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The early effects of Jordan Hicks’ changeup

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Hicks’ new changeup has already been useful against lefties

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Jordan Hicks took the spotlight across MLB and baseball-related social media accounts on Monday when he drew some pitiful swings and misses from Pirates batters.

The pitch, of course, was his wipeout slider. It was jokingly referred to as baseball’s version of Allen Iverson’s famous crossover. He was downright filthy. If you didn’t see it on Twitter or in yesterday’s Hunt and Peck, here’s a look from Pitching Ninja:

Corey Dickerson looked completely confused. That was a desperation swing. Maybe shadows had something to do with it, but there was also some solid sequencing involved.

The pitch Hicks threw before that slider? His new changeup.

A changeup is an obvious improvement to Hicks’ repertoire in a vacuum. An off-speed pitch—which means something between 88 and 90 mph for the flamethrower—with arm-side movement can pair well with either his sinker or his slider.

But, as Ben Clemens noted late last month, inconsistent command with the slider moves the change down the priority list.

Through his first 13 batters this season, Hicks seems to be showing more control with the slider, but ultimately he’s using the new offering to make whatever inconsistency remains in his slider command a benefit instead of a burden.

First, let’s look at the general numbers through Hicks’ 3.1 innings this year.

His swinging strike rate is 21.2% in 2019. Last season, it was 9.4%. At this point, batters are whiffing more than twice as often while facing Hicks, which has been a constant concern when discussing his potential as a shutdown reliever.

We can understand by inference alone that it makes sense, then, that opposing batters’ contact rate has gone down more than 20% while swings have risen by nearly a third.

It isn’t that he’s been locating more in the strike zone; Hicks’ Zone% is actually slightly lower in this limited sample, at 42.3% compared to 42.9% in 2018.

He’s being more efficient, really. Hicks is averaging four pitches a plate appearance, having thrown 52 pitches, 34 of which were strikes. His strikeout rate sits just over 30%. It’s a mix of different looks, better sequencing and an improvement on location.

But we’re just looking at the changeup right now.

Hicks has seen a lot of lefties, to this point. Part of that was the Brewers’ left-heavy lineup, but half of the batters he faced on Monday in Pittsburgh batted from the left side as well. They account for eight of the 13 hitters he’s seen in 2019.

He’s only thrown four changeups on the season. One per PA. Yes, we’re taking what was already a small sample size, going even smaller, and then saying, “We can dive even further into the minutia.”

Of those four plate appearances, only one has reached base, and it wasn’t on contact. Hicks has led into the change with both the sinker and slider. To this point, he’s only followed the pitch with the slider. It’s been used to get the out once, but it’s primarily been a setup pitch—and it’s been pretty effective.

Let’s look at the first changeup he threw this season. It was the final pitch against Yasmani Grandal, entering the game with two out in the bottom of the eighth against Milwaukee. Here’s the full sequence:

If you prefer to see the pitches mapped out statically, here’s a visualization from Baseball Savant:

baseballsavant.mlb.com

The best part of that at bat is the final slider-changeup combo. It’s just not fair. It stands out in the graph above with how great the tunneling is, but here’s an overlay:

Now, as a setup pitch. Like I mentioned before, that swing and miss from Corey Dickerson was preceded by a changeup from Hicks. Here are the first three pitches of the at bat:

For the same effect, both the graph and overlay:

baseballsavant.mlb.com

Hicks uses the slider, goes to the changeup to give Dickerson a different look, then goes back inside and buckles his knees.

What’s more, Hicks has only used the changeup when ahead in the count. It’s almost like he expects it to be a waste pitch to establish his next sinker or slider.

The two graphs below give an idea of what this could mean for Hicks moving forward, if used properly. the first is a plot of his 2018 pitch locations compared to 2019.

fangraphs.com

The changeup gives Hicks a third spot, with some of the vertical break a batter would see from the slider but horizontal movement closer to that of his sinker.

Additionally, this allows Hicks to mix and match speeds without his only off-speed offering being the slider. This was the variance in his pitch speed over his two innings against Pittsburgh:

brooksbaseball.net

Jordan Hicks is already an exciting pitcher, but if he uses the changeup correctly and reigns in his slider the way he has to start the year, we’re in for a pretty exciting performance.