This article is a Community Post written by guest contributor Dan McNamara. If you’re interested in writing a guest piece at Pitcher List, send us an email at Community@PitcherList.com
“Hey, you, guy, kid, bro… you’re up!”
That’s your buddy getting your attention as the draft makes its way to your pick. You’ve had a long break since your last selection when you drafted a kickass SP that you’re super pumped about, but now you need to add a reliable bat, and you need to make a choice:
So, you go through your process. Player 1 has better plate discipline. Player 2 hits for a higher average. They both have good speed. Player 1 bats in the middle of the order, while Player 2 bats closer to the top. They both play in very good lineups, hit for plenty of power, and produce at elite levels in the counting stats.
5..4..3..2.. “OKAY I TAKE PLAYER 2!!”, you shout as you frantically hit the submit button. Wipe your brow, you did it. And congratulations… you drafted 2015 Manny Machado. You can set him, forget him, and dominate at third base this season. You’re fine letting someone else draft New York Yankee, Aaron… Hicks? No, no, wait not that random outfielder for the Yankees not named Aaron Judge or Giancarlo Stanton, right? … Wrong. We are indeed talking about that man. You just racked you brain deciding between a player who finished 4th in the MVP voting and the current CF for the Yankees who’s 2018 ADP was 253rd.
So let’s talk about this “Aaron Hicks” guy, because he’s silently been producing like a top 25 outfielder in fantasy since the beginning of 2017. He was in the midst of a breakout last season before being stonewalled with two separate DL stints lasting 46 and 26 days respectively, and since returning to the field in 2018, he’s picked up right where he left off and then some. He’s actually picking up his pace slightly this season, and there’s a multitude of factors to support the uptick:
#1. Improved Launch Angle
Hicks has always hovered around 10.5° for his average launch angle, but has jumped significantly to 12.7° this season. He’s certainly made a noticeable decision to join the flyball revolution, as he’s basically transferred 5% of his groundballs in 2017 over to the flyball column in 2018.
Easily visible from the LA Charts below is Hicks’s higher percentage of batted balls and, more importantly, hits around the 25-30° mark this year compared to 2017.
And the success of these batted-ball events can be attributed to the second improvement that Hicks has made.
#2. Better Quality of Contact
He is not only hitting more balls in the air, but also making better contact across the board.
I love the above chart because it illustrates the strides that Hicks has made as a hitter over his career. He hovered around league average in most of these contact skills through his 2015 and 2016 seasons, made significant refinements during his short breakout in 2017, and is now clearly extremely above average with his bat, showing drastic improvement in barrels per batted-ball event and a continued bump in solid contact. Coinciding with his improved contact is perhaps one of the most telling statistics for Hicks’s success:
Statcast defines a “hard hit” as any batted ball with an exit velocity greater than or equal to 95mph, and of the 228 qualified hitters currently on the Statcast leaderboard, Hicks ranks 31st in Hard Hit rate. He’s hitting the ball hard at a clip of 45.0% which is an insane leap from the 32.5% that placed him at 140th in the league in 2017 (when, by the way, he was still a very good hitter).
These skills are weapons for Hicks that cannot be debated and cannot be ignored, and what makes them even more effective are the times he chooses to wield them.
#3. Plate Discipline
Remember when I said that Hicks has just continued to get better from year to year? Well, let’s just throw up another chart and let it tell the story from yet another perspective.
Hicks’s strikeout and walk rates are nice metrics to accompany this chart, as his 18.6% strikeout rate barely climbed to 19.0% from 2017 to 2018, but his walk rate has dipped from 14.1% to 12.9%. Now, on the surface, this may seem like a bad thing (even though a 12.9% walk rate is currently good enough for 20th in the majors), but if you put this slight decrease in walks in context with the plate discipline chart above, you’ll realize that Hicks has not only improved his patience at the dish, but also taken huge strides to be more aggressive on pitches that he knows he can hammer.
Hicks has found the happy medium between his 70% zone swing rate of 2016 and his 60% from 2017 and lifted his contact on those swings by nearly 2%. Combined with a decreased chase rate (even around the edges, as evidenced by his near 3% decrease in edge rate), and both a lower whiff rate and higher chase contact rate, Hicks is exhibiting patience, staying alive in counts, and doing more damage on the pitches he sees in the zone.
My favorite part of what Hicks is doing, however, is jumping on first pitches and swinging at Meatballs. He is recognizing extremely hittable pitches and swinging at them at a rate that is 11% above league average. Some of those are sure to have been first-pitch get-me-over strikes, as among the 264 batters who have hit a first-pitch home run this season, Hicks is tied for 23rd with four of them. That is the type of aggressiveness that garners you respect from opposing pitchers and puts you in a position to get ahead early in the count, where you can continue to sit on those meatballs that are sure to come your way.
#4. The Park
Oh, did I mention that Aaron Hicks is a Yankee? Yeah, how scary is that? He’s their 3rd best outfielder… my lord.
We all know that Yankee Stadium is a hitters park, and we know that it’s especially friendly for a left-handed batter, which Aaron Hicks has been for about two-thirds of his plate appearances this season (although, you should go see what he’s done from the right side, as well). Just how good of a park is Yankee stadium for flyball hitters though? Well, ever heard of Coors Field? That’s the only venue with a higher HR/FB rate this season, sitting at 21.6% compared to Yankee Stadium’s 21.3%. So, given the journey that we just wrapped up where we learned exactly how good of a flyball hitter Aaron Hicks has become, it only makes sense that this talented of a hitter will continue to shine in a venue that caters to his strengths while he sits in the middle of one of the strongest lineups the league has seen in its history.
But what about that crowded Yankees outfield?
Well, since Hicks was activated from the DL on April 12th, the Yankees have played 82 games. Hicks has appeared in 74 of those (90.2%) with only two appearances coming as a pinch hitter and one coming as a DH (his very first game back). The rest have been as a centerfielder. That’s basically a 150-game pace over an entire season.
The Yankees also have a rotating DH spot that Hicks could potentially see more time at if Aaron Boone decides to give him days off from playing the field (five Yankees already have at least six appearances at DH). The nature of the injury to Gary Sanchez certainly makes things a bit murky in terms of DH openings in the short-term once he returns to action, but it’s safe to say that, given the choice of either Hicks or Gardner, Boone will lean toward Hicks more often than not. Over only 3 more plate appearances, he has doubled Gardner’s home run total, hit for a similar average, and gotten on base at much higher clip while continuing to bat in the heart of the order. Hicks has proven himself to be the better option, and a contending team that is fighting to avoid the dreaded wildcard game will do everything it can as an organization to win as many games as possible.
No. The answer is no. In fact, if you look at the same charts and leaderboards that I have cited in this article, you will likely find Manny Machado’s name near or above Aaron Hicks… and his rank probably hasn’t changed much since 2015 either. Manny is a superstar at a position that has been traditionally scarce in terms of fantasy production and he should continue to receive recognition as the top 15-20 player that he is.
But there’s a lesson here that we as excited fantasy owners always seem to forget from time to time: prospect growth is non-linear. And it’s not only non-linear but also can last for a very long time. Look at the likes of Max Scherzer and Corey Kluber. Or in a less star-studded subset, how about Travis Shaw, Jimmy Nelson, Mike Moustakas, and Max Muncy? Aaron Hicks was the 14th overall pick in the 2008 draft. He has taken his lumps, found his way to the Yankees, tried new approaches as a hitter, and refined himself every single year into what is now a very impressive 28-year-old major league baseball player. In other words, Aaron Hicks has made the most significant leap of his career from 2017 to 2018, has demonstrated an outstanding ability to learn and adapt his skillset, and is now only just entering his prime on a historically talented team.
But what do we care, right? We’re fantasy managers. Who cares about those final results from the beginning of the article? We want peripheral sustainability. We want someone we can rely on. We want someone who is a true difference maker and a lock to continue getting consistent, quality at-bats. We want something we can easily project. We want… well… value.
Well, then I’ll leave you with something to mull over…
2015 Manny Machado – 6.6 fWAR, .861 OPS, .216 ISO, .370 wOBA, 135 wRC+
2017-2018 Aaron Hicks – 6.0 fWAR, .849 OPS, .227 ISO, .363 wOBA, 129 wRC+
If you find gold at the bottom of the barrel… it’s still gold. Don’t let others find the treasure before you do.