Aaron Hicks Should Be Focused on Staying Healthy, Not Hitting Home Runs

Yankees' center fielder has only played in 53 percent of games since 2016

It’s no secret I have been critical of Aaron Hicks as a Yankee. It mostly doesn’t have to do with his production (except for every postseason series over the last four years that wasn’t the 2017 ALDS or 2020 ALDS). I know I complain a lot about Hicks batting third against right-handed starting pitching, but that’s not Hicks’ fault. The same way it wasn’t J.A. Happ’s fault the appeared in a postseason game for the 2020 Yankees. Aaron Boone implemented that ridiculous ALDS Game 2 pitching plan and Boone is the one who bats Hicks third. It doesn’t have to do with his place in the batting in the batting order either. My criticism of Hicks all stems from his inability to stay healthy.

Hicks spent his entire 20s injured. As a Yankee, he has only played in 461 of a possible 870 regular-season games or 53 percent over six seasons. Hicks has essentially missed every other game since 2015. That’s absurd, though not uncommon during this era of Yankees baseball in which the team set the all-time, single-season record for most players placed on the injured list. (When you have Hicks, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Gary Sanchez on the same team, you need depth.) Hicks isn’t necessarily Jacoby Ellsbury when it comes to being injury prone, but it’s not like he’s that far away from being The Thief either. At least the Yankees only committed $70 million to Hicks over seven years instead of the $153 million they gave to Ellsbury.

Hicks has found himself on the injured list with every baseball-related injury you can think of as a Yankee. In 2016, he missed time due to shoulder bursitis and then more time with a hamstring strain. In 2017, he went on the then-disabled list twice, once for a right oblique strain and once for a left oblique strain. In 2018, he got hurt on Opening Day (only Hicks!) and went on the then-disabled list with a strained right intercostal muscle. He did play in a career-high 137 regular-season games in 2018 and then got hurt in the postseason, missing two of the four games in the ALDS. In 2019, he hurt his back on a 35-minute bus ride in spring training and didn’t make his season debut until May 15. Then in early August of 2019, he was removed from a game against the Red Sox with an elbow injury that caused him to miss the remainder of the regular season and the ALDS, needing offseason Tommy John surgery.

The Yankees have Hicks through his age 35 season (2025) with a $12.5 million team option or $1 million buyout on his age (2026). (I’m guessing they have that $1 million already set aside.) For at least the next five years, Hicks is going to be a Yankee, and for the majority of that, he’s going to be asked to be the starting center fielder. For as much as I criticize Hicks and for as sarcastic as I have been during his Yankees tenure, the Yankees need him to stay healthy and produce to win. I need him to stay healthy and produce for the Yankees to win.

Hicks met with the media on Thursday at spring training and talked about his health and his goals for the season.

On his 2020 performance.
“I was happy with the postseason. I feel like throughout the regular season I had a lot of opportunities to do better and I wasn’t able to do that. I feel great now. I’m pretty much just focused on this year and doing the best I can to have a great season.”

Hicks didn’t have a good 2020 regular season, batting .225/.379/.414, but it was understandable given he was coming off of Tommy John surgery. He spoke on Thursday about how he couldn’t extend his right arm batting left-handed the way he wanted to. Surprisingly, he had the same .793 OPS from both sides of the plate, so it’s not as though he was any better when he was able to use his left arm as his front arm while batting.

Hicks was good in the postseason, as he noted. Well, he was good against Tampa Bay in the ALDS, after going 1-for-8 with four strikeouts against Cleveland in the wild-card series. Against Tampa Bay, he hit .389/.455/.444 in 22 plate appearances across the five games. It was the first time he was good for an entire series since the 2017 ALDS against Cleveland when he hit .216/.350/.526 and had that memorable home run off Corey Kluber in Game 5.

It was good to see Hicks get better (in October) the further removed he got from Tommy John surgery. It was also good to see him finally produce in the postseason. Hicks had been 7-for-54 (.129) with two doubles, a home run, 10 walks and 18 strikeouts across the 2017 ALCS, 2018 wild-card game, 2018 ALDS, 2019 ALCS and 2020 wild-card series. Since that home run off Kluber, Hicks’ 2019 ALCS Game 5 first-inning home run off Justin Verlander had been his only contribution in the postseason for the Yankees before this past ALDS.

On his 2021 goals.
“I definitely see myself hitting 30-plus (home runs). That’s what I want to do and that’s what I believe that I can do. If I get 500 plate appearances, I’m definitely going to hit my mark with those numbers.”

Let’s start with Hicks using the word “if” when talking about getting to 500 plate appearances as if he knows an injured-list trip is inevitable each season. At least he’s honest, and knows he can’t make any guarantees, especially about his health. He knows his injury history. He knows he has never played more than 137 games in any of his eight major league seasons. He knows he has only eclipsed 390 plate appearances once when he had 581 in 2018. That season, he hit 27 home runs in the career-high 581 plate appearances over the career-high 137 games. His second-highest games played is 123 (2016) and second-highest home run total is 15 (2017).

Hicks is now 31. He didn’t hit 30 home runs and only got to the plate appearance number he desires for 2021 once in his 20s. I’m not sure if he’s suddenly going to increase his power, get better at hitting home runs and be healthier on the other side of the 30. At least he has a goal in mind, no matter how lofty it might be.

On his plate appearance goal.
“That’s definitely a goal of mine to get 500-plus at bats, and really see what I can do throughout a season with that many plate appearances, and really see what kind of player I am.”

I think we know what kind of player Hicks is after 2,697 career plate appearances. I don’t know why he seems to be so focused on hitting home runs either. The Yankees have enough hitters whose sole goal at the plate is to hit a home run no matter the count, situation or score (Stanton, Sanchez and Luke Voit. Whether Hicks means 500 at-bats or 500 plate appearances is irrelevant. His goal should be to play in 150 games, not try to be a power hitter.

Right now, I would sign up for 100 games from Hicks in 2021. Yes, I would be willing to sacrifice 62 games and 38 percent of the season from the Yankees’ switch-hitting center fielder knowing it would mean seeing more than enough of Brett Gardner and Mike Tauchman. That’s because I know Hicks. He’s the same guy who two years ago, missed nearly the first two months of the season from that spring training bus ride. That was when he was 29 and before he had his throwing elbow surgically repaired. I don’t envision him getting healthier and less injury prone as he gets older. No one does that.

If Hicks draws his walks and can stay in the lineup and on the field, that’s all I want from him. It’s not asking a lot, but with him, it is.

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