John Ryan Murphy. That’s the name of the backup catcher the New York Yankees traded to Minnesota for now-star player Aaron Hicks in 2015. That’s it. No prospects, no money involved in the deal, just two young, underperforming players exchanged for each other. Murphy was a young backup catcher who had never shown much promise to be a starter. Hicks, on the other hand, was a first-round draft pick in 2008 and though he made multiple top 100 prospect lists, he was not living up to his potential through his first three years, slashing a lackluster .225/.306/.349.
Hicks was long considered to be a multi-tooled player with a high ceiling. His biggest strengths were his plate discipline, his speed, and his fielding, especially his throwing power with his arm. In 2016, for example, Hicks threw a ball 105.5 mph, still the fastest thrown ball by an outfielder tracked by Statcast. Hicks’ biggest problem, however, was always his hitting at the major league level. He put up above average hitting numbers while in the minor leagues, but Hicks was never able to translate that success to the majors. He also never had consistent play time while in Minnesota, playing a maximum of 97 games during his time with the team.
Hicks’ trade to New York was his opportunity to reinvent himself. Hicks’ struggles continued in 2016, and it wasn’t until 2017 where he would break out and slash .266/.372/.475. Even though he only played 88 games because of injuries, Hicks still set career highs in nearly every offensive statistical category. Hicks seemed to finally figure things out at the plate in 2017. He was walking at a rate six percent higher than his previous season, making more solid contact with the ball, and hitting for more power.
Hicks’ successful 2017 season made him a candidate to have a great year for the Yankees in 2018. He started the season on the disabled list after an oblique injury in the season opener. When Hicks returned from the disabled list, his presence was felt immediately as he hit two homers in his second game back, one of them inside-the-park. Other than that game, Hicks struggled for most of April and May. He did, however, hit another inside-the-park home run becoming the first Yankee to hit two inside-the-parkers since Mickey Mantle.
Once the calendar changed to June, Hicks changed his season around. He hit for a 153 wRC+ over the next two months and came up clutch in big situations. On July 1st, Hicks became the third Yankee ever to hit three homers in a game against the Red Sox, helping lead the team to a big win over their rival. After hitting a hot streak in June and July, Hicks cooled down while still hitting an impressive 124 wRC+ over the last two months.
Hicks finished the season setting new career highs in almost every category. 2018 was also the first season in his career in which Hicks qualified for the batting title. He finished in the top 15 in the American League in runs, home runs, walks, OBP, wRC+, and fWAR. He was arguably the second-best center fielder in baseball this year (second only to Mike Trout, of course).
Not only did Hicks improve his stats, he also played a huge part in the Yankees success this past year. He ranks highly in every statistical category among other Yankee players. He made meaningful contributions to the Yanks on both offense and defense. On offense, he batted in the top half of the order nearly every game. Defensively, he anchored the outfield, playing 131 games in centerfield. He came up big when it mattered and, in many ways, carried the team while Aaron Judge was injured in August. Overall, Aaron Hicks was a very underrated part of the Yankees success. He established himself as a star on the field and developed into an extremely exciting player to watch, especially considering that he pimped nearly every dinger he hit.