Statistically speaking, Aaron Hicks had the worst defensive year of his career in 2020. In only 393 2/3 innings, Hicks’s -4 OAA and -3.9 UZR were the worst figures of his career. Additionally, his -8 DRS is the same as his 2018 total, albeit in 745 fewer innings. His outs above average ranked in the fifth percentile in the sport, while his outfield jump ranked in the 27th percentile. It was expected that he would not be at his best as he came back from Tommy John surgery. However, these numbers beg the question, how much longer does Hicks have left as the everyday center fielder for the New York Yankees?
Defensive Reputation vs. The Numbers
Aaron Hicks has long had the reputation as an excellent defensive center fielder. However, the defensive metrics in the last few seasons beg to differ. The last time he posted a positive Outs Above Average (OAA) was back in 2017 when he put up four. That year he also put up 12 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS).
In fact, 2017 was his breakout season as he posted a 3.9 bWAR in only 88 games played. If there is one aspect of Hicks’ defense that does match up with the metrics, it is his arm. Hicks has always had a cannon of a right arm and 2020 was no different. Per FanGraphs, his 1.8 Outfield Arm Runs Above Average ranked as his highest total since 2015.
Truth be told, Aaron Hicks has never ranked highly in the outfield jump metric. Since joining the Yankees in 2016, Hicks’ outfield jump has never exceeded the 33rd percentile. Despite this, how come he has always had the reputation of a great defender? That is because what Hicks lacked in his jump he made up for in route efficiency and sprint speed. While still above average, his sprint speed has declined from the 86th percentile in 2016 to the 66th percentile in 2020. Additionally, his route efficiency declined from 0.5 and 0.6 feet above average in 2018 and 2019, respectively, to zero in 2020.
As is usually the case with defensive analytics, the eye test seems to be at odds with the numbers. While Aaron Hicks looks like a sure thing in center, the numbers show he is declining as a defender. These numbers likely portend a move out of center field for Hicks as he gets older.
The Outfield Situation
This Yankees outfield of the present and future is quite complicated. Hicks is locked up through 2025, Aaron Judge has two more years until free agency, and Clint Frazier is under team control through 2024. Moreover, 18-year old wunderkind Jasson Dominguez plays center field and is arguably the most hyped prospect of all-time. While it might be a few more years until Dominguez makes his debut, he could have a quick rise through the minors if he performs to expectations. 23-year old prospect Estevan Florial is also someone to keep an eye on because he possesses the tools to be a good major leaguer, but has struggled to stay healthy in the minors.
All this just goes to prove how complicated the outfield situation in New York is right now. Frazier showed last year that he is the left fielder of the future, while Aaron Judge is clearly one of the best players in sport. Despite being only two years away from free agency, the Yankees figure to do all they can to make sure Judge is in pinstripes for the remainder of his career.
In 2020, Hicks ranked 38th out of 39 center fielders in OAA. Only Brandon Nimmo of the New York Mets rated worse. Hick’s 84% success rate, and 87% expected success rate were two of the worst figures of his career. However, his saving grace may be his strong arm. If Hicks can continue to display that strong arm on a nightly basis, that will likely lengthen his career in center and thus provide more value as a player.
The Right Field Situation
Hopefully the Yankees are able to retain Judge for the long run. However, if there is ever a world in which the club is unable to re-sign him, this does clear up the outfield complication. Hicks is on the wrong side of 30 and has five years remaining with New York. Even if, in a couple of years, he has to move off centerfield, Hicks is more than capable of playing a good right field.
Considering his athleticism and strong arm, the Yankees can possess one of the best defensive outfields in baseball in a few years time. While Judge should remain a Yankee for life, this is something to consider. Even assuming Dominguez will not be in the majors for another three years, he will only be 21 years old. It is safe to say the Yankees would rather have a 21-year old centerfielder rather than a 34-year old one.
Aaron Hicks Standing Among Centerfielders
As it stands, Hicks is one of the best centerfielders in the sport. He has put up a .247/.362/.457 slash line since the start of 2017. That is good for an .819 OPS and 120 OPS+. Additionally, his 123 wRC+ and 10.4 fWAR ranks in the top-5 among full-time centerfielders in that timespan (min. 1000 plate appearances). There is actually a good case to be made for Hicks as a very underrated player in the sport. People look at his low batting average and write him off, yet his 2020 included a 19.4% walk rate that was third best in baseball to go along with an outstanding .379 on-base percentage. With a career high 27 home runs in 2018, Hicks possesses above average power for a centerfielder.
Final Thoughts on Aaron Hicks
While clearly not on the same level defensively as Lorenzo Cain, Kevin Kiermaier, or Jackie Bradley Jr., he outperforms all those players at the plate. Maybe Hicks can make some improvements to his jump or route efficiency to compliment his strong arm in center over a full 162-game season. However, it is already clear that he will likely have to move to a corner outfield spot in the not-too-distant future because of his diminishing range. Despite this, Hicks’ offensive prowess and strong arm still makes him a bargain at only $10 million per year and should remain that way through the rest of his Yankees tenure.
Embed from Getty Images