Trying to Make Sense of Jordan Hicks

Jordan Hicks is a 21-year old reliever for the St. Louis Cardinals. The standout factor for Hicks is his velocity. This velocity has allowed him to skip both Double-A and Triple-A. Hicks spent his 2017 season between single-A Peoria and high-A Palm Beach. In 2018, he came into spring training and broke camp with the big-league club.

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In the table above we have the 10 fastest pitches thrown this year (baseballsavant). There is a common theme on this table. Hicks has recorded 8 of the top 10 highest velocity pitches, while the other 2 were recorded by fire-baller Aroldis Chapman. We know he has incredible velocity, but his in-game results seem to not add up.

Fast pitches are advantageous because they’re difficult to hit. Theoretically, the faster the pitch, the harder it should be to hit. When pitches are hard to hit strikeouts increase. Therefore, faster pitches should lead to an increase in strikeouts. Using that logic, Hicks should be near the top of the league in strikeout percentage. Below is a table of data obtained from Fangraphs of the 10 pitchers with the highest strikeout percentages this season (min. 20 innings pitched). Atop the list we see hard throwing relievers such as Josh Hader (56.9%)! and Aroldis Chapman (46.4%), but where is Jordan Hicks?

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Now that we’ve seen the top guys in terms of strikeout percentage, let’s see the bottom 10.

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We see guys like Chris Tillman who has an ERA over 10, Alex Claudio who throws slower than molasses, and Bryan Mitchell who owns the worst strikeout to walk rate in baseball. However, we also see Jordan Hicks. Hicks is the hardest thrower in Major League Baseball and has one of the lowest strike out percentages in the game. So what is the deal with Hicks? A few things. Hicks is wild. He walks a lot of guys, 15% actually. As Cubs fans know Tyler Chatwood also walks a lot of guys. He leads the league with a 20.3% walk rate, but he strikes out 19.8% of batters faced. If you look at the differences between the two rates, Hicks is third worst in the majors in this metric. Whereas someone like Tyler Chatwood can be defined as effectively wild, meaning his high walk rate causes a higher strikeout rate, the same can’t be said about Hicks.

So why isn’t Hicks effectively wild? Perhaps because there is something unique about his 100+ mph pitches. Hicks’ fastballs are sinkers, which tend to be more hittable than the four-seamers many high velocity pitchers like Aroldis Chapman throw. They are still 100+ mph pitches and should still be difficult to hit and fast pitches are definitely hard to hit for homers. This is because hitters likely choke up and focus on contact and catching up to the pitch when they face faster pitching. Neither Hicks or Chapman has allowed a home run yet this year so that is one advantage velocity does have. The biggest reason Hicks’ strikeout numbers are where they are is likely because of his lack of feel for a secondary pitch. He has a slider, but it doesn’t get many swings and he can’t control it yet.

It’s important to keep in mind Hicks is only 21 years old and skipped two levels of the minor leagues so to expect him to have a good secondary right now would be a lot. If he can develop that pitch and get it to a point where hitters need to think about it and can’t time his 100 mph sinker (mlb hitters can time any pitch if they know it’s coming), his strikeout numbers will likely skyrocket and he could be an extremely tough reliever out of that Cardinal bullpen. Whatever the case, Jordan Hicks is intriguing and a pitcher to keep your eye on if not only for the 105 mph heat.

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