Which Aaron Hicks will appear in 2023?
Which Aaron Hicks will appear in 2023?
After struggling at the plate in his first few major league seasons, Aaron Hicks seemed to break out in 2017. The hitting outfielder went on the disabled list a few times with oblique issues and appeared in just 88 games, but hit 15 home runs and stole 10 bases. He also drew bunts in 14.1% of his plate appearances, well above the league average of 8.5% that year. His .266/.372/.475 batting line led to a 128 wRC+, which indicates he was 28% better than the league average hitter. His defense also ranked well, allowing him to produce 2.7 wins above replacement according to FanGraphs calculations, despite playing barely half a season.
The following year, he stayed healthy enough to play in 137 games and largely repeated his results on a larger scale. He hit 27 homers, walked 11 bags and walked in 15.5% of his trips to the plate. His .248/.366/.467 batting line led to a 129 wRC+ and 4.3 fWAR. The Yankees felt they had a complete player worth locking up, and agreed to give Hicks a seven-year, $70 million extension with a 2026 club option.
However, things have been up and down for Hicks in the four seasons since that extension was signed. In 2019, he made several trips to the disabled list and appeared in just 59 games. When he was healthy enough to play, his offensive output dipped though still above average as he finished the season with a 103 wRC+. He bounced back straight away in the shortened 2020 campaign, making 54 of the club’s 60 appearances. He only hit six home runs, but walked in 19.4% of his plate appearances, producing a .225/.379/.414 slash line and a 124 wRC+. 2021 was another low point, however, as a wrist injury limited him to a low-production 32 games before surgery in May from which he was unable to return.
2022 marked the first time Hicks was healthy for a full season since an outstanding 2018 campaign, though he couldn’t quite get back into shape, hitting just eight home runs in 130 games. He still walked at a nice 13.7% clip and stole 10 bases, but his overall production dipped. His line of .216/.330/.313 led to a wRC+ of 90. He also lost center field work as the Yanks ran often. Aaron Judge out there and acquired Harrison Bader at the trade deadline, though Bader was injured at the time and wouldn’t be able to fill the spot until mid-September. Hicks’ work in left field graded out well, which, along with his speed, still allowed him to post 1.5 fWAR on the year. That’s not disastrous, but it was a far cry from his previous form.
There are still three guaranteed years left on that extension, and the Yanks have been fielding trade offers to Hicks this offseason without finding a deal to their liking. With Bader and Judge in center and right, the club was open to outside additions in left, but didn’t end up doing so. That leaves Hicks fighting for the job alongside younger players like They were Florial i Oswaldo Cabrera.
So what can you expect from Hicks in 2023? Was 2022 something of an outlier or just a reasonable expectation for the type of player Hicks is now? If one wanted to be optimistic and charitable, one could point to the fact that Hicks was coming off three delayed seasons, wrist surgery, and then an offseason interrupted by a lockout where he was unable to communicate with team personnel. His power was reduced, but he still got on base and was able to contribute in other ways. Hicks said Dan Martin of The New York Post in September that he tried to come back from wrist surgery thin and athletic to stay healthy, but that backfired by eroding his power. “I wanted to get faster and healthier, but me playing at 200 pounds is not like that,” Hicks said. “I haven’t been hitting the ball like I wanted to. It has really proven itself, with my low power. I wanted to be faster and it didn’t work out that way.” He told Martin he was looking forward to adding more strength in the offseason and heading into 2023 with restored power.
The more pessimistic view is that Hicks hasn’t been good or healthy for an extended period of time since 2018. It’s not his fault that there’s been a pandemic-shortened campaign and he’s been hurt on both sides. but the fact is that he is now 33 years old and the natural age-based regression is working against him. Statcast has mixed opinions on his 2022 results. His hard hit rate was only in the 14th percentile and his barrel rate was only 29th. His average exit velocity was in the 31st percentile, though he came in at 57th for top exit velocity, suggesting there’s still some power there, but he just wasn’t tapping into it often enough. It’s possible his plan to bulk up in the offseason and regain his strength could lead to him hitting the ball with more authority in 2023, but there’s no real guarantee it will work.
Regardless of whether that plan comes to fruition, Hicks should still be valuable in some way. As mentioned, even with his down year in 2022, he produced 1.5 fWAR thanks to his speed, defense and ability to draw walks. Speed may play a bit with the new rule changes that will encourage base stealing in the future. He could also get a boost from the ban on extreme defensive lineups, as he was moved in 92.6% of his plate appearances as a lefty and just 6.5% as a righty. He has mild sectional splits for his career, producing a 103 wRC+ as a righty and a 96 as a lefty, with the new rules perhaps leading to more balanced results.
The main unknown will be this power and whether it can return. Hicks hit 27 home runs in 2018 and had similar results in terms of rate in his injury-plagued 2017 and 2019 seasons. But for three consecutive years he has been well shy of that pace. If he doesn’t come back, he’s a solid but unexciting or maybe an overqualified fourth outfielder. If he comes back, he’d be back to being the complete player the Yanks were so excited about a few years ago. Since no trades have been made, it looks like Hicks will get a chance to prove himself this year. Whether or not he succeeds may not matter in a contested AL East where every win could matter, this year and the two years he still has left on his contract.
Image courtesy USA Today Sports.