Hicks) is a good trade, right? Yes, Hicks was coming off his career best year, when he managed to be about a league average hitter. And then the following year, after the trade, the Yankees put up with Hicks’ god-awfulness. If he had had the same season with the Twins do you think the Twins would have stuck with him? I’m betting they would have traded him for even less than a promising young catcher.

It happens that John Ryan Murphy hasn’t worked out for the Twins. Prospects and trades are a roll of the dice. Maybe a case can be made that John Ryan Murphy was the wrong person to trade Hicks for, but “two years later Hicks is doing great and Murphy is sucking in the minors” is not such a case.