When Jordan Hicks was announced as the Cardinals’ fifth starter last Wednesday, the baseball world was confused as to why the former backend reliever ended up in this role. Throughout the off-season and Spring Training, there were many questions about who was fulfilling the Cardinals rotation. Jake Woodford appeared to be an interesting young arm and Drew VerHagen was returning from Japan after two solid seasons in the NPB.
New Cardinals manager Oli Marmol made a bold choice in electing Hicks to fill that last rotation spot. Hicks has a history as a starter, but who is he gonna be given the major league track record?
Hicks jumped onto the big league circuit in 2018 and quickly caught the eyes of many when he started throwing 100+ MPH sinkers that seemed simply impossible to hit.
Unfortunately, the first thing many people think of when they see a 21-year-old throwing north of 100 MPH is the arm injuries that surround such explosiveness. Shortly after getting drafted in the third round of the 2015 draft, Hicks was sidelined before his pro debut with a shoulder issue and he did not debut until 2016. In 2019, Hicks went down with a torn UCL that required a 12-13 month recovery period. He missed all of the 2020 season and was anticipating a strong return in 2021. After struggling in 10 IP in 2021, Hicks went down again with a right elbow inflammation that withheld him from pitching in the majors for the rest of the season.
Health is the biggest question for Hicks as he assumes the role of a starter. Despite the limitations of 40 pitches or four innings on his starts, the Cardinals are not using him as an opener like other teams. According to Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the team is building him into a starter as the season progresses. This is likely due to the short Spring Training where the team was not able to build up Hicks’s stamina. The organization believes that he is capable of providing meaningful innings as he catches up to speed. Even when he was rehabbing at the end of 2021, the Cardinals were planning to turn him (and Alex Reyes) into starters for this season. Both of these seemed like more of a pipe dream than reality, but Hicks is here and slotted to start Tuesday against Kansas City.
History as a Starter
For most of his minor league career, Hicks was a starting pitcher. He spent his time in the minors at four of the lower levels across 2016 and 2017. Starting in rookie ball in 2016, he made his way through the levels of A ball before the rush up to the majors entering 2018. From his pro debut until the end of the 2017 season, Hicks was only starting games.
As the 2018 pitch diagram shows, Hicks used the sinker over the slider in all counts, even with two strikes. The sinker was a great pitch, it had a -10 run value and a .238 average against. However, it did not garner many swings and misses with just a 7.2% SwStr%. The frequency of the pitch meant that hitters were going to put a bat on it, which is not ideal with two strikes. While not getting many swings and misses, it generated lots of weak contact to make up for the lack of whiffs. Hicks was in the 95th percentile for xSLG, 99th percentile for xISO, and 100th percentile for Brl%. Hitters could rarely, if ever, barrel the ball against Hicks.
The slider has actually been Hicks’s moneymaker and it needs to be used more. The slider in 2018 yielded a .104 batting average against and a 20.4% SwStr%. The pitch had an absurd 51.8% whiff rate, meaning that more than every other swing was a swing-and-miss. Hicks bumped the usage of the pitch from 22% in 2018 to 34% in 2019, showing that he is willing to use the slider more. When there was a more balanced distribution of sinkers and sliders in 2019, Hicks saw his ERA drop by about half a run and his K% increase by 6%.
Hicks also expanded his repertoire to include the changeup again, a pitch that was put aside when he made the majors as a reliever. While it has only been thrown 28 times across 2019 and 2021, it has a 69.1% whiff rate. Hicks has shown strong potential in two offerings but is still building the changeup into a viable third pitch.
Major League Starter?
Hicks is essentially working backward into the starting pitcher role. Many relievers are guys who could not develop a third pitch or did not have the stamina to make it deep into ballgames. Although Hicks is only 25-years-old and has development time ahead, he already had a spot in the backend of the Cardinals bullpen and is now attempting to become a starter.
First and foremost, Hicks has to be able to survive the workload of a starter. Disregarding the offseason preparations to become a starter, Hicks has not shown any capability of being stretched out in his three years as a reliever. He has never thrown more than 40 pitches in a game, as the closest was 39 pitches during a 2019 appearance against Texas. Injuries are a major concern for Hicks and stretching out as a starter may become detrimental to an already unsettling elbow situation. It is unclear if Hicks will be ready for the step-up, but it appears that he will likely become a three-to-four inning guy. The Cardinals are unlikely to ever let him go and his frequent high pitch counts will prevent him from truly getting deep into ballgames.
Hicks also has to be able to reel in his command and throw more strikes in order to succeed as a starter. His career first-pitch strike percentage is slightly below the MLB average which is less acceptable for a starter than a reliever. Additionally, his walk rate is north of 13%, a value that was even too high for Dylan Cease. This is crucial for any producing starting pitcher, the command cannot prevent a guy from getting out of the early innings.
Assuming Hicks is fully healthy going into his first start, he should ideally hover around a 10% walk rate. He brought his walk rate down to 10% between 2018 and 2019 before going down with an injury and he should be able to pick up where he left off. Hicks’s command in the first few starts will be critical for identifying how high his ceiling is.
As for his repertoire, it comes down to the usage of the sinker and slider. Both pitches can be lethal when used effectively, but if Hicks is to rely on one more heavily than the other, it may lead to trouble from a longevity standpoint. The use of one pitch leads to longer at-bats and a shorter outing. The sinker might also have a slightly lower velocity during starts to prevent Hicks from throwing 100% on every single pitch, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. He is already sitting at 100 MPH so there is plenty of wiggle room to create additional energy for a longer outing.
It will be interesting to see if Hicks attempts to develop a third pitch. Two-pitch starting pitchers can be successful (see Huascar Ynoa), but most legit starters have three offerings they can rely on. The changeup might be a hidden gem for Hicks if he throws the sinker as his primary pitch, but there is a path to success where Hicks effectively mixes the sinker and slider by themselves. As for fantasy value, Hicks can be left on the waiver wire for his first few starts (barring some ridiculous 7 IP, 10K outing) as we learn about Jordan Hicks the starting pitcher. The lack of volume makes Hicks an unimpressive pitcher from a fantasy value, but any indication of 5+ IP and solid strikeout numbers may make him worth a stash by May.
Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)