A Primer on Jordan Hicks’ First MLB Start

Remember Jordan Hicks? You know, the guy who hit 105 way back in the day? Well, he’s had a tumultuous few seasons with injuries in 2019 and 2021 and an opt-out in the 2020 COVID season. Because of that, he’s thrown just over 30 innings for the St. Louis Cardinals in the last three seasons. His days of being a bullpen ace feel like a lifetime ago but he’s back now and he’s moved into a different role – fifth starter.

I’ve seen mixed reactions among Cardinal nation because some people choose to focus on the pros and others on the cons. There’s plenty of both risk and upside here, so let’s take a comprehensive look at the situation heading into Jordan Hicks’ first start today this weekend.

When I was thinking of an article to write for today, I realized it was the perfect occasion to write about Jordan Hicks since he would be starting in the evening. But no, the weather had to go and mess things up. Not only was Hicks going to start, but so were Lars Nootbaar and Andrew Knizner. What a sad game to postpone.

Also, since I could not watch the last game against the Pirates (I was at Comerica watching the Tigers get killed instead), I have no Cardinals baseball for two days in a row. This marks the beginning of my personal vendetta against the weather. Is that extreme? Sure. But extreme reactions to one bad game (looking at you Cardinals Twitter) seem to be as much of a national pastime as baseball.

Anyways, let’s continue with our discussion of Jordan Hicks even though the timing of this article is not perfect anymore.

I’ll start with health because that’s a big reason why the Cardinals want Hicks in the rotation in the first place. He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2019 and missed most of 2021 with right elbow inflammation. At 25 years old, that’s a lot of wear and tear on the pitching elbow.

The Cardinals think that putting Hicks on a regular schedule will help him stay healthy. Taking the ball every fifth day would give him a strict schedule that he could adhere to in terms of preparing to pitch, actually pitching, and recovering after his outing. This is some merit to this approach. The life of a reliever is uncertain. You do not know which games you will enter, when you will enter those games, or how often you will pitch in a given week. That can make it tough to prepare.

Maybe working on a schedule will help Hicks stay healthy, but may not. He has never thrown more than 77 23 innings in a season. That’s a lot for a reliever, but starters throw at least twice that. Will a set schedule be able to overcome a higher workload? Only time will tell.

The health issue is the biggest one for Hicks. He has a talented arm, but it does not help if he’s not on the mound. The main concern, performance-wise, for Hicks is control. He’s been prone to bouts of wildness earlier in his career and he may struggle to throw strikes consistently after limited competitive experience in recent years. Still, he has an arm you can bet on.

I mean, just take a look at this from Spring Training

That’s filthy. 100 mph sinkers are already hard to hit. When they move like frisbees, they’re even harder.

The main problem for Hicks in 2018, his debut season, is that he walked too many batters (13.3%). That’s a big flaw, but it’s to be expected coming from someone who hadn’t pitched above High-A. That kind of a walk rate may exclude him from the rotation, but the good news is that he showed improvement the next year, dropping down to 10%. The qualifier is that Hicks only threw 28 23 innings in 2019. The flamethrower also saw his strikeout rate tick upwards from 20.6% to 28.2%.

This is the last time we really saw Hicks on the mound. He can survive with a 10% walk rate as a starter, but he still needs to prove that he can sustain that rate. The good news is that he does have experience as a starter. It’s just not high level experience.

Hicks started all throughout his minor league career (which was not long) and was successful. After rookie ball, his ERA never rose above 3.35 at any level (short season, A, A +). His FIPs were higher, but never above 4.38. That’s good enough to prove that he could handle the rotation up to High-A before earning an unexpected Opening Day assignment with the Cardinals in 2018. It was this unexpected assignment that changed Hicks’ development

One thing I do not like about Hicks being promoted into the bullpen so early is that he abandoned all but two of his pitches. In 2018, Baseball America ranked him as the 5th best prospect in the Cardinals system and wrote this about him.

Hicks pairs his heater with a tight power curveball at 79-82 mph that draws plus-plus grades from evaluators and is his go-to swing-and-miss pitch. Hicks relies heavily on those two pitches, but he also has a firm changeup with depth that flashes average and an 83-85 mph slider he’ll mix in.

For those of you counting at home, that’s four pitches. How many different pitches did Hicks throw in 2018? Two. Technically, it was three if you want to count the 24 four-seam fastballs that he threw, but I am lumping those with his sinker and calling everything a fastball. I know they move differently, but my point is that Hicks only threw fastballs and sliders. He threw his slider only 22% of the time and his fastball 78% of the time.

My guess is that he combined his curveball and his slider into one really nasty breaking ball, but where did his changeup go? That’s the problem with pitching out of the bullpen after skipping a bunch of levels. It’s really easy to drop tertiary pitches. I talked about this in my recent article about Andre Pallante, and I’ll talk about it more here.

Since reaching the majors, Hicks has thrown exactly 28 changeups, making him essentially a two-pitch pitcher. He rarely throws his four-seamer and though Baseball Savant says that Hicks threw 36 cutters last year, I am not yet convinced that he has a cutter separate from his slider.

To me, this is a bigger problem than potential control issues. You know what starter gets away with a two pitch arsenal? Jacob DeGrom. Jordan Hicks is electric, but he’s not Jacob DeGrom. As you saw above, Hicks’ sinker is a lot to handle. So is his slider. It’s one thing to have nasty stuff and it’s another to have nasty stuff with great command. Hicks falls into the former category and DeGrom the latter. All this is to say that Hicks needs a third pitch. Even DeGrom throws his changeup 8.9% of the time. That may not be much, but at least it’s something.

If Hicks is going to be a starter, then he needs more than a sinker and a slider. It’s a shame he hasn’t become more comfortable with his changeup, or any other tertiary pitch, while working in the bullpen because now he will need to be comfortable with relatively untested pitches in longer outings.

As a total side note, Andre Pallante did the same thing as Hicks in his debut – He only threw (pretty much) two pitches. Of his 28 pitches, 27 were four-seam fastballs or sliders. The other pitch was a curveball. At least he threw one curveball, but he, like Hicks, needs to develop other pitches.

This is the risk with calling up talented but inexperienced starting pitching prospects and putting them in the bullpen. They may learn how to get outs at the major league level, but they may also not develop their full arsenal.

This is what I will be watching for with Hicks. His changeup (or whatever he wants his third pitch to be) does not need to be a dominant pitch, it just needs to be able to play well enough off of his nasty sinker and slider. He can probably get away with throwing it around 10-12% of the time, so it does not need to be used often, but it needs to be used enough to stick in the back of a hitter’s mind.

He can still get outs with his sinker and slider combination, he just needs to diversify a bit if he wants to last 5+ innings instead of just one or two.

So, those are the risks – injury concern, potential control issues, and a lack of a true third offering. This move is not devoid of upside, though. Besides his nasty stuff, and starting history in the minors, Hicks also has an astronomical ground ball rate.

Dakota Hudson, whose identity is a starter who gets ground balls, has a career groundball rate of 57.6%. Groundball and double play extraordinaire TJ McFarland has a career groundball rate of 62.8%. Jordan Hicks beats both of them. It’s no surprise that he has a 63% career groundball rate considering his high octane frisbee-sinker and that’s something that could really play well in the rotation.

In longer outings, Hicks may see his groundball rate drop a bit, but he should still rival Dakota Hudson, if not surpass him. Even when he moves into the rotation, the nasty sinker will be far and away Hicks’ primary offering. The offering is really tough to square up (1.1% barrel rate in 2018, 4.2% in 2019) which is why he should continue getting plenty of ground balls and continue to limit hard contact despite below average control and command.

That’s a good profile to have in the rotation. He may be more susceptible if his velocity dips later in his starts, but he has talked about intentionally lowering his velocity to put less stress on his arm and be able to throw longer outings. That sounds like he should be able to sustain a high velocity, just maybe not 105, which is completely fine.

It’s not hard to envision Hicks pitching really well out of the rotation if everything comes together for him. At the same time, he must put some concerns to bed before the team can fully commit to him in a new role.

Hicks is still scheduled to make his first appearance of the year today, but it will be in relief of the Dakota Hudson. If all goes well, he’ll pitch two innings but no more than 45 pitches. From there, he will slowly build up his arm. Thanks to Jeff Jones for providing the info.

Hicks won’t be a traditional starter for a while since the team wants to be conservative with him. This not only keeps his arm out of duress, but it also gives him time to find a third pitch and work it into his arsenal. This is something that I will be watching for when he takes the mound tonight.

I am a cautious fan of this move, but it definitely takes a bit of optimism to like it. Frankly, there’s a lot that could go wrong. I mean, let’s not minimize the importance of health, good control, and a viable third pitch.

However, I think it would be a waste if he was not given an opportunity to start at the highest level. He started in the minors and he’s a good pitcher. I do not want to relegate him to the bullpen without at least seeing if he can stick in the rotation.

I would have preferred to see him get his chance in Spring Training, the Arizona Fall League, or winter ball, but it’s better than him being stuck in the ‘pen forever. If it does not work then he can just slot back into the bullpen.

There’s certainly a lot of risk, but I’m excited to see if he can make the leap from reliever to starter and develop himself into a more complete pitcher.

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