Aaron Hicks and being patient with the slow-developing prospect

Aaron Hicks of the New York Yankees is having an interesting season offensively. A former top prospect in the Minnesota Twins system, Hicks is ranked 122nd overall in Yahoo! Fantasy Leagues, as he has hit 17 home runs, scored 51 runs, driven in 47 RBI, and has an OPS of .851. The only blemish on Hicks’ resume is his .256 batting average, but when you take into consideration his sound plate discipline (he has a 13.6 percent walk rate and a 0.69 BB/K ratio), fantasy owners can live with the low average as long as they make it up in other areas on their team (similar to the Pirates’ Gregory Polanco, who is now mashing more than ever, but still has a low average).

What makes Hicks’ season so interesting is that he’s gone under the radar with not only fantasy owners (he’s only owned in 59 percent of leagues) but also in his own organization. After the 2015 season ended, the Twins, to make room for top prospect Byron Buxton, traded Hicks straight up for John Ryan Murphy, a catching prospect in the Yankees’ system. Hicks struggled initially in pinstripes in 2016, as he only hit .217 with a .617 OPS in 361 plate appearances and 121 games. Hicks’ underwhelming campaign in 2016 made room for Aaron Judge to come onto the scene in 2017, as Judge, Brett Gardner, and Jacoby Ellsbury all played 100 plus games in the outfield.

However, despite modest expectations going into 2017, Hicks played the best baseball of his career. Despite struggling with an oblique injury, Hicks hit 15 home runs, drove in 52 RBI, scored 54 runs, had 10 stolen bases, hit .266 and posted an OPS of .847. Unfortunately, he only finished 302nd overall in Yahoo! leagues, mostly due to the fact he only played 88 games and had 301 plate appearances overall in 2017.


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Despite the excellent season, it seemed like Hicks was going to struggle to find a role in 2018, once again. Ellsbury, Judge, and Gardner returned, as well as Clint Frazier, who was rated the 39th best prospect in baseball going into 2017 by Baseball America. And to make things tougher for Hicks, the Yankees also signed Giancarlo Stanton to a massive contract, and it was expected that Stanton would regularly patrol left, while Gardner and Judge, would patrol center, and right, respectively. Hicks seemed to be a fourth outfielder, perhaps an occasional DH player going into 2018.

However, Ellsbury got injured in Spring Training and hasn’t played since. Frazier has struggled with injuries as well, and now Judge has been put on the shelf for three weeks due to a wrist injury? As for Hicks? Well, he continues to mash, his season comparable to 2017 (his 123 wRC+ is only 4 points below his 2017 wRC+), but with more games under his belt (he’s going to pass the games played and plate appearances from all of 2017 in just a matter of days). While Judge and Stanton have stolen all the headlines for Yankees outfielders, Hicks may be the most underrated offensive star in pinstripes in 2018.

If there’s a lesson to be learned about Hicks, it’s the understanding of how some prospects take more time to develop. Hicks was a first-round pick of the Twins in 2008 and was rated as the top prospect in the Twins system in 2009 and 2010 by Baseball America. Hicks profiled very much like Buxton: good speed on the base paths along with good athleticism and a strong hit tool. However, things just never worked out in Minnesota, as he had a .225 average, .655 OPS, and 20 home runs in 247 games overall with the Twins over three seasons. Since coming to New York, Hicks has a .243 average, .759 OPS, and 39 home runs in 294 games.  Hicks’ home run stroke is what has developed the most, as Hicks’ HR/FB ratio has been 15.8 percent and 17.6 percent the past two seasons, respectively. The highest percentage Hicks posted in Minnesota was 11.1 percent, which came in 2015 (his last year in Minnesota).

Now, one can credit Hicks’ move to the lefty-friendly Yankee Stadium as a probable reason for his breakout, and you would have a case if you just judged him from last season, as he hit 12 out of his 15 home runs at Yankee Stadium in 2017. But in 2018, Hicks has been just as effective on the road as he has been back in the Bronx, as he has 9 home runs at home this year, and 8 on the road, a much evener distribution. Furthermore, one could argue that he’s been a better hitter on the road than at home, as he has a higher average (.270 to .241) and OPS (.866 to .834) away from Yankee Stadium in 2018. So, while initially, some people could credit Hicks’ development as a hitter to the “House that Ruth Built” (i.e. the short left field porch), 2018 has shown that Hicks is a strong overall hitter and not just a product of a ballpark.


At 29 years old, development came slowly for Hicks, whom many Twins fans felt was a bust in Minnesota, as he never lived up to those top prospect expectations while in the Twins system. Eventually, it came to Twins management having to decide between Buxton and Hicks, and they made the decision to go all-in on Buxton (understandable, though that strategy has had mixed results). That being said, Hicks is a prime example that some prospects develop slowly. Yes, there are the Mike Trouts and Aaron Judges who come out gangbusters when they reach the MLB level, but a lot of prospects sometimes take a few seasons at the MLB level to develop and then find success. Charlie Blackmon, Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, and even to an extent Yankee teammate Didi Gregorius, took a few seasons before they currently found success as Major Leaguers. Consider Hicks another example of such a success story.

And not only is Hicks a success story for the Yankees, but it should also give hope to fans of teams who have prospects that haven’t necessarily hit their “stride” just yet. Some people have already given up on Buxton, Miguel Sano, and Billy Hamilton, to name a few. After all, they were top prospects expected to be perennial All-Stars, and all three listed above have experienced some serious lows this season (Buxton and Sano have seen time in Triple-A). But Sano is only 25, Buxton is 24, and Hamilton is 27. They still have time, and it’s plausible that 2019 may be the season they break out and finally show consistency, much like Hicks.

So, don’t give up on prospects, especially early on in their careers if they are struggling initially at the Major League level. It would be a shame for either a fantasy owner or even a Major League fanbase to miss out on a successful player because they gave up on the prospect too early. Look up north to Minneapolis, as Twins fans are probably kicking themselves in retrospect for parting with Hicks so early, especially considering Murphy is not even in their organization anymore.

 

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