TAMPA — Aaron Hicks is trying to raise his hands in order for his production to do the same.
After enduring a brutal season last year at the plate, Hicks spent the offseason focused on getting his hands higher in his batting stance — like they were in 2018, one of the best years of his career — to allow him to control the top of the strike zone more effectively in his quest to be the Yankees’ left fielder this season.
“Making sure I’m able to take advantage of the ball up in the zone and being able to, instead of miss those, actually make solid contact and put those hard in play,” Hicks said. “My hands were really low the last couple years. All my success, my hands have been higher.”
Despite Hicks’ struggles last year, the Yankees did not add a left fielder on a major league contract this offseason, leaving the door open for him to reclaim his starting job this spring. The 33-year-old, who has three years and $30.5 million left on his contract, is banking on the mechanical improvements to help get him back on the right track offensively.
“I think if you look at his swing in 2018 versus what it’s become over the last three years probably, the leg kick has gotten bigger, there’s been more counterrotation in the load and then you’ve got basically the hands get pinned down and behind,” hitting coach Dillon Lawson said Thursday. “So for him to keep the hands up, just trying to have him be a little bit more free and a little bit more of a direct line to any of those pitches that he should be able to cover, that he wants to be able to cover, that he used to be able to cover. That’s the plan.”
As Hicks’ hands dropped, so did his numbers, especially last season. The switch hitter batted just .216 with a .642 OPS across 130 games as he lost his starting job in the outfield. His woes hit a nadir on Sept. 9, when he struck out in his first two at-bats and had a pair of defensive miscues that led to manager Aaron Boone benching him mid-game.
Hicks came back to finish the regular season on a better note and then started two games in the ALDS, but had his playoffs cut short by an outfield collision with Oswaldo Cabrera. He sustained a sprained left knee that put him in a brace for six weeks, but by January he got back to running, hitting and throwing.
When he wasn’t rehabbing, Hicks was focused on getting his mechanics back to their 2018 form, when he hit .248 with an .833 OPS and a career-high 27 home runs in 137 games. In parts of four seasons since, he has combined to hit .220 with 30 home runs and a .702 OPS across 275 games.
During those four years, Hicks has also missed time with injuries, including undergoing Tommy John surgery in October 2019 and then needing surgery for a torn sheath in his left wrist in May 2021.
“Whether that’s played into him getting into some of these habits where he doesn’t necessarily feel right so he’s just reaching back and trying to generate and do more, I think that could have played a part,” Lawson said. “But it definitely slows the momentum, the confidence.”
The elimination of extreme shifts could also help Hicks, who was shifted the most of any Yankee last season, as he tries to hold off a group that includes Cabrera, Estevan Florial and non-roster invitees Willie Calhoun and Rafael Ortega for the left-field job.
But beyond that, Hicks is hoping to get back to being the hitter he was when the Yankees signed him to a seven-year, $70 million extension.
“I’m extremely excited,” he said. “I feel like the changes I made are going to make a difference.”