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Yankees Make Upside Play with Hicks Trade

Aaron Hicks

In an exchange of relatively well-regarded, but not yet established big leaguers, the Minnesota Twins traded outfielder Aaron Hicks to the New York Yankees for catcher John Ryan Murphy. The swap makes sense for both sides, with the Twins (who ranked 29th in the majors in catcher Wins Above Replacement last season) adding a backstop who can push Kurt Suzuki for playing time, and the Yankees receiving a 26-year-old, speedy switch hitter who can capably man all three outfield spots. And, now that Hicks seems to be catching on at the plate, the Bombers might have landed the former top prospect at just the right time.

The 14th overall pick in the 2008 draft, Hicks displayed patience and doubles power in the minors (.276/.379/.429), while also putting his wheels to good use on the bases and the field. That blend of tools made him a top-20 prospect, according to Baseball America, and a top-50 talent per Baseball Prospectus’ rankings.

To say that Hicks had a hard time translating those tools to the majors would be a profound understatement. He batted a paltry .201/.293/.313 in 538 plate appearances over the 2013-14 seasons, while getting intimately familiar with the route from Rochester (home of the Twins’ Triple-A affiliate) to Minneapolis. Hicks’ park-and-league-adjusted OPS was 31% below the MLB average (69 OPS+), which was the 8th-worst mark among all MLB hitters who logged at least 500 PAs from 2013-14. Even with decent defense and base running, Hicks was a disaster (-0.5 WAR).

Something began to change in 2015, though. While he wasn’t suddenly a stud offensively, Hicks was about league average with the bat (.256/.323/.398, 95 OPS+). His strikeout rate, which sat at 26% in 2013-14, dipped to 16.9%. And Hicks’ power, nonexistent during his first two big league stints (.111 Isolated Power in 2013-14), began to manifest (.142 ISO, 11 home runs). How did Hicks evolve from an offensive liability into a guy who could at least occasionally make pitchers pay? By swinging smarter, for starters.

In 2013-14, Hicks was patient to a fault. He swung at just 59% of pitches thrown within the strike zone — way below the 65% MLB average. By taking so many strikes, he fell behind in the count frequently (43% of his total plate appearances) and got caught looking far too often (59 looking strikeouts, which ranked in the top 50 among all hitters despite his getting less than one full season’s worth of PAs over that time).

Last year, Hicks took a decidedly more aggressive approach versus in-zone pitches: he let ‘er rip 68% of the time. That put him at the pitcher’s mercy less often (he fell behind in the count in 39% of his PA) and reduced his looking Ks (just nine in 2015). Taking swings at more hittable pitches and avoiding so many 0-2 and 1-2 counts may have also helped Hicks find his power stroke (he decreased his ground ball rate from 50% in 2013-14 to 40%).

With adequate lumber now complementing his defensive and base running chops, Hicks played well enough to merit a larger role in 2016 (he was worth 1.5 WAR in a little less than 100 games played). Yankees GM Brian Cashman said as much after the trade, noting that the organizations views Hicks as a potential everyday player in the future. For now, he’ll back up Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran in New York, though that could change quickly if the Yankees find a taker for either Gardner or Ellsbury or Beltran goes down to injury. But even so, overqualified fourth outfielder with the Yankees beats the red-eye to Rochester any day.

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