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Yankees’ under-the-radar outfielder helping fill Judge void

There was a time — the three-decade stretch when Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle roamed the outfield — that there was no more glamorous position in sports than Yankees center fielder.

But on a team with the game’s two greatest sluggers (Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton), a pair of rookie sensations (Gleyber Torres, Miguel Andujar), and a Cy Young contender (Luis Severino), the spotlight usually skips past Yankees center fielder Aaron Hicks.

As the team’s cleanup hitter in recent weeks, Hicks’ all-around importance has become even more apparent, with the outfielder providing career-best power, while softening the blow of Judge and Gary Sanchez’s extended stints on the disabled list.

After never appearing as a cleanup hitter once in his first five seasons in the majors, Hicks batted fourth for the 10th time this season Thursday night against the Rangers, entering with a .333 batting average in the spot.

Hicks blasted a two-run homer in the first inning Thursday night to propel the Yankees to a 7-3 victory.

“The switch-hitting element is something I really like, too, especially with a couple guys down you can still kind of build your lineup and separate out lefties and righties with a switch hitter in there,” said manager Aaron Boone, describing why he likes Hicks as the team’s cleanup hitter. “It helps you out strategically having a good player who can hit from both sides in how your construct your lineup.”

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It also helps having a healthy player in his prime posting career-best numbers.

Though Hicks’ 2017 season was limited to 88 games because of oblique injuries, the 28-year-old has built off the promising campaign in which he hit a career-best .266, with 15 home runs and 52 RBIs.

Hicks already has a career-high 20 home runs — hitting 14 in his last 45 games.

Entering Thursday, he had 36 extra-base hits, ranking second among American League outfielders in home runs, walks (57), slugging percentage (.482) and OPS (.841), while ranking third in runs (58), and RBI (51).

Hicks, who had reached base safely in 26 of his previous 55 plate appearances, also holds the third-highest WAR (3.4) on the Yankees — trailing only Judge and Severino — and the ninth-best WAR among all outfielders in the majors.

“He’s just showing to be a really good player, and taken another step up from the season he had last year,” Boone said. “He’s had quality at-bat after quality at-bat.”

Less than two years ago, Hicks looked like he may never be able to provide anything more than defensive range and a strong arm.

Following the trade from Minnesota for John Ryan Murphy — the catcher who hasn’t played in 100 games since the trade, and holds a career. 227 batting average — Hicks badly struggled in his debut season in The Bronx in 2016. He batted .217 with eight home runs in 123 games, while holding a lower WAR (-0.3) than all but four of the 53 players to play for the Yankees that season.

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Less than two years later, Hicks is a fixture in the middle of the lineup, as valuable as nearly any player on a team with baseball’s third-best record.

“We’ve seen him take an even bigger step this year, continuing to get on base a lot and the power along with it,” Boone said last week. “It’s not surprising, frankly.

“This is the kind of talent he has, and we’re seeing a guy that now kind of in the prime of his career has matured into a good all-around player.”

Article credit: https://nypost.com/2018/08/10/yankees-under-the-radar-outfielder-helping-fill-judge-void/?src=rss

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