There may not be a more exciting pitcher in baseball than St. Louis Cardinals reliever Jordan Hicks. The rookie has burst onto the scene with a record-setting fastball that has been making the rounds in GIF form on social media. However, beyond the eye-popping velocity, there are some interesting flaws in the game of MLB’s latest phenom.
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According to Statcast, Hicks alone has thrown the five fastest pitches in all of baseball this season with his sinker reaching 105.1 miles per hour. The only other pitcher in the same stratosphere as the young hurler in that regard is the New York Yankees Aroldis Chapman, who has topped out at 103.3 mph in 2018. However, more velocity does not always translate into more success.
On the surface, Hicks’ numbers look good. The right-hander has a 1.96 ERA, 196 ERA+ and a .167 batting average against. Baseball Reference has him with a 0.5 WAR, which for a reliever who has appeared in just 22 games is quite impressive as well. The problems start to arise when you dive deeper into the less traditional statistics.
Hicks’ batting average against on balls in play is only .191. The league average is usually right around .300. That could be explained away if Hicks was getting a lot of weak contact, but that’s not really the case either. The 19.1 percent soft contact rate is slightly below average, according to FanGraphs.The combination of a low BABIP, not much soft contact, and the fact that the Cardinals are only a slightly better than average defensive team suggests that Hicks is getting lucky when hitters do make contact.
Of course, the strikeout is en vogue. With his big fastball, Hicks must be a K machine, right? Not really. He has just 11 punchouts in 23 innings of work so far. That is a 4.3 K/9 rate, which would be bad for any pitcher, let alone one with the gift of a triple-digit fastball.
It gets worse when taking a look at his walk rate. It’s not overly surprising to see a hard-throwing 21-year-old rookie have inflated base on balls numbers, but it has been a real problem for Hicks. In those previously mentioned 23 innings, he has walked 16 batters, a 6.3 BB/9 rate. You read that right. He is walking far more hitters than he is striking out.
Let’s run down all of that again real quick. Hicks does not get weak contact, he walks everyone, and he can’t get any strikeouts. And yet, he does not allow runs; just five earned so far. That is a real head-scratcher. FanGraphs kills him for all of these negative peripherals, leading to a 4.63 FIP, 5.75 xFIP and -0.2 WAR based on their system. However, what matters most is how often opposing teams score against him. For whatever reason, Hicks has been good at preventing that from happening so far.
Perhaps his biggest advantage is that hitters find it almost impossible to homer off of him. He’s yet to give up a long ball in the bigs, and he only gave up four in 165.2 career innings as a minor league pitcher.
That’s because batters are struggling to even get the ball in the air at all. His 61.2 percent groundball rate is seventh-best among pitchers with at least 20 innings thrown this year. Complementary of that, his line drive rate (14.9) and fly ball rate (23.9) are near the bottom of the league.
At the moment, Major League Baseball is full of sluggers that are intent on increasing their launch angle to maximize the chance of extra base hits, including home runs. Hicks appears to be one of those pitchers where that strategy will not work, at least not right now.
Hicks cannot continue to pitch this way and be successful. His fastball needs to be more competitive. Too often can it be found right in the middle of the plate or so far out of the strike zone it doesn’t really trouble the batter. Even still, it is a plus offering that should improve as he develops.
Along with improving that fastball, Hicks needs to supply a second pitch that tempts major league hitters. His slider is said to be his “strikeout” pitch, but that hasn’t been obvious just yet. Hicks throws the slider 22.3 percent of the time, but he has little command of it, and it rates out well below the sinker and the traditional four-seamer in the pitcher’s arsenal.
It’s important to remember that prior to this past March, Hicks hadn’t pitched above High-A, where he was never obscenely dominant anyway. Most weren’t expecting to see this guy in St. Louis for at least another season, maybe two. He is a 21-year-old with a lot to learn, and it shows.
To turn Hicks into a viable long term option out of the St. Louis ‘pen, the solution may be to lose some of what makes him special. Many times, faster pitches don’t have as much movement. His sinker, while a good pitch, does not produce many swings and misses. Sinkers, by their nature are easier to hit, regardless of speed, than their four-seam or two-seam counterparts. Reducing the velocity could create more downward movement and turn some of the grounders or line drives we see now into whiffs.
Jordan Hicks is an intriguing talent that will get plenty of big league chances. His youth and early success should be seen as positives, not detracted from because of troublesome peripherals. Even still, there is plenty of room to grow.