Let’s flash back to Spring Training, 2017. Aaron Hicks is coming off of a particularly disappointing season, his first with the Yankees. And his leash is very short. He’s in the running for the starting right fielder’s job, but he’s got a beast named Aaron Judge lurking behind him, ready to chase down the job.
Hicks actually went out and put together a very nice Spring Training to his credit, but nothing would be enough to hold off the mammoth performance of Judge. Hicks once again settled into the role of the fourth outfielder, a role he had become accustomed to over his years as a big leaguer. Never good enough to justify a starting job and having been traded once before, Hicks was at a major crossroads.
But then Hicks turned things around. Despite a poor 2016 season, he did finish the campaign strongly and he has improved even further this season, to the point where Hicks is a crucial part of the Yankees’ success and it is hard to imagine where this team would be without the steady contributions of the versatile, 27-year-old outfielder.
Aaron Hicks has always had high expectations thrust upon him. He was one of the top prospects in the Minnesota Twins’ system when he was making his way through the minors, and had the look of a potential 5-tool star: he could hit for contact and power, and had plus fielding, throwing, and running traits. And on top of that, he was a switch-hitter.
But Hicks’ potential never materialized for the Twins. Over three frustrating seasons as a Twin, Hicks hit just .226 with no power, and even gave up his switch-hitting for a few months. He was a classic change-of-scenery guy, especially with another top prospect, Byron Buxton, breathing down his neck in the Twin Cities. Hicks was traded to the Yankees in the Winter of 2015 in exchange for young catcher John Ryan Murphy, who was coming off of a full season as a big league backup behind the dish.
Hicks didn’t do much to endear himself to Yankee fans early on. Although his flexibility in the field and strong throwing arm were nice, his hitting remained stuck in the mud. He went 2-23 in the month of April 2016, and was still hitting under .200 at the All-Star Break. He was especially struggling against left-handed pitching, long thought to be his calling card.
But after the Yankees traded Carlos Beltran and gave Hicks more opportunities for everyday playing time, Hicks flourished. He put together his finest display of hitting since he was a top prospect, and earned a second chance for 2017.
And though Judge started on Opening Day, Hicks was so good coming off the bench in April that he quickly earned more opportunities to play every day. Although the Yankees had four quality outfielders, Hicks and Judge were the only ones playing game in and game out. And when Jacoby Ellsbury got injured, Hicks took on a starring role in the Yankee lineup.
Often leading off or batting second, Hicks was a kick-starter to many a Yankee rally. At the time of his own injury (Hicks recently missed a month with an oblique strain), he was second to only Judge in walks, on-base-percentage, and average. This was a different approach than what Hicks had used earlier in his career, now being more patient and less aggressive in the box. This has elevated him to a player who is getting on base almost 40% of the time and scoring many runs.
Hicks has also gained the reputation as a clutch player both in the box and in the field. He has hit a career-best 11 home runs this year, and many have come at key times for the Yankees. He broke out against the Chicago Cubs on national television, and wowed more fans in just his second game back from injury last night.
Facing the Boston Red Sox in a battle for the AL East Division crown, Hicks was thrown right back into the fire coming off of the DL. And with the Yankees mired in a major slump and showing no signs of life in the biggest game of their season, Hicks had had enough.
After Brett Gardner got hit by a pitch and got on base with the Yankees down by three in the eighth, Hicks put together a quality at-bat against power reliever Addison Reed, which culminated in a two-run home run that got Yankee Stadium rocking. Hicks and the Yankees were visibly pumped-up after the hit, which opened the floodgates for the offense. They put up a five-spot in the inning, and took a 5-3 lead, one that Aroldis Chapman had trouble holding.
After walking the bases loaded, Chapman induced a fly ball from Andrew Benintendi, which found Hicks in left field. The run scored without a play, but Eduardo Nunez foolishly thought it wise to test Hicks’ arm and try and take third base. He couldn’t have been more wrong. Hicks read the play and fired a perfect strike to third baseman Todd Frazier, who tagged out Nunez emphatically. The double play effectively killed the Red Sox’s chances of coming back, as the next batter flew out to end the game. Aaron Hicks had won the game for the Yankees almost single-handedly.
It wasn’t the first time that we saw Hicks’ arm wow a crowd, and it surely won’t be the last. The owner of the strongest throw ever recorded by StatCast (105.5 mph), Hicks has finally become the five-tool player he was long projected to be.
If the Yankees are to go deep into the postseason, they’ll need contributions from all over the roster. Hicks can certainly provide anything the Yankees need, as he’s never scared of a big moment and he always puts forth his best effort. He may be one of the unsung heroes of the 2017 Yankees, but Aaron Hicks has finally come into his own when the Yankees need him the most.