They stand in the middle of the outfield grass. They are central to their teams’ plans for the 2021 season.
But Mets centerfielder Brandon Nimmo and Yankees centerfielder Aaron Hicks often are overlooked in their respective star-studded lineups, even though Nimmo is the Mets’ leadoff batter and Hicks is slated to hit third for the Yankees.
The Mets spent much of the offseason hoping for the universal designated hitter to return this season so they could use Pete Alonso as the DH, Dom Smith at first base and Nimmo in leftfield. When that appeared unlikely, they signed two natural centerfielders to back up Nimmo and replace him late in games when the Mets have a lead.
The Yankees were always planning on having Hicks patrol center this season. But they signed Brett Gardner just before spring training in part as a hedge against Hicks suffering an injury, which often has been the case.
What can the Mets expect from a full season of the energetic Nimmo? What can the Yankees expect from a full season of the laid-back Hicks?
We’ll soon find out.
Nimmo said the Mets’ front office was up front with him about the desire to improve the team’s defense in center. They wanted to sign George Springer, but he went to the Blue Jays for more years and dollars. The Mets had lukewarm interest in Jackie Bradley Jr., and he eventually signed with Milwaukee.
In the end, the Mets ended up signing Kevin Pillar and Albert Almora Jr. to provide righthanded hitting and outfield defense. But Nimmo, 28, will be the starting centerfielder.
"Their message hasn’t changed from ‘you’re our centerfielder until otherwise,’ " Nimmo said. "So as far as that goes, I tried to keep preparing for centerfield. But there definitely was a lot of talk going on. I always welcome the thought of another great player. If someone pushed me out of centerfield, they’re a pretty dang good centerfielder. I tried to not take it as a shot to me but just tried to highlight this is somewhere I can improve on, so if I get the opportunity again, here’s the things we’ll highlight to be better at."
The Mets have encouraged Nimmo to play deeper in center this season. In spring training, he often appeared to be a dot in the outfield as he stood almost with his back to the fence. But the team apparently has decided that preventing doubles over his head is worth more than the singles that might fall in front of him.
"I’m trying to convey to everyone and everyone here — and we’ve had mutual conversations — that I [can] play centerfield," Nimmo said. "I can do it well. If there is one person that can make adjustments, I think it’s me."
In 2020, Nimmo hit .280 with eight home runs, 18 RBIs, a .404 on-base percentage and an .888 OPS. If he keeps that up, the Mets will live with his defense in center.
Hicks appeared in 54 of the Yankees’ 60 games in 2020, which was a good health mark for him coming off Tommy John surgery in October 2019 (he wasn’t totally recovered then, he says, but now is fine). Hicks had what appeared to be a down year at the plate, batting .225 with six home runs, 21 RBIs and a .793 OPS.
But Hicks’ OPS plus was 122. OPS plus is measured against a league average of 100. For an idea of the ranges on that metric, DJ LeMahieu’s OPS plus last year was 177; Gary Sanchez’s was 66.
Hicks’ offensive value comes with his combination of power and patience. He walked 41 times last season, which was the most on the Yankees by far. Gardner was next at 26.
"I say it all the time: I’m not trying to walk," Hicks said. "I’m trying to find something that I can hit hard. It just kind of happens that way.
"I don’t think that the way my elbow felt necessarily changed the way I hit. It definitely changed the way my swing felt as far as being aggressive through the zone and trying to make sure I made solid contact instead of worrying about swinging and missing. I definitely think the approach kind of was what it was last year. I can’t really explain why I walk so much, especially last year. It just kind of happened."