I’m not sure it’s possible for the starting center fielder of the New York Yankees to be considered a sleeper. The same could be said of the Yankees number three hitter. Or even a player who hit 27 home runs and stole 11 bases with a .366 OBP last season. So instead of saying “sleeper”, I’ll go with “weirdly undervalued” as my phrase of choice to describe Aaron Hicks.
More than a few of us fantasy baseball folk have been trying to make Hicks happen for years now. He was a relatively highly regarded prospect coming through the Twins minor league system. In 2012 for example, he stole 32 bases with 13 homers, 100 runs, and a .286/.384/.460 slash line at Double-A. That’ll turn a few heads. However, the Twins brought him up a little too soon, and he struggled over three seasons while bouncing between Triple-A and the big league team. Eventually, he would be traded to New York in exchange for…John Ryan Murphy. Woof.
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The Aaron Hicks Breakout Nobody Noticed
Hicks would battle through inconsistency and injuries for his first two years in the Bronx. Last year, he finally broke out over the course of 137 games. His 4.9 fWAR was good for 22nd in baseball, and for once, his WAR came mostly from his offensive production. Looking at his wRC+ however, you see his 2018 mark of 127 was right in line with his 126 mark from 2017. His true breakout happened two years ago – he just wasn’t healthy long enough for us to enjoy it.
Until 2017, Hicks was the not-so-proud owner of a .123 ISO. He hit just 28 home runs over four seasons (353 games) with the Twins and Yankees. It was in 2017 that he started to square up the ball better than before, although we saw it for only 88 games. It’s a nuance that doesn’t stand out in terms of a drastic change in approach, more pulled balls, more fly balls, or a leap in exit velocity. But Statcast’s barrel rate picks up the breakout nicely:
Hicks hit 21 combined barrels over 220 games between 2015-16. He had 18 over just 88 games in 2017, and 33 last season. He improved greatly against right-handed pitching, in particular, increasing his wRC+ vs RHP from 70 to 116. Here are some more of his numbers before and after the power increase.
Along with the power bump, you can also see a mighty fine jump in Hicks’s plate discipline. High walk rates tend to feed into power, and that is certainly the case here. Hicks gets an extra boost in OBP leagues – his 15.5% BB% was 5th best in the majors last season among qualified bats. He trailed only Trout, Harper, Votto, and Carlos Santana. His judicious approach at the plate backs up the walk numbers, with an O-Swing of just 20.9% that was 7th best in the league.
The approach gives Hicks a boost in points leagues, but for the rest of us who play standard roto… the average leaves a lot to be desired. Even since his 2017 breakout, his average is a mediocre .255. He’s always had below-average BABIP’s, with a .270 career mark. However, considering his sub-20% K%, above average speed, and improving hard contact, there’s some room for upside moving forward in terms of both BABIP and average. His .266 average from 2017 is very much within the reasonable range of outcomes.
He did further improve just from 2017 to ’18, notably with hard contact and his ability to hit breaking balls. His hard contact rate jumped from 30.8% to 39.5%. He also improved his xwOBA on breaking balls from .228 to .305 while increasing his average exit velocity from 85.7 MPH to 89. He eliminated a weakness and became even more of a threat at the plate. He saw three percent more fastballs last season than he did in 2017, and that’s a number that could hold moving forward. He’ll be sandwiched in between Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, so he’ll get some pitches to hit.
With all that said, there are some doubts about Hicks. His 19% HR/FB rate will most likely regress a bit, though it’s not an absurd number. You also have to bear in mind his lengthy injury history. It’s not a couple of fluke injuries that have befallen him; it’s a string of soft tissue injuries. Hamstring strains, forearm strains, oblique strains, even the dreaded intercostal strain, whatever that is. The bottom line is this: his 137 games last year were a career-high at the MLB level, and you’re not likely to get more than that. Draft him with the expectation that he’ll miss some time, and if he gives you 150 games, that’s just gravy.
Hicks has the chance to be a valuable five-category contributor. We haven’t even really discussed his steals, but they’re a small boon to his value that can’t be overlooked. Assuming the Yankees don’t go out and sign Bryce Harper as soon as I finish writing this, Hicks will be hitting in the middle of one of the best lineups in baseball every day. He could reasonably go 85/25/85/10/.270 over 135 games. That’s not far from Mitch Haniger’s 90/26/93/8/.285 line from 2018, a line that made him the 28th most valuable hitter according to ESPN’s Player Rater. Haniger is being drafted as the 55th overall player according to our current ADP. Hicks is hanging out down at 110. Weirdly undervalued.
Nathan Dokken is a member of the FSWA and has been featured on numerous radio shows, podcasts, and magazines. He is the host of the Nasty Cast and Fantrax Dynasty Baseball podcasts, and his written work can be found at Razzball and Fantrax HQ. He is on Twitter @NathanDokken. If you enjoyed this article please check out his full archive.
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