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Does Jordan Hicks Need a Changeup?

And other new-pitch musings

St Louis Cardinals v Washington Nationals Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

With only a week until baseball season starts (thank goodness), there’s going to be new baseball to analyze soon. It’s a good thing, too, because my goodness, I’m tired of variously prognosticating doom and patience for the 2019 Cardinals. This isn’t a knock on anyone else, to be clear -- I just mean that this offseason has gone on so long I’ve written both sides of the argument to fill time. Spring training hasn’t been much help, either; yeah, the Cardinals have been terrible in the spring, but it’s pretty much meaningless. Maybe there are some underlying issues, but for the most part it’s just concern trolling -- Cardinals fans are thin-skinned after a few years in the wilderness, so the easiest way to get clicks is with a liberal soupcon of doom.

All that said, there’s at least one thing that you can take a signal from in February and March reporting: new pitches! Derrick Goold wrote about nine new pitches that Cardinals are developing, and in the interest of somewhat equal time I’ll give a quick review of each before landing on the most interesting new pitch of the spring, one that isn’t even in his article.

Miles Mikolas’ new changeup: I have to say, I don’t really get the need for it given that he already has a splitter. Mikolas seems like he’s generally in that camp as well -- “It’s a great pitch if you have a good one” sounds like a tactful way of saying that he doesn’t have a good one. I think this one will probably stay on the shelf.

Jordan Hicks’ four-seam fastball: This is kind of cheating, because Hicks was already mixing it in a little in 2018. As the article notes, he used it 6% of the time in 2018, and that seems pretty reasonable to me. It’s a nice pitch to play off of his sinker, and I’m a huge fan of his working on it in the spring if it’s going to make it more of a pitch he can turn to with two strikes. Hicks as strikeout machine is one of my ongoing Cardinals flames (I really do think there’s a good chance he’s the next Craig Kimbrel or Aroldis Chapman), and adding some riding fastballs to the mix is a great way to do that. More on this one later!

Dakota Hudson’s changeup: I mean, I hope this is real. Hudson’s pitch mix (sinkers and cutters with a splash of sliders) is just crying out for a changeup, as he needs something to complement his sinker against lefties. I’m extremely optimistic about Hudson’s future in the rotation, because his sinker is the kind of pitch that can make a star, so anything that helps it play up is very exciting in my book.

Adam Wainwright’s power sinker: I don’t know, man. It’s a sinker that… slides? I mean, it’s opposite break to a slider, but at that point it’s kind of a changeup. I think this might have just been a way to shoehorn Wainwright into the article. Next!

Daniel Ponce de Leon’s curveball: As Ponce de Leon mentioned, this is more of a rediscovered pitch than a new one, but it fits his fastball/changeup strengths well. He’s down in AAA to start the seaon, so seems like as good of a time as any to work on it. Two thumbs up.

Alex Reyes’ slider: This one is intriguing. He hasn’t really thrown any sliders in the majors, so our video of it is limited to this spring training, and it looks filthy. That said, I can totally believe Reyes having a great slider, as he has tremendous command of his curve. Early results look good, and it seems like it fits what he’s already doing quite well.

Chasen Shreve’s slider: Anything to get him to throw less fastballs is cool with me. Also, he was already throwing 15% sliders on the Cardinals last year. This one is a reach.

Mike Mayers’ curveball: This pitch probably merits a deeper dive when we get a little more pitch-level data on it this year. Mayers does seem like he’d benefit from a curve, because the four-seam/curve/slider combination plays really well as a trio. Mayers has always had a good fastball and a middling-to-bad slider, so keep an eye on this early in the season as a potential player-changing pitch.

Austin Gomber’s slider: I almost wanted to write an article about this. Gomber’s curveball is so extreme in its vertical plane that it demonstrates basically no platoon split. On one hand, that’s pretty awesome. A pitch like that can turn a pitcher from a reliever to a starter very easily. On the other hand, there’s an obvious downside- it’s not as good for getting same-handed batters out. Gomber has always had basically no platoon split, even bordering on a reverse one, and in his case it’s easy to see why. The way that other lefties will add a changeup to get right-handers out and totally remake their platoon splits, Gomber adding a pitch that lefties can’t hit could totally change his outlook. If his curveball is his second-best pitch against lefties, that’s a real game changer. Now, as far as I know, talking to Andrew Miller doesn’t spontaneously make you throw a wipeout slider -- but stranger things have happened.

With Goold’s entire article covered, we can now get to the pitch I actually want to talk about today. Jordan Hicks started throwing a changeup. The gifs are glorious. I’m just going to highlight one, because otherwise this article will devolve into me drooling, and no one wants that:

Yeah uh, that’ll do. The difference between the slider and the changeup is really something to behold. Here’s the thing, though -- I’m not convinced that this is a pitch worth adding. I’m willing to stipulate that if it works, it’s going to be ridiculous. Jordan Hicks throwing two pitches was an effective and sometimes otherworldly pitcher in 2018. Four-pitch Hicks (he’s adding a four-seamer, remember?) just seems gratuitous. To figure out if that makes sense, I took a look at successful hard throwers in baseball last year. I looked for pitchers who averaged 97.5mph or higher on their fastball, were effective, and weren’t Jordan Hicks. No sense comparing a guy to himself.

The list of pitchers who fit these two bills is gratifyingly good. In velocity order, we’ve got Aroldis Chapman, Felipe Vazquez, Seranthony Dominguez, Blake Treinen, Dellin Betances, Edwin Diaz, Jose Alvarado, Ken Giles (debatable, to be fair), and Craig Kimbrel. That’s a metric ton of great pitchers, and with the possible exceptions of Giles and Dominguez, they’d be excellent outcomes for Hicks’s career. So, who among them is throwing multiple secondary pitches? Vazquez is -- he actually features a changeup, a slider, and a curve, though his two breaking balls aren’t great and he’s truly more of a fastball/changeup guy. Jose Alvarado throws a curve and a slider, with the curve more of a slurve than a true curveball. That’s basically it -- you could make an argument that Treinen might count, as he added a cutter this year, but that’s pushing it, and that’s more of a remix of his slider than anything else. For the most part, pitchers who have fastballs Like Hicks’ don’t need to throw multiple secondary pitches.

Maybe that’s true, you might say, but what’s wrong with Hicks adding a new pitch? More pitches can’t be bad, right? Well, if this was Miles Mikolas screwing around with a changeup in the spring, I’d say sure. Mikolas is pretty much a finished product -- you’re going to get pinpoint control and a sweet mustache, and you’re going to like it. Hicks is still twenty-two years old, and he’s thrown less than 80 innings in the majors. He walked 13.3% of the batters he faced last year. His slider was at times unhittable and at times unusable, as he struggled to get it over the plate.

At the end of the day, a Jordan Hicks changeup is a luxury he simply doesn’t need right now. Would a Hicks changeup be nice? Absolutely. A more consistent Hicks slider, though, and he’s basically Aroldis Chapman, right now. I’d like one of those, please. Come back next year when Hicks is walking 8% of the batters he faces and striking out 30% and we can talk about a changeup. Until then, more location and more four-seamers please.