There’s Another Yankee Taking Off

The Yankees have gotten off to a surprising start, sitting in a first-place tie in the AL East even despite having mostly played without Gary Sanchez. These being the Yankees, there’s not much that happens under the radar, and I’ve already fielded a number of chat questions about a reasonably young outfielder with a high walk rate and a 191 wRC+. He’s helped to power the Yankees to where they are today, far exceeding expectations with a slugging percentage of .640. Aaron Judge, also, has been terrific.

Judge, in fact, has been the club’s best player. For one month, he’s played at his ceiling, and he’s become a household name just as a function of his highlight home runs. Yet Aaron Hicks, too, has also been playing at his ceiling. Where Judge is a 25-year-old prospect, Hicks is a 27-year-old post-prospect, if you will. Until now, he felt a little like a bust. It might still end up a bummer of a season. But maybe, just maybe, for Aaron Hicks, it’s clicking.

I tried to put this off, because Hicks has played only semi-regularly. As such, he’s been slower than many others to build up his 2017 sample size. But what pushed me over the edge was Hicks’ home run just yesterday. Here he is, going deep against Mat Latos, who remains a pitcher in the major leagues.

The first thing that stands out is how high that pitch was. It was, in fact, satisfactory execution of the plan. With Hicks behind 1-and-2, the Blue Jays wanted to give him a fastball at the letters. He got a fastball at the letters. He turned it around for a two-run homer. Just because of that, the dinger is fairly remarkable, and it’s the kind of home run that leaves a battery just shaking its head.

Let’s dig in deeper. We see Hicks going after a pitch up high. The first two pitches of the at-bat, he took, and they were around the knee. Keep this in mind. Hicks has shifted to a rather distinctive approach at the plate.

So far this season, 280 players have batted at least 50 times. By isolated power, Hicks ranks 15th. By wRC+, Hicks ranks 11th. By strikeout rate minus walk rate, Hicks ranks first. By rate of swings at pitches out of the strike zone, Hicks ranks first. Hicks, even from the beginning, was known to have a discerning eye, but this has taken things to the extreme. His career chase rate is 22%. Last season’s chase rate was 23%. This season, a hair under 13%. Hicks is swinging at fewer balls, he’s swinging at fewer strikes — he’s just swinging at fewer pitches. He’s reverted somewhat to his earliest, most patient days in the majors.

But it’s not just patience for patience’s sake. When a hitter changes his overall approach, it’s always worth checking to see where the change specifically is. So Hicks is swinging less. Where is he swinging less? Enter help from Baseball Savant. I split all the pitches to Hicks down the middle. Drawing a line two and a half feet off the ground — the middle of Hicks’ zone — I’ve grouped pitches as being in the upper half, and as being in the lower half. Here are Hicks’ year-to-year swing rates in each group:

As another expression of the same data, here are Hicks’ swing-rate percentile rankings:

Hicks has never been much for pitches down. In 2014, when it came to swinging at pitches in the lower half, Hicks ranked in the 2nd percentile. This season, he has baseball’s lowest rate, by far. But Hicks has gotten more and more aggressive at pitches up, to the point where, this season, his upper-half swing rate ranks in the 84th percentile. In his first-ever season, he ranked in the 33rd percentile. No one in baseball this season has a greater difference between upper-half swing rate and lower-half swing rate. Of some interest, Judge is behind Hicks by a few percentage points. Judge, also, is trying to spit on the lower stuff.

But this is about Hicks, not Judge, and about how Hicks has evolved as a selective hitter. When Hicks was younger, and more caught in-between, he just took pitches. He took pitches everywhere. Now he’s still taking pitches around and below the knees, but he’s more willing than ever to elevate. When you go over Hicks’ batting history, he hasn’t shown greater success swinging around the belt, but this almost certainly isn’t an accident. Hicks, presumably, is most prepared to damage pitches in or beyond the zone’s upper half. He doesn’t never swing at a pitch down, but he’s selective about when he offers.

Hicks has five home runs. He’s not and never will be a true slugger. He doesn’t generate that kind of force. But all five home runs so far have been at least two and a half feet off the ground. As a switch-hitter, Hicks is often equipped to take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s right field, so that’s a bonus. He’s got more walks than strikeouts, a function of his newest plan of attack. How far this can take him, I’m not sure, but Hicks has never before looked quite this good. Which is important for a Yankees team that might continue to field questions about Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury.

Hicks has batted just 63 times. Already, he’s seeing his highest-ever rate of pitches down, which could be a coincidence, or which could be a response. It stands to reason that rate will only increase, as opponents learn what Hicks is trying to do, and what he’s trying not to do. It’s one thing to understand a hitter’s preferences. It’s quite another to pitch effectively around them, which explains how Brian Dozier is still good. Pitchers might well try to keep everything down. In that event, Hicks’ approach will be challenged, but then, it’s already been challenging. If there’s one thing Hicks has always had, it’s his eye.

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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David Palardymember
6 years ago

April 2017 was the month of Aaron. Judge, Hicks, and Altherr combined for a 0.463 wOBA.

6 years ago
Reply to  David Palardy

You done good, Ay-Ay-Rons.