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Giving pause to Jordan Hicks

The rookie has aced the eye test with flying colors, but the underlying metrics say ‘not so fast’.

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

As spring training wound down, the Cardinals’ Opening Day roster was seemingly set. Set, that was, until John Brebbia was optioned to Memphis in lieu of Jordan Hicks in a surprise last-minute decision. Just weeks after he was essentially demoted to STEP camp, Hicks shot his way up the depth chart and onto the big league roster, due in large part to a March 25th start against the Nationals in which he twirled four one-hit innings.

A surface level examination of Hicks would tell you that the early returns have been nothing short of utter dominance. Through his first 13 MLB innings as of this writing, he has posted a 0.69 ERA (sigh, take your victory lap, internet). Oh, and he throws harder than anybody else in baseball.

However, the narrative categorically shifts when digging a little deeper. Looking at pitchers who have logged at least 10 innings this year, Hicks has outperformed his FIP by 4.33, 0.69 to 5.02. For context, the second greatest disparity in MLB belongs to Tyler Clippard at 3.89. While Hicks’ ERA- suggests that he has pitched at a rate 82% above league average, his FIP- is 29% below the average of 100. His 6.33 xFIP is even more alarming, an entire 60% worse than the league average mark when accounting for park factors.

It goes without saying that much of Hicks’ early productivity is evidently unsustainable. He is unlikely to stand 88.9% of runners going forward, or maintain a .167 BABIP, or hold hitters to a .251 wOBA when the batted ball data expected a wOBA of .353. It is virtually impossible to succeed when walking 18.5% of batters and striking out just 11.1%.

Granted, some pitchers posses a skill-set that lends itself well to consistently producing ERAs above or below their FIPs. Perhaps Hicks, who ran a 2.83/3.85/4.27 ERA/FIP/xFIP in the low minors, can outpace his peripherals, but regression appears inevitable nonetheless.

Hard-throwing pitchers like Hicks have a propensity for more whiffs and in turn higher strikeout rates, which is what makes his early K/BB ratio so worrisome as far as 2018 is concerned.

I compiled a list of every pitcher with at least 10 innings to their name and who throws their fastball at least a quarter of the time according to Pitch Info data. I then assigned percentile rankings to the 210 hurlers based on their average fastball velocity, strikeout percentage, and swinging strike rate. As expected, there was noticeable correlation between higher velocity and missing more bats. However, some pitchers observed considerable deviation from their expected results. Here are the 10 with the widest gap between their velocity percentile and K% and SwStr% percentiles.

Greatest difference between velocity and strikeout rate

Name Team Velocity Percentile K% Percentile Difference
Name Team Velocity Percentile K% Percentile Difference
Jordan Hicks Cardinals 100% 4% 95%
Miguel Castro Orioles 92% 12% 80%
Bryan Mitchell Padres 68% 1% 66%
Antonio Senzatela Rockies 76% 10% 66%
Jose Urena Marlins 85% 22% 63%
Scott Oberg Rockies 88% 26% 62%
Josh Osich Giants 78% 20% 58%
Luis Garcia Phillies 94% 36% 58%
Matt Bush Rangers 95% 37% 57%
Zack Wheeler Mets 72% 15% 57%

Greatest difference between velocity and swinging strike rate

Name Team Velocity Percentile SwStr% Percentile Difference
Name Team Velocity Percentile SwStr% Percentile Difference
Jordan Hicks Cardinals 100% 5% 94%
Bryan Mitchell Padres 68% 0% 67%
Keynan Middleton Angels 92% 29% 64%
Sal Romano Reds 63% 1% 61%
Matt Bush Rangers 95% 34% 61%
Antonio Senzatela Rockies 76% 18% 59%
Zack Wheeler Mets 72% 16% 56%
Miguel Castro Orioles 92% 37% 55%
Archie Bradley Diamondbacks 80% 26% 55%
Taijuan Walker Diamondbacks 58% 5% 54%

These aren’t exactly the type of top 10 lists you wan’t to find yourself atop, especially by such vast margins.

Hicks’ lackluster spin rate numbers aren’t helping his cause, either. Case in point: the 2,512 rotations per minute (rpm) on Aroldis Chapman’s fastball increase the magnitude of the Magnus force acting on the ball as it travels towards home plate, allowing his heater to maintain a relatively higher elevation as gravity also influences its trajectory. Hicks’ fastball, on the other hand, only average 2156 rpm. The bottom line is that spin rate can explain one of the leading reasons why Hicks lacks Chapman’s–who at 48.7% is fanning nearly half the batters he sees–sheer unhittability. To compensate for Hicks’ spin, or lack thereof, John Mozeliak said the Cardinals “try to create a curriculum to what you do and in Hicks’ case, getting ground balls is something we’re okay with. When you look at what a pitcher’s strength is based on spin rate, that’s what we’re trying to adapt to.”

Consequentially, Hicks throws more of a two-seamer/sinker-esque fastball as opposed to a straight four-seamer, one of the key factors behind his 55.6% ground ball rate. That may seem encouraging in a vacuum–after all, ground balls yield a lower wOBA than fly balls since they almost never go for extra-base hits–until you consider the ramifications of this approach. Pitchers who primarily work lower in the zone tend to induce more ground balls at the expense of fewer strikeouts. Not only do high-strikeout arms obviously limit contact, but they have also proved to have more favorable BABIPs, HR/FB ratios, and double play rates when ball does meet bat. This can be a worthwhile tradeoff if a ‘ground ball machine’ buoys their lower K% with a lower BB% as well, but command has never been Hicks’ forte.

The good news for the Cardinals is that Jordan Hicks is still just 21 years old with a truly gifted right arm. The bad news is that their prized pitcher is currently generating fewer strikeouts and whiffs than Mike Leake despite more than double the walk rate. Hopefully a substantial portion of the remedy for Hicks is experience and further seasoning for a pitcher that, and it bears repeating, made the leap directly from High-A to the big leagues. Though in his present-day form, Hicks’ advanced metrics look to be just that: those of a raw product whose ERA has created a facade masking the issues that still lie ahead.