It once seemed inevitable that the New York Yankees would sign Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper when he became a free agent at the end of this season. Though Harper has been injured and inconsistent since his 2015 MVP year, he’s still a rare talent who will hit free agency just entering his physical prime at age 26 — and the Yankees are one of the few teams able to afford him.
But the Yankees may no longer need Harper’s services in the outfield. They’ve found a new star to join Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and the rest of their big names, a star who may not be as well-known but who has turned into one of the game’s best players: Aaron Hicks.
The underrated 28-year-old is in his prime and under club control through the 2019 season. Hicks avoided arbitration by settling for a modest one-year, $2.85 million deal last offseason. He’ll be a relative bargain next year, too.
Hicks homered Saturday and later provided the walk-off hit against Baltimore to clinch a playoff berth for the Yankees. He left Monday’s game in the fourth inning with hamstring discomfort, but he told reporters he isn’t concerned and should be able to return in a few days.
Through Sunday, Hicks was tied for 17th in position player wins above replacement at 4.9 WAR, according to FanGraphs. (Harper was tied for 38th.) WAR is an accumulative stat, so when we adjust for playing time,1 Hicks ranked 11th in baseball in WAR per 600 plate appearances since 2017. By that measure, he placed ahead of stars like Christian Yelich, J.D. Martinez and Kris Bryant in terms of overall performance per playing time.
|player||Team||TOTAL||per 600 plate app.|
|2||Mookie Betts||Red Sox||15.1||6.91|
|17||J.D. Martinez||Tigers/D-Backs/Red Sox||9.1||4.88|
Hicks projects to finish 2018 as a 5-WAR center fielder, a star-level player. He blends one of the game’s strongest outfield arms (reaching 105.5 mph with a throw in 2016) at a premium defensive position with one of the most disciplined bats in the majors and burgeoning switch-hitting power.
Of course, prior to last season, he had been a major disappointment. The Twins selected Hicks — a two-way star at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, California — 14th overall in the 2008 draft. He made multiple top 100 prospect lists. But in his three years in the majors with Minnesota, covering 928 plate appearances, Hicks batted just .225 with a .306 on-base percentage and .349 slugging mark. It was good for an OPS+ of 81, meaning he was 19 percent below the average major league offensive performer.
On Nov. 11, 2015, the Twins ran out of patience and traded Hicks to the Yankees for John Ryan Murphy, a replacement-level catcher with a career on-base mark of .269. Murphy is now a backup in Arizona.
“In Minnesota, I feel like I was just trying to hit for a high average. That’s pretty much all I was trying to do,” Hicks told me in July. “I didn’t worry about home runs or anything like that. I just tried to get on base and have a high on-base percentage and hit singles: up-the-middle, opposite field.”
The approach was generally ineffective for Hicks. When he arrived at Yankee Stadium, which has one of the shortest right-field fences in baseball, his entire philosophy changed. With the Twins in 2015, Hicks pulled batted balls at a 35.8 percent rate. Hicks has increased his pull percentage to 42.9 percent last season and to 45.1 percent this season, making him the 28th most pull-oriented hitter in the game.
“When I came here, they wanted me to use my athleticism to hit the ball in the air more,” Hicks said. “Hit for more power. … The [Yankees major league] staff has been amazing as far as being able to elevate my game, different approaches in how to attack the baseball, and how to become the type of player I want to be.”
The Yankees as a team focus on power and pull. That philosophy may be why the Yankees (251 home runs through Sunday) could challenge the 1997 Seattle Mariners’ single-season team home run record (264) despite having only one player (Stanton) with more than 30 home runs this season.
Hicks doesn’t have the raw power of some of his teammates: His average exit velocity of 87.3 mph puts him in the middle of the pack in the majors, ranking 195th out of 336 batters. But he said his focus on power and pull has a side benefit: He’s become more selective at the plate. Hicks ranks fifth in baseball in walk rate on the season at 15.8 percent, a slight increase from his 14.1 percent mark last year and a large gain from 2016 (8.3 percent) and 2015 (8.7 percent). In the second half of this season, Hicks leads baseball in walk rate at 19.6 percent.
“When I try and get the ball in the air, I swing at less stuff, because if I can’t hit a pitch in the air, I don’t swing at it,” Hicks said. “Naturally, I start to walk more. … If I’m getting pitches I can’t do damage with, I’m not going to swing until I have to with two strikes.”
Only two major league players have walked more frequently and hit more home runs than Hicks this season: Harper and Mike Trout.
Hicks swung at 23.8 percent of pitches classified as out of the strike zone in 2015 and 24.4 percent in his first year with the Yankees in 2016. That rate dipped to 21.5 percent last year and 19.4 percent this season. Among qualified hitters, only Joey Votto, Alex Bregman, Andrew McCutchen and Mookie Betts are swinging at fewer pitches out of the strike zone. Those players are either MVP candidates (Bregman, Betts) or have won MVP Awards (Votto, McCutchen). Trout ranks seventh.
Pitchers have thrown Hicks — an excellent fastball hitter — fewer and fewer four-seam fastballs, from 34.8 percent of offerings in 2016 to 31.2 this season. Yet Hicks is slugging .525 against curveballs and holding his own against changeups.
The Yankees have unearthed a star. While the club could still pursue Harper, Hicks gives it an alternative. He allows New York to invest $400 million elsewhere this winter and beyond.
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