Yankees like what Hicks brings to No. 3 hole

March 20th, 2021

TAMPA, Fla. -- The third spot in the Yankees' lineup has been treasured real estate ever since Babe Ruth had No. 3 stitched on the back of his jersey, denoting when fans could expect the game's most feared slugger to take his hacks. Over the decades, the Bombers' Opening Day lineups have featured big swingers like Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Paul O'Neill in that spot.

As Aaron Boone sketches his ideal batting order ahead of the 2021 season, the Yankees' manager sees switch-hitting center fielder Aaron Hicks as the correct choice to bat third. It reflects how beliefs have changed concerning the lineup, a steady stream of information having altered attitudes in dugouts and front offices, even since Boone took his final at-bat in 2009.

"When I played, the three-hitter was the best hitter on the team," Boone said. "It's kind of evolved over the last several years. Since I've been here, over the last three or four years, you really think more closely and intimately about how you put the lineup together and where certain skill sets match up the best. It's something that's evolved steadily over the last 10 years."

In Boone's view, the optimal Yankees lineup would offer the most plate appearances to the club's two best hitters: DJ LeMahieu and Aaron Judge. Boone likes Hicks third because he breaks up a string of right-handed bats, he led the American League with a 19.4-percent walk rate last year and he does not hit the ball on the ground often, reducing the risk of rally-killing double plays.

"I'm super comfortable there," said Hicks, who batted third and went 1-for-3 in Friday's 4-1 loss to the Phillies. "I understand what the job needs. I know that I can do both. I hit for power and also get on base. Especially in our lineup, with the four guys that I'm around, I think that combination is really good."

Based on baseball-card statistics, Hicks likely would not have been the Yankees' choise in previous decades. A .235 career hitter with 88 home runs, Hicks doesn't exactly evoke the Opening Day No. 3 hitters on the club's most recent World Series championship teams: Mark Teixeira (2009), O'Neill (1996, 1998-2000), Thurman Munson (1977 and '78). Even last year's No. 3 hitter, Giancarlo Stanton, seems to fit more into the traditional power-bat mold.

And that is the point. Boone likes that Hicks will offer something different in the first inning, applauding this past week when Hicks laid down a perfect bunt against the Pirates that nicked the third-base bag for a single. The idea is to keep the line moving any way possible and maximize chances for big swingers, like Stanton and Luke Voit, to bat with a man on base.

"When you have our top of the lineup attacking the pitcher, it's definitely tough for a pitcher to get comfortable," Hicks said. "I feel like the first four batters are definitely trying to go up there and do damage right from the jump. It's very key for the top of the order to get going fast, because it just sets up everything for the rest of the lineup."

Hicks batted .225/.379/.414 with six homers and 21 RBIs in 54 games last season, later acknowledging that his surgically-repaired right arm was not close to 100 percent following Tommy John surgery. He was still aggressive at the plate, but he found that pitchers frequently nibbled with offspeed pitches instead of pumping in fastballs. Hicks refused to abandon his selective mindset, drawing 41 walks in 211 plate appearances.

"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, but it definitely changed the way my swing felt.”

Hicks has said that his elbow feels “great” when hitting and throwing this spring, having taken advantage of this past offseason to put his October 2019 procedure further in the rearview mirror. That bolsters Boone’s belief that Hicks is the right choice to keep the line moving.

“More than any spot in the order, you’re going to come up with no one on base and you’re going to come up more often than anyone else with a man on first,” Boone said. “You really value a guy that doesn’t put the ball on the ground, but still gets on base a lot, especially ahead of Stanton and Voit. I think [Hicks] is a natural in the third spot for us.”