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Cardinals prospect Jordan Hicks talks about the improvements that changed his season and helped him take off

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Cardinals pitching prospect Jordan Hicks answers our questions on his impressive 2017 season and how the Cardinals use spin rate to help young pitchers.

Minor League Baseball: Arizona Fall League-All Star Game Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Jordan Hicks signed with the Cardinals out of high school about 30 months ago and didn’t turn 21 until the end of last season, but he is very quickly moving up the Cardinals prospect ranks and our own AE Schafer said he might have the best stuff out of all the Cardinals prospects (full report here). I had the opportunity to chat with Hicks for a bit as he readies himself for another season. The below contains the bulk of our slightly edited Q+A.

VEB: A year ago at this time, you had 12 professional starts under your belt, none in full season ball. A year later, you pitched a full season, played in the Arizona Fall League, and there’s a lot of buzz about you, either about potentially making the majors this season or in rumors as a player the Cardinals don’t want to give up. What’s the last year been like for you? Where did you expect to be a year ago at this time?

JH: It’s been a grind. I had expectations and goals, of course, but I wanted to keep moving up throughout the system. I trust they know when I’m ready to move up, and I made the jump up to Double-A but I didn’t get to pitch. It’s just been a grind

VEB: You’ve got a pretty high leg kick. Did you pattern that after anyone or did it just come naturally?

JH: I think it just came naturally whenever I started pitching, I was pretty young in high school. I didn’t watch that much baseball, so I didn’t pattern it off anybody. I think it just felt natural for me to have that leg kick and get momentum. Everything just seemed smooth that way. I didn’t really get it from anyone or focus on it, it just kind of happened. I can’t even remember when i started doing it.

VEB: Everybody knows about your big fastball, how do you feel about your other pitches and how they’ve progressed? What would you say is your second-best pitch?

JH: I really like my slider and what it does. I like missing bats with it. It’s a fun pitch to throw. My changeup is really coming along this offseason so i’m really excited to use that more this upcoming season. I think my slider is still my second-best pitch, but changeup is definitely developing into something I’m excited for.

VEB: I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the phrase, “Don’t scout the stat line”, but it basically means that in the minor leagues, because of the different levels of age, talent, and ballpark and players might be working on different things that aren’t going to show up in the box scores. All that said, I’m going to take a look at your lines at Peoria and Palm Beach from last year. If I looked at your stat line In Peoria, you were a ground ball pitcher who kept the ball in the park with a hard sinking fastball, but you struggled with command which led to walks and not all that many strikeouts as your stuff might indicate. Is that fair?

JH: It does sound fair. When I was in Peoria, I went through this six-game streak where my mechanics were a little off. Then I went to the All-Star Game and let my body be free and just wanted to have fun. Everything kind of clicked there. My velocity went off, and I just started moving better.

I had two more starts in Peoria after the All-Star Game and my fastball was really up there in velo. Everything was just working. My body felt great. If you check my last two games in Peoria* they were pretty good. I just carried that into Palm Beach, started getting more strikeouts because I was getting ahead more. That’s a big part for me. I need to get ahead if I want to be successful because if i’m behind, they are just going to expect the fastball and sit on it.

*Hicks’ memory is a good one. In six starts before the Midwest League All-Star Game, Hicks had 22 strikeouts, 20 walks, a 5.10 ERA and 5.06 FIP in 30 innings. In his last two starts at Peoria, he struck out 16, walked five, and had a 1.17 ERA and 2.58 FIP in 15.1 innings. In five Palm Beach starts, he struck out 24, walked two, and had a 1.23 ERA and 1.81 FIP in 22 innings.

VEB: You said it was a change in mechanics. Was it something you noticed, a coach noticed, or something that just happened over the course of the season?

JH: I had this hitch in my windup kind of, and i just tried to be more fluid with it. No stops, no breaks, no pauses whenever I was going up and down. I just tried to be more fluid. I think it was a mixture of me feeling it and my coach also seeing it to help me.

VEB: You said it carried over to Palm Beach, How big was the jump for you?

JH: Whenever I had my stuff, it just felt really good there. My first game, I gave up three runs, so I was like “alright, I guess we will see how the next game goes”. I started getting ahead, pounding the zone with my fastball. My slider was working really nice. For me, I didn’t see a huge jump, but I’m excited to see wherever I start this year and what Double-A is like.

VEB: I don’t know how much you pay attention to the stats, but you faced 108 batter in Palm Beach and there were only eight fly balls the entire time. Is keeping the ball on the ground one of your main focuses?

JH: Yeah. I have a low spin fastball so I’m definitely a ground ball pitcher, but now I know how to get strikeouts and I want to because of the high velo and my slider.

VEB: I was talking with Ryan Helsley earlier and he mentioned that he was aware he had a high spin fastball so he pitches up in the zone. You have a lower spin fastball. How do you become aware you have a lower spin fastball? Is that coming from the Cardinals?

JH: The Cardinals really let us know and show us numbers and tell us what kind of pitcher we are. It’s pretty clear--with the spin rate and all that stuff--all becoming part of baseball they teach us about it and take it. Know if we have a high spin fastball, we can work in the upper part of the zone and finish with a curveball down in the zone just to change the eye level.

If you are sinker guy, you are going to be down in the zone. My sinker goes more like down and to the right so I finish them off with a slider that goes the other way. That’s why I’m excited about my changeup because it kind of does the same thing as my sinker—but it’s slower—so it comes out of the same plane, same angle.

VEB: What do the Cardinals have you doing in the offseason?

JH: Fastball command, staying low in the zone. They told me in the Fall League they wanted me to work on my changeup and the fourseam. I don’t ever throw a fourseam, they just wanted to see if I could get in on a lefty with a fourseam or go up in certain situations. Just working out, getting my body right for the season.

VEB: Since joining the Cardinals, what coaches or players have been the most influential and helped you the most?

JH: Jason Isringhausen has been a big influence for me. We just have a good connection with each other. All the coaches, really. You kind of take the things you like and use them. The things you don’t like, you can try them and iif it doesn’t work for you you kind of let it go. The things you do like you’ve got to hold on and grasp it and keep working at it. Whenever I’ve dont that--and i’ve gotten really good advice from guys--it’s helped me in my career.

VEB: What about before you were drafted? Who have been the important people in your life--on the field or off--who have helped you get to where you are today?

My family definitely. They were at every game in high school. Never missed one my whole life. I played football and soccer, every sport. My mom never missed a game. My dad was always working for us. It’s always nice to know you have people behind you that love you no matter if you are playing the game or not. They’ve been the biggest influence for me and i just want to set them up. That’s my main goal.

Thanks again to Jordan. You can follow him on twitter @JHicks007.