Yankees: Where does Aaron Hicks fit in fantastic center field legacy?

New York Yankees OF Aaron Hicks (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
New York Yankees OF Aaron Hicks (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images) /

Oh put me in coach, I’m ready to play today

Put me in coach, I’m ready to play today

Look at me, I can be centerfield

As the new 2021 baseball season draws closer, we should begin hearing John Fogerty’s song, Centerfield, being played a lot across the country.

A critical position on the baseball diamond, the Yankees have been fortunate to have several superb players defend center field’s vast terrain in Yankee Stadium. Remarkably, in every year between 1924 and 1966, the Bronx Savages featured an eventual Hall of Famer patrolling center field.

Three of the team’s best-ever center fielders are in the HOF, one should arguably be in the HOF, and two are among the best players of all time.

Hall of Fame inductee Mickey Mantle is at the top of the list of Yankees center fielders with his 536 career home runs, slugging percentage (.557), RBI (1,509), and fWAR (112.3). His incredible achievements in seven World Series (including a total of 18 home runs and 40 RBI) are feats that may never be duplicated again.

Also in the HOF, Joe DiMaggio was a graceful fielder who possessed a powerful and accurate arm. The Yankee Clipper hit for both average and power, leading all Bombers’ centerfielders in RBI (1,537) and slugging percentage (.579). DiMaggio is tied for first in batting average (.325, and who can forget his 56-game hitting streak?) and OPS (.977) with his Yankee counterparts, and he has an fWAR of 83.1.

Three other distinguished players round out the impressive center field list.

Bernie Williams (1991-2006) (sadly not in the HOF, but should be), Earle Combs (1924-1935) (in the HOF), and Bobby Murcer (1965-1974 and 1979-1983) were terrific fielders and hitters, and each one significantly contributed to the success of the Bombers during their time with the club.

And let’s not forget to tip our Yankee caps to Rickey Henderson (1985-1989) and Curtis Granderson (2010-2013). Both played well during their abbreviated time and made the Yanks that much better.

Where does Aaron Hicks fit into the Yankees’ center field legacy?

When healthy, Aaron Hicks is a true five-tool performer and has been a significant contributor to the Yanks’ success during the four seasons he has been with the team. Unfortunately, various ailments and frequent visits on the IL have held him back and have prevented him from being a star player for the Savages.

Hicks was a former first-round pick of the Minnesota Twins in 2008. After the 2015 season, the Yanks snagged him for bupkis, trading then backup catcher John Ryan Murphy for Hicks.

After a disappointing first season with the Bombers, Hicks soon became a potent force to be reckoned with in the outfield and at the plate. He has played Gold Glove-level outfield in five years with the club and has amassed a 9.8 WAR. His phenomenal catch against the Minnesota Twins on July 24, 2019, to help the Yanks win a critical game made the Twins regret ever trading him (if they hadn’t regretted the move already).

What is truly remarkable about this switch-hitter is that he has an incredible knack for getting on base. Over the past four seasons, his OPS has varied between an impressive .769 and .847. He has an excellent eye and gets on base a lot, often earning base-on-balls.

In fact, I have heard media analysts ask him whether he actually looks to walk rather than hit the ball when he is in the batter’s box. He laughs and says no. Hicks also now plans to bunt more in response to the shift placed on him by opposing teams.

His ability to get on base frequently is why Aaron Boone slots him in between Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton in the lineup. Hicks recently admitted that he very much likes hitting in this position in the lineup. Who wouldn’t?

Asking Hicks whether he essentially goes up to the plate and seeks to walk all the time is unfair. He tires pitchers out, he hits home runs, and gets his share of extra-base hits. He is an excellent baserunner, too. Hicks is such a great athlete that many have long considered him the best golfer among baseball players.

The primary reason why Hicks has never achieved his full potential and has not become a Hall of Fame-caliber player is his tendency to get hurt and spend time on the IL. During his first year with the Yanks in 2016, he missed games with shoulder and hamstring injuries. He has dealt with oblique injuries and back injuries in recent years as well.

If this wasn’t enough, at the end of the 2019 season, Hicks was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery. Although he reported still feeling pain in his throwing arm this past December, he says that he is now 100% and ready to go for 2021. Still, his injury tendency is probably another reason why the Yanks elected to sign Bret Gardner in the end.

Hicks turned 31 this past October, and he still has several good playing years ahead of him. He has been working hard in spring training and has adopted a new conditioning regimen. In 31 plate appearances this spring, he has a .480 SLG and (not surprisingly) a .867 OPS.

My book is not yet closed on Hicks. If he can turn the injury corner and remain consistently healthy the rest of his career with the Yanks (who have him signed through 2025 with a team $12.5 million option/$1 million buyout in 2026), we might be able to label him as one of the great center fielders that the Yanks have ever had.

And, needless to say, a dependable Hicks also translates into a great 2021 Yankee season.

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