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Jordan Hicks’ Whole Life is Thunder

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The rookie reliever is overpowering hitters- and striking them out

David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Let me get this out of the way right at the start- I’m a Jordan Hicks fanboy. I was at the season opener in New York this year, and my lasting image of Jordan Hicks’ entire career, more or less regardless of what happens in the future, is going to be Jay Bruce walking away from the plate. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s a refresher:

The feeling in the ballpark was, if anything, more memorable than Bruce’s incredulity. It was quiet, oddly quiet; almost as if everyone was waiting for someone to tell them the radar gun was broken. Hicks didn’t even celebrate- he walked off the mound calmly. Was he subdued because the Cardinals were down four runs? Was he too exhausted by the effort of the throw to pump his fist? Did he expect a strikeout so much that it wasn’t even worth celebrating? I’m not here to editorialize. Maybe it was a bit of all three. Either way though, that tableau has stuck with me.

For a month after Hicks’ electrifying debut, it felt like that might be my only good Jordan Hicks memory from this year. Saying he was bad over the next month wouldn’t be accurate, exactly. It’s not as though people were hitting him particularly hard, and his ERA never really became a problem. The opponent-demoralizing strikeouts, though, stopped coming. They were replaced, more or less one-for-one, with Cardinals-demoralizing walks. Oh god, the walks! There were an endless procession of them. Batters walking on four 102mph sinkers. Batters walking on four sliders in the dirt, interspersed with them fouling off every fastball Hicks could find the zone with. Any combination thereof that you can dream up. When Ben Lindbergh and Jeff Sullivan discussed Hicks on Effectively Wild, it wasn’t to talk about how magnificent his fastball was, or even to talk about how he was running a sub-2 ERA in the big leagues at 21. It was to talk about the walks, the lack of strikeouts, and the general cognitive dissonance of a guy who throws 105 walking more batters than he strikes out. Want the feeling of a salty rag pressed into your wounds? Listen to the podcast at the point where one host is convinced that Hicks has the worst K-BB rate in the majors, only for the other host to mention that Greg Holland has him beat.

VEB wasn’t immune to the overall Hicks malaise. If you browse late April and early May articles (sounds like a lot of work, I wouldn’t suggest it), it’s not hard to find a general sense of unease surrounding Hicks’ performance. Sure his ERA has held up so far, but the kid can’t pitch. Sure Matheny trusts him, but it’s only a matter of time until the stats catch up to the peripherals. Plenty of rational people argued that Mozeliak should send him to the minors while the Cardinals were on the good side of variance, before his mid-5s FIP started being a predictor instead of an amusing sidenote to a great season. The peak of this great divide between stuff and FIP was probably the Odubel Herrera game (or, if you prefer, the Jack Flaherty game). Hicks threw 106. One hundred and six miles an hour. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s six miles an hour faster than 100 miles an hour. He also walked two, and even the at-bat against Herrera ended in a wild pitch strikeout that let Herrera reach. Still, though. 106! It was both magnificent and strangely ineffective- Jordan Hicks’ year in miniature.

It’s no secret that Jordan Hicks has gotten better since then. The strikeouts are coming a little more frequently, and a quick look at his statline shows that he’s running a positive K-BB. Even the FIP doomsayers from last month would admit that Hicks has turned things around. If you look at surface stats, though, it’s still not an impressive line. 18% strikeouts and 14% walks, a 3.64 FIP. That’s good middle reliever numbers, not put-everything-down-and-watch-this-guy numbers. Here’s the thing, though. Right now, to me, Jordan Hicks is probably one of the best five or ten relievers in baseball. Why? Well, I’ve got the stats right here.

I started down this path after reading Lil Scooter’s excellent series of analysis pieces disguised as a Hunt and Peck. The one I linked to, specifically, really intrigued me. All the analysis I’m doing here builds off of that, so I’d suggest reading it first. Fortunately enough, another installment of her series went up yesterday. As she pointed out there, the slider is doing a lot more work than it used to. Want some evidence?

People are swinging at more pitches outside the strike zone. They’re swinging and missing more. There’s your strikeout increase and your walk decrease. It all makes sense together. Interestingly, it doesn’t look like a changing pitch mix has been behind the increased effectiveness. Additionally, the speed of the two and a half pitches Hicks throws hasn’t really changed. He just seems to be figuring things out. Locations are better, release point looks a little cleaner, and he seems to have found a happy medium of how many pitches he needs to throw in the strike zone. No one is going to confuse Jordan Hicks for a control pitcher, as he’s still rocking a Zone% well below league average, but he’s put the excessive wildness of early May behind him, as far as I can tell. Here’s the pitch mix- note the relative lack of change over time:

Look, that’s all well and good. Let’s just say that Hicks is now striking out 34% of the batters he faces and walking around 12%. That’s SO much better than he was earlier this season. It’s still not elite, though. It’s well above average, but that’s great seventh-inning guy stats, not last person out of the stadium please turn out the lights numbers. Didn’t I claim he was one of the best pitchers in baseball somewhere up above? Well, there’s something I’ve been leaving out. I keep quoting FIP and strikeouts and walks and all kinds of things that don’t involve putting the ball in play. There are other plays in baseball though. Lots of other plays, in fact. Even at his current bat-missing best, more than half of the batters Hicks faces put the ball in play. FIP assumes that all those balls in play have similar likelihood of becoming a hit, and that is a pretty good approximation if you don’t know anything about the quality of contact. For the most part, every ball in play is the same, for a random pitcher. A random pitcher isn’t throwing the fastest fastball in the major leagues, though. It’s probably legitimate to assume that Hicks is doing something different worth measuring.

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

How can we do that? Well, I’ve come up with two ways to approximate it. First, I took Hicks’ wOBA on balls in play this year. wOBA is an all-in-one offensive stat that combines power and reaching base, so I think it’s probably the best way to think about the total value of the batted balls Hicks gives up. Then, I added the wOBA values for the strikeout and walk rates he’s run over the past 10 games, and assigned Hicks’ average batted ball outcome to all the plate appearances that didn’t end in a K or BB. Is it optimistic to use his past 10 games’ results rather than his year’s results? I mean, on one level, absolutely it is. He’s thrown other games too, and it’s always a little weird to cherry-pick like this. On the other hand, dude’s 21. He’d never thrown a pitch above A ball until he threw in the Arizona Fall League last year. He’s still developing, and with stuff this electric, it was always going to be a matter of whether he could harness his talent, not whether he had the stuff to be a relief ace. There was always some chance that a lightbulb would go off and he’d just figure it out. Given that he’s throwing such lethal pitches, I’m willing to project upside based on his recent results rather than the older stuff. With that caveat out of the way, Jordan Hicks is a firebreathing monster by this metric. Exactly two pitchers have a lower wOBA in 2018 than Hicks’ .183 (over the last 10 games) by this measure- this is where Josh Hader and Sean Doolittle are living this year, and they’ve been completely unhittable. Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel have allowed a wOBA around .225 for their careers. Andrew Miller is sitting around .220 since he became a reliever. Mariano freaking Rivera allowed a .240 wOBA for his career. We’re talking silly, silly numbers. I know that this is a bit of an esoteric stat, but when you break it down, this is pitching at its purest. When Jordan Hicks faces a batter, right now, that batter’s expected outcome is as bad for the hitting team as it would be if he faced Josh Hader. It’s worse for the hitting team than facing career-average Mariano Rivera. Abandon all hope, ye who enter this batter’s box.

What I’m doing here is a little bit of wishcasting, of course. I’m using the batted balls that Jordan Hicks has accrued over 33 innings. He’s allowed only 19 hits- a few balls caught or not caught are going to massively change the results. Here’s a list of the extra base hits that Jordan Hicks has allowed in his major league career: three doubles. That’s it and that’s all. I’m pretty sure the sample size isn’t going to be big enough. Luckily, Baseball Savant and MLB have a way to broaden that sample size a bit. You’ve probably heard of xwOBA if you’ve read much on this site, as it’s a really convenient analytical tool for getting some less ridiculous-looking results in small sample sizes. I won’t rehash the predictive value of the stat, or lack thereof, which has been mentioned elsewhere. I will, however, give a quick definition since I plan on using it shortly. Essentially, xwOBA looks at the speed and angle of every batted ball in every game. It also looks at the results of those batted balls, then figures out the average result of every speed and angle combination. It’s not a perfect stat, but it does a good job of smoothing out weird results over small samples. If you hit a bleeder down the first base line that the first baseman botches, but the scorekeeper takes pity on you and awards you a hit, xwOBA isn’t fooled. Okay, with that out of the way, I took the xwOBA of Hicks’ balls in play to try to give myself a slightly more robust idea of what kind of contact he’s surrendered this year. I added in strikeouts and walks just like in the wOBA analysis above- those don’t change whether your wOBA is expected or regular. Where does this leave Hicks? Well, unsurprisingly, he’s a little worse by xwOBA. It would be hard not to be a little worse. Let me explain why. When looking at limiting the damage hitters have done on balls in play, Jordan Hicks is in the 99th percentile. He’s third of all players with 50 balls in play. No one who has thrown as many innings as he has has done better. When you look at this by xwOBA, the expected outcomes of the contact he’s surrendered rather than the actual results, he falls all the way to… 96th percentile. Put simply, Jordan Hicks is elite at this skill. Guys can’t hit him. He’s throwing 100 with sink, after all. Good luck squaring that up.

Okay, back to the point. I was adding the xwOBA of all Hicks’ balls in play to his recent strikeout and walk results. How does he do here? Well, he has a .244 wOBA allowed this year using this blend. This drops him all the way from better-than-the-best-reliever-ever to merely super-elite. Since we’re using a more regressed sample, I’m going to compare him to wOBA results from 2017 here, so that we get rid of some small-sample-size all stars from this year. This would put Hicks in the 96th percentile of pitchers from 2017. He’s ahead of Corey Knebel, Brad Hand, and Aroldis Chapman. He’s around two points of wOBA short of Craig Kimbrel and Andrew Miller. He’s rubbing elbows with the relief elite, in other words. Maybe rubbing elbows is a bad turn of phrase- those are some fragile elbows, after all. You get the idea, though.

Now, look. This isn’t any kind of rigorous statistical analysis. I’m not saying that it’s probable that Jordan Hicks will be one of the best relievers in the game going forward, because I’d have to do a lot more work on how sustainable his strikeout and walk numbers are to feel good saying that. In addition, pitchers go on hot and cold strikeout streaks. We don’t have nearly enough of a sample size of Hicks striking the world out to say that he can keep doing this the rest of the season. I’m willing to stipulate all that. I’m not saying that everything is perfect and that he’s now a low-risk, high-floor reliever who can’t possibly fail. It’s no longer a question of whether Jordan Hicks can ever be an elite reliever, though. He’s doing it right now, right this second. It’s only a question of whether he can sustain it.

Lastly, in honor of Andy Schrag and his often excellently titled articles, here are some names I considered and rejected for today’s article:

Jordan Hicks, Titan of Industry

Jordan Hicks, Master of All He Surveys

Jordan Hicks is All Out of Bubblegum

God Forgives, Jordan Hicks Doesn’t

Jordan Hicks and the Order of the Phoenix