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Finding a Jordan Hicks Comp

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Let’s go on a unicorn hunt

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Every fan has one aspect of the game they enjoy more than most. Lots of folks want to see majestic upper-deck shots. Some people like watching hitters wield their bats like Ichiro-esque surgeons, finding a way to put wood on anything they deem necessary. Still others want to see burners on the basepaths, catcher pop times, or defenders flashing the leather. Personally? I want to see pitchers firing nuclear queso toward home plate. The more wiggle to it, the better. And boy howdy, do Cardinal fans have a treat this year. Enter Jordan Hicks.

Hicks’ arm is already opening eyes nationally. His sinker velocity is extraordinary, and the life on it only augments the velocity. He may have broken pitchf/x, which says he throws a sinker, two-seamer, and four-seamer, while Brooks Baseball has them all listed as four-seamers. We know from Craig Edwards’ excellent interview with him earlier this year that they are almost universally sinkers. His slider/slurve is also very lively. We haven’t seen anything beyond that arsenal, and I don’t think we need to with him pitching out of the bullpen. Command issues aside, it’s devastating to hitters and breathtaking for us to watch. Whenever I see exceptional young talent like this, my first inclination is to find a comparable player. Let’s dig around and see what we can find.

First and foremost, there are some limitations here. Through Thursday’s Wrigley tilt, Hicks hasn’t even pitched 10 innings at the Major League level. Small samples are kryptonite for these type of comp treatments, meaning we’re very limited right out of the gate. Valuable items like K%, BB%, HR%, even innings pitched and fWAR are taken off the table because they take much longer to stabilize (the sabermetric term du jour). Fortunately for us, the part of Hicks’ game that makes him so exceptional- his velocity and lively arm- are measured in pitchf/x metrics that require far less time to become reliable. However, focusing on pitchf/x data means we have another limitation. We only have data going back to 2007. Normally when I perform this exercise, I like to find a natural breaking point- the era after integration (1947 to present), or 30 or 40 years, something in that vein. Those time frames provide a more robust set of potential comps. Alas, you can only work with the data you have. In this case, it means we’re looking at pitchers since 2007. We’re looking strictly at pitchf/x data- velocity, horizontal and vertical movement, and specific pitches in the repertoire. Pitchf/x does offer percentage usage for each individual pitch, as well as pitch type values and linear weights. But those data points are plagued by sample size issues. We’ll exclude them here.

Purely because I think it’s fun, I want to start by illustrating just how eye-popping Hicks’ velocity has been thus far. It’s one thing to pile on superlatives, but it’s quite another to demonstrate the degree with which he’s surpassing his peers. For a few years now, Statcast’s leaderboard for fastest pitches has humorously included a Chapman filter. Turn on the Chapman filter and you can see the fastest pitches thrown by everyone not named Aroldis Chapman. They put it there because past iterations of the fastest pitches leaderboard have been dominated by Chapman and his fastball. If you’ve looked at the leaderboard this year, then you realize MLB may need to replace the Chapman filter with a Hicks filter. Here’s a simple dot plot of the 50 fastest pitches thrown through Thursday’s games. I’ve highlighted Hicks in red.

This isn’t even every pitch thrown, or the top quartile of fastest pitches. These are the fifty fastest. It’s not just the cream of the crop. It’s the very best of the cream of the crop. And Hicks, highlighted in red, is better than that.

With that out of the way, let’s start drilling down to get some comps. I have all pitchers since 2007, sorted by single seasons. After all, if Johnny McFastball was throwing 98 in 2009, but got hurt in 2010 and spent the rest of his career throwing 92, his career average fastball is not going to look as impressive as that initial year. We want a snapshot of single pitchers who could match Hicks’ octane and life over a season. I’m going to hone in on Hicks’ repertoire and give every single pitcher in my sample a percentile rank in velocity, horizontal movement, and vertical movement. In Hicks’ case, that’s a sinker and a slider. Technically, pitchF/X has him with a few four-seamers and two-seamers, but it’s very small- both under 5% usage, with a high probability that at least the two-seamers are mislabeled sinkers. We’ll throw those out.

After assigning percentile ranks, I’m going to immediately disqualify any pitcher that didn’t throw both a sinker and a slider. That takes our 8,001 individual pitcher seasons since 2007 and cuts it all the way down to 1,572. From here, we’ll calculate the distance in percentile rank from Hicks to each of the 1,571 other pitchers across all 6 categories (velocity, horizontal movement, vertical movement for sinkers and sliders). And finally, Hicks has used his sinker or slider 92% of the time thus far. That’s extreme, and it’s a small sample, but it’s all we have to go on. I’m going to dismiss any pitcher who doesn’t use those same two pitches at least 50% of the time. 50% is still a lot less than Hicks has thus far, but I imagine Hicks’ own volume will settle down some. And believe me, in this sample, that’s a reasonable enough bar. We’re cutting our list all the way down to 670 pitchers without even considering velocity and movement yet. Here are Hicks’ closest comps. I’ve turned it up to 11 for a reason, which we’ll get to shortly.

Before diving into these, I want to explain how horizontal and vertical movement works in these graphs. The horizontal movement for Hicks’ sinkers (SI-X) is -9.6 thus far. The negative here isn’t a bad thing. It simply means that his sinker is bearing in on right-handed hitters to somewhat of an extreme. When you see that he’s 23rd percentile in that category, it means that he’s 27 percentile points better than a pitcher with the least lively sinker (this pitcher would rank as the 50th percentile). On the flip side, a pitcher with a high percentile rank in SI-X (or anything-X) is throwing a pitch that bears hard in on left-handed hitters. Here’s a Hicks example from the Mets series, where you can see the intense life bearing in on righties and away from lefties.

Now, regarding the comps, let’s chisel away a little more regardless of similarity. Immediately, we can dismiss Miguel Batista, who was 41 at the time. The 2018 comps are interesting, but plagued by the same small sample issues we already have with Hicks. Over time, there’s a very good chance these pitchers will dissolve as comps. We can eliminate Roberto Gomez, Miguel Castro, and- sadly- our #1 comp, Raisel Iglesias. There’s another problem with Iglesias anyway. Specifically, Brooks Baseball and Fangraphs can’t seem to agree on whether or not he’s even throwing a sinker. And recent seasons for Iglesias don’t register as similar to Hicks thus far. Unless Iglesias has changed drastically this season, he’s not an ideal comp.

Like Batista, Farnsworth’s age is problematic. During the season in which he was similar to Hicks, he was 35, and also threw considerably more four-seamers and cutters than Hicks. Chris Bassitt isn’t extremely dissimilar from Hicks in any one way, but also isn’t particularly close in the ways that matter most. Specifically, his sinker didn’t have the giddyup of Hicks’. 93.8 mph is plenty, but it’s not on Hicks’ level. He also had a five pitch mix, using a curveball, four-seamer, and changeup liberally. Matt Lindstrom employed almost exactly the same sinker as Hicks in 2014 in terms of horizontal and vertical movement. Lindstrom also had the extreme sinker/slider mix that Hicks has used so far, with 87.5% of his pitches being of the sinker/slider variety. But Lindstrom was 34, pitching in his final season, and didn’t have the sinker velocity of Hicks. Making matters worse, his slider wasn’t that similar to Hicks’ and lacked the differentiation in velocity with his sinker. It made him far more hittable, more reliant on defense, and much less effective. Jared Hughes’ slider in 2013 was fairly similar to Hicks’ slider, but there’s an enormous difference in sinkers. Hughes had more sink to his sinker, and far less velocity (92.8, almost a full 6 MPH less than Hicks so far). I think it’s safe to elminate Hughes.

And then there were two pitchers, spread out over three years. I included 11 because I wanted Jimmy Nelson in the mix. In 2014, Nelson was somewhat young (25), slinging a power sinker (94.3 mph), and using a sinker/slider mix a high percentage of the time (74.5%). He’s not a perfect match for Hicks- there’s a reason he’s 11th. Nelson was starting at the time, for instance. If anything, that lends credence to the idea that he might have been more similar to Hicks had he been in the bullpen. The gap in velocity on the sinker is part of what differentiates them, and that would have melted away a little bit. On the other hand, Nelson’s 2014 slider was higher octane than we’ve seen from Hicks. The movement on the pitch is comparable, but the velocity difference is significant.

The reason I include Nelson is that he provides an instructive road map for how a power sinker/slider pitcher might take the next step as a starter. As we all know too well, Nelson ascended last year with a 4.9 fWAR, and became a fairly formidable starting pitcher. Before that, he had been cromulent but had never really put it together. In 2015, something changed. Here’s his pitch velocity chart from Brooks Baseball.

Do you see it? The curveball there at the bottom. It even tracks well with Good Jimmy and Bad Jimmy. In 2015 and 2017, he was using it 20% or more. His fWAR in 2015 was 2.0, and last year was 4.9. In 2016, he only used it 12% of the time and he was A Guy™ who ate innings, posting a 0.7 fWAR. What I’m driving at here is that Hicks, as a starter, could become a Jimmy Nelson type of pitcher or better, with the caveat that we’ll need a lot more plate discipline and strike zone info for Hicks moving forward. But it would require the addition of a third effective pitch. Now, I’ll leave it to some other writers here to speculate on whether or not it needs to be a curveball for Hicks, as it was with Nelson. Perhaps it’s a changeup, which Hicks has been working on for quite some time. Maybe it’s all moot and the organization lets him gobble up value at the back end of the bullpen. But I think we can see a path forward for Hicks as a really great starter if things fall into place. Give 2017 Jimmy Nelson Hicks’ sinker and you’re talking about pure dynamite.

Finally, we have our REAL comp. Drumroll please…. it’s Drew Storen. Further proving my point, had I included a 12th comp in the graph, it would have been 2010 Drew Storen. For three straight years (2010-2012), Drew Storen was one of the 12 most comparable pitchers to what we’ve seen from Jordan Hicks thus far. His average sinker floated between 94.7 and 95.5 mph with average vertical movement during those years. He had arm-side run on his sinker, as well, though nowhere near as extreme as Hicks. The horizontal movement and velocity on their slider was almost perfectly identical, though Hicks gets more vertical bite than Storen had in that era. Storen was also very young at the time (22 through 24) and used his sinker/slider combo two-thirds of the time or more. Storen gets a bad rap, certainly amongst fans in DC, for his 2012 NLDS meltdown. He was surprisingly effective from 2010 to 2015. In that era, he was 48th out of 293 qualified relievers in FIP, and 30th in fWAR. He was 20th in WPA, an important- if unsustainable- data point for a reliever. If this is where Hicks is headed, we can live with it.

Here’s the problem. These comps are fine, but they aren’t completely satisfying. They only accentuate how unique Hicks has been. It’s hard enough to find a pitcher within a few miles per hour of Hicks’ sinker. Nobody matches his velocity on his sinker, not even the other lords of the power sinker realm (Noah Syndergaard or Blake Treinen). From there, you also have to find someone whose sinker bears hard in on righties (he’s in the top quartile in that regard), plus a pitcher with 97th percentile horizontal movement on their slider as Hicks possesses. These things simply haven’t been done in a measurable way, historically. We’re trying to find a comp for a unicorn. Perhaps more data the deeper we go into the season will be enlightening. For now, we’ll have to settle for a hyper-electric Drew Storen.