‘Baseball wasn’t fun’: After brutal 2022, Aaron Hicks feels ready for redemption

‘Baseball wasn’t fun’: After brutal 2022, Aaron Hicks feels ready for redemption

TAMPA, Fla. — Aaron Hicks admitted he lost his confidence at the plate in 2022. He tried overcompensating in the box during big moments to feel the sort of exhilaration that escaped him for almost all of last season. Nothing seemed to work.

“I felt like I was trying to force things that I normally wouldn’t,” Hicks said. “I was forcing myself to get big hits. I was forcing myself to swing out of the zone to do something to help the team win. A lot of that got me into trouble. Essentially, I just lost my approach.”

He finished this past year hitting .216/.330/.313 with eight homers, nine doubles and 109 strikeouts in 130 games. So this offseason, Hicks went searching for answers to why 2022 was such a struggle. He watched video from 2018, the best season of his career when he hit 27 homers and signed a seven-year, $70 million extension in the 2019 offseason, and found a potential reason for his woes. In 2018, he kept his hands a bit higher and further away from his body. In 2022 and even 2021, his hands were lower and closer to his body.

Here’s an example of two random at-bats from 2018 (left) and 2022 (right) while the opposing pitcher lifted his leg to begin his windup:

(Video screenshots from MLB.com)

Hicks believes his stance contributed to his inability to control the top of the zone this past season. Hicks went from slugging .615 in the top left of the zone, .756 in the top middle zone, and .773 in the top right zone in 2018 to slugging .573, .200, and .273, in each respective zone this past season.

Hicks’ lack of success in 2022 made him a frequent target of fan discontent. It culminated after two defensive miscues during a September game against Tampa at Yankee Stadium. Fans chanted “Joey Gallo” in his direction, a clear insult referencing his former teammate who flamed out of The Bronx and was eventually traded. Hicks was ultimately pulled from the game after his second mistake in the field. Hicks said he understood why fans were so displeased with him throughout the year because his season was “not going great.” It got to a point where he lost his love for the game and wondered if being traded elsewhere would be best for his career.

“Baseball wasn’t fun,” Hicks said. “It was kind of one of those things where your team is winning and that’s the ultimate goal. That’s what’s fun about the game is being able to win all of the time. But when you’re not contributing, it kind of starts to feel like you’re not doing what you should be doing. I know the player I’m capable of being and I wasn’t even close to it. That’s just the way the season went.”

The Yankees entered spring training with uncertainty surrounding left field after Andrew Benintendi signed with the Chicago White Sox in free agency. When Benintendi broke the hamate bone in his wrist in early September, manager Aaron Boone moved Hicks to left field. The Yankees liked Benintendi but ultimately decided to sign Carlos Rodón and did not have money in their budget for both players. That decision, coupled with the Yankees’ inability to trade for Pittsburgh’s Bryan Reynolds, means Hicks is currently the favorite to start in left field on Opening Day.

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said earlier this offseason that he suspects Hicks will be the player to emerge in spring because they still believe in him; however, how much they believe him remains in question. They’re still examining external options. Cashman said on SiriusXM in late January the team “still had lines out on certain opportunities and if it happens in February or March, so be it, or we go with what we have.” San Diego’s Jurickson Profar remains a free agent but may be too costly because the Yankees are up against the fourth luxury tax threshold and do not want to go over. If the Yankees clear salary somehow, he could be in play.

Hicks’ primary competition internally is likely Oswaldo Cabrera, who played all over the field in 2022 and whose true value is playing numerous positions instead of being locked into just one. Cabrera played nine games in left field during the regular season and six in the playoffs. It was an unfamiliar position for Cabrera, who was still getting used to playing the outfield after a career in the minors where he almost exclusively played the middle infield. When Cabrera made the transition to becoming an outfielder after getting called up, Hicks became the player he leaned on most.

“That guy was a mentor for me last year,” Cabrera said. “When I was playing left field, he would come with me all of the time and tell me what I needed to watch out for. He gave me tips that I know I needed when I had that moment playing there. That’s the one thing I appreciate about that guy, and I feel glad to be with him here because he was so open in helping me all of the time. I always have appreciated him and this is the first time I’ve said this in an interview so I feel happy I can tell people about him.

“He’s so strong mentally. That’s one thing I’ve taken away from him because he comes here every day playing hard and trying to compete, and it’s not easy playing in the position he was in last year.”

Boone said he believes Hicks is in a good place mentally now, but there’s still some lingering doubt from the 33-year-old on what his future with the organization entails. He’s aware that he was on the trade block this offseason and knows it’s still a possibility that he could get moved. Hicks is owed more than $30 million over the final three years of his contract and if he’s still with the Yankees come Aug. 8, according to ESPN, he earns 10-and-5 rights, which grants a player who has 10 years of service time and has spent five consecutive seasons with one team veto power over any trade.

Hicks knows he has a prime opportunity to redeem himself now if he sticks with the Yankees, and his teammates know it, too. Kyle Higashioka, who has known Hicks since high school, was one of his confidants this past season. Higashioka believes Hicks isn’t dwelling on 2022 and believes he can bounce back because he did so in 2017 after a brutal 2016, his first season with the Yankees. And the clubhouse has made sure that Hicks has felt supported even when he’s felt his lowest.

“When that kind of stuff happens, it’s on us in the clubhouse to make sure you’re well protected,” Anthony Rizzo said. “When you hear the outside noise, it’s hard to ignore it. But as professionals, you ignore it and you do the best you can. The atmosphere you create in the clubhouse is the most important thing. It’s a new year. It’s a fresh year. What was done last year is done and you’ve got to go through it again this year — good, bad or indifferent, 2023 is going to be a whole new book, a whole new journey of ups and downs and ebbs and flows.”

And now Hicks feels ready to show he’s deserving of being the team’s starting left fielder on Opening Day.

“If I’m able to go out and be who I know I can be, we’ll probably never have this conversation again,” Hicks said. “It’s just being able to do what I know I can do and stay within myself. If I do that, I know I’ll be just fine.”

(Photo: Kim Klement / USA Today)

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