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Aaron Hicks: From fourth outfielder to playing like an All-Star

New York Yankees center fielder Aaron Hicks hits

New York Yankees center fielder Aaron Hicks hits a two-run home run against the Baltimore Orioles during the seventh inning in an MLB baseball game at Yankee Stadium on Friday, June 9, 2017. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Aaron Hicks asks the question before anybody else has a chance to. He’s heard it so often in the first few months of the season that when anyone approaches him to talk about his year, he already knows how it’s going to go down.

He cocks an eyebrow. He fusses with something in his locker. He grins.

“What’s the difference?” he asks, between 2016 and 2017?

After all, everyone wants to know.

Yes, Aaron Hicks. What’s this pixie dust he seems to be sprinkling over this season? The season that has turned a stadium’s worth of boos into deafening cheers? The one that’s taken a fourth outfielder — a defensive fourth outfielder, mind you — and turned him into an All-Star-caliber player?

A little more than two months ago, he was dejected in Florida, having been beaten out by Aaron Judge for the starting rightfield job. Now it’s June, and Joe Girardi says that even when Jacoby Ellsbury comes back from his concussion, Hicks will get his at-bats. He’s smiling a lot more now, which makes sense, all things considered.

“I think just more the amount of playing time and being able to be comfortable with my at-bats and pretty much just having success early on in the season is what really kick-started it,” said Hicks, who hit two home runs Friday night in an 8-2 victory over the Orioles. “Last year, I really didn’t play much early in the season and then I kinda had to try to dig myself out of it. Being able to play a lot early in the season has definitely helped me out and being able to stay fresh, and that’s pretty much what it was.”

It’s a rote answer, but it’s also one that’s been repeated by Girardi and Brian Cashman.

Hicks was a highly touted first-round draft pick in 2008 — he was chosen 14th overall by the Twins — who never could quite get things to jell. His scouting reports from his five seasons in the minor leagues laud his cannon arm and his outfield defense. His offense was far less heralded.

But even last year, in the depths of his offensive despair — he had a .217/.281/.336 slash line with eight homers and 31 RBIs in 327 at-bats — the Yankees held out hope. That’s when Cashman first compared him to Red Sox All-Star Jackie Bradley Jr.

“He was a very tooled-up player who had a disastrous start to his major league career,” Cashman said of Hicks this past week (the same could be said of Bradley). “We certainly hope Hicks can follow that similar path [of Bradley’s]. There’s no guarantees. This is an extremely difficult game. More players than not fall by the wayside. I think it’s fair to say Hicks has established himself as an above-average player in the major leagues. It’s exciting for him, it’s exciting for us.”

Hicks has the arm and he has the bat. He entered Saturday night with a .318/.426/.584 slash line, 10 home runs and 34 RBIs in just over one-third of a season. He was seventh in the major leagues and third in the American League in on-base percentage and eighth and third, respectively, in on-base-plus-slugging percentage.

Hicks’ plate discipline — something that endeared him to scouts early in his career — hasn’t abandoned him, either (he has 31 walks and 31 strikeouts after going 1-for-4 and scoring two runs in Saturday night’s 16-3 win over the Orioles).

He’s not on the All Star ballot — he didn’t have enough plate appearances when the ballot came out but does now — but Cashman said Friday that “Hicks has shown the league enough that he can be an All-Star.”

He added, “You’re witnessing someone allowing all those tools to play out on a consistent basis, and we’re the beneficiaries of that.”

Ellsbury’s concussion has given Hicks the opportunity to do it, but he has outstripped Ellsbury in almost every offensive category. The result is that Hicks has been given the consistent playing time he so deeply desired. Entering Saturday night, he had played every game since May 22 and started all but one.

“I think you see players mature at different times in their career,” Girardi said of Hicks, 27. “I thought he started to figure it out, in a sense, in September of last year, and then he got hurt, which I thought was really unfortunate. It just kind of carried over. When you’re a young player and you’re used to playing every day and you’re not playing every day, it’s kind of difficult. We knew that. We tried to find at-bats for him when he struggled last year.”

Hicks points to the first two months of last season as the low point, the moment when he doubted if he could crawl out of the hole he was in. He spent the first month of the season working primarily as a late-game substitute, and even with the at-bats that came steadily in May, his batting average continued to decline, down to .192 by the end of the month.

“Nothing was working,” he said. “I just wasn’t consistent. I played a couple games and after that, I fell right back to not doing well.”

His turning point came when Carlos Beltran was traded at the deadline. By the end of August, he began to see flickers of hope. He missed most of September with a hamstring strain, but the change had begun.

For all his confidence — regaining his confidence has been key, he said — not even he foresaw all this. Especially not the All-Star talk. Sure, this season is a long shot, but there’s always next year.

“Definitely no,” he said. “It’s just because, as a fourth outfielder, it’s hard to do that. You’re playing every fourth day, fifth day, you can’t really put up pretty good numbers with homers or whatever.”

But is he even really a fourth outfielder anymore?

“So far this year, I can’t really say that I [have been],” he said. “I’ve played a lot and I’ve had a lot of plate appearances. A lot of games. I don’t know. I can’t really answer.”

We’ll answer it for him: Girardi said he is committed to keeping Hicks in the lineup after Ellsbury’s return, “definitely, because there’s power, there’s speed, there’s average, there’s on base.”

Poof. Fourth outfielder no more. Now that’s some potent pixie dust.

With Erik Boland

THE AWAKENING

Comparing Aaron Hicks’ 2016 and 2017 numbers:

20162017

BA .217.315

OPB.281.426

OPS .617.917

AB 315149

HR 88

RBI3131

2017 stats reflect games through Thursday

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