We’re almost 20 games into the MLB season, and in any other scenario that wouldn’t be much. In 2020, though, it’s nearly a third of a full season. So it’s worth looking at some of the more curious cases in the Yankees Lineup. One that I am particularly intrigued by is Aaron Hicks, who has had both a really good and a really bad season thus far. It just depends how you look at it.
It certainly does feel like Hicks has gotten off to a woefully slow start. He is slashing .227/.414/.386 with one home run and 4 RBI. Obviously, Hicks’ power numbers are not where they should be at the moment. That’s probably why it feels like he has had a quiet start to the season. But he is getting on base at an elite clip (.414) which is an encouraging sign. Nonetheless, something is missing, so it’s worth finding out why.
Quality of Contact
Hicks has had a good year in terms of hard hit %. He is in the 85th percentile in Hard Hit %, hitting half of his breaking balls hard and 56% of fastballs hard as well. On off-speed pitches, more so of the changeup variety, he hasn’t had as good contact quality. As his Hard Hit % has fallen to 20% from 26% in 2019. So what gives? How come he is having a poor power year even if his Hard Hit % is high.
Well if we take a peek at his Average Exit Velocities, it paints a clearer picture. It has stayed relatively the same on fastballs but has taken a dip on breaking and off-speed pitches. His average exit velocity on those pitches last season was 85 MPH. Now, though, he is at career lows on average exit velocity on breaking pitches (80 MPH) and off-speed pitches (73.5 MPH).
His Hard Hit % being high and his average exit velocity being low leads me to believe that he is rolling over a lot, especially on off-speed pitches on the outer half. He has hit some balls hard, but he’s also hit his fair share of slow rollers, which brings that average exit velocity down.
Another thing to keep in mind, though, is that this season is a small sample. In a small sample, you can see a good Hard Hit % and a lower Average Exit Velocity. With Hard Hit %, there is a threshold you have to meet, and how good you stand in Hard Hit % is based on what percentage of your balls in play meet that threshold. Average Exit Velocity, though, can be dragged down by the slow ground balls that are in question. As the season goes on, it will likely level out as the outliers become part of a larger data set. Nonetheless, Hicks has run into his share of soft ground balls this season.
His average launch angle has also taken a dive, which accounts for his career high 60% ground ball rate. He is down on fastballs (16 to 4), breaking pitches (13 to -8), and off-speed pitches (-1 to -20). All of this is also due in part to the fact that he has hit zero pop ups this season, but these numbers are still eye opening. Seeing as pop ups are one of the worst outcomes, it’s good that he has hit none. But when you excessively hit ground balls, that’s not ideal either.
Looking at Hicks’s batted ball profile also tells a deeper story. He is at a career worst in weak% (5.9%), topped % (44%) and under % (11%). He is also pulling the ball the most he has in his career, and he is hitting his fair share of slow ground balls to the right side. 11 of his 18 ground balls this season have been to the right side on a pitch on the outer half of the plate. With a pull rate in the career high category for Hicks, I’m inclined to believe, then, that there is something wrong mechanically for him when he bats left-handed.
For instance, this video is a perfect example of hicks rolling over on a pitch on the outer half of the plate. You can see more examples from this season in the links below, courtesy of Baseball Savant.
It’s rather evident that Hicks is firing his hips through too early on some of these pitches, thus catching himself out in front.
Light at the End of The Tunnel
It’s not all bad for Hicks, though. In fact, his .414 on-base percentage is incredible, and he is walking more than he is striking out. He’s also close to career highs in wRC+ (130) and wOBA (.358). Likely not sustainable, but his outlook for this season isn’t as bleak as one might think.
Another area that makes me think Hicks’ power numbers may slowly creep back is that he has always made good swing decisions, but is making even better ones this season. For instance, on fastballs in 2019 he chased on 23%, whereas he has chased just 16% this season. Same goes for breaking balls, where he chased 22% last season and just 14% this season so far.
The good news is, then, that Hicks has not at all lost his ability to be selective at the plate. In fact, he’s the best he has been at it this year than any year before. The problem is, other areas are the worst they’ve been. Those issues, though, are indeed fixable. One small mechanical change could make all the difference for Hicks. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on him this season, as he has proven to have elite discipline at the plate and has had past success in the SLG % department.
Though I am hopeful, it does not mean that I am entirely convinced that he’ll get his power back, as his expected power numbers are not even very attractive. But I am more so inclined to believe that something wrong mechanically has led to his curious case of a start. After all, when you walk more than you strikeout, it probably means you’re seeing the ball well. And if you’re seeing the ball well, over time I have to think that the results will follow.