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Jordan Hicks and the Ineffable Joy of Baseball

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Baseball injuries are just the biggest bummer imaginable.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Jordan Hicks won’t pitch in a Cardinals uniform again for quite a while, and that makes me tremendously sad. That might sound obvious -- any Cardinals player being injured makes me sad. Honestly, any baseball player being injured makes me sad, but Cardinals most of all. It’s not so much that I’m sad about the Cardinals’ chances of reaching the playoffs taking a hit, though my FanGraphs colleague Dan Szymborski did the math on that earlier this week and stlcardsfan4 looked into ways the team could replace his production. No, I’m sad because Jordan Hicks made me feel wonder, in a way that is rare across baseball.

Take a look at the Cardinals’ WAR leaders for the year, and you won’t find Hicks’ name. He’s not the best reliever by WAR, ERA, FIP, strikeout rate -- you name it, he’s above average but not the best. He racked up .5 WAR on the season, not even in the top ten among Cardinals players. His loss will surely be felt in the bullpen, but not particularly more so than if, say, John Gant or Giovanny Gallegos got hurt.

That should matter to me. I want the Cardinals to make the playoffs, and my fandom revolves in large part around watching them strive to win the World Series. I should think about it logically. I have a secret for you -- I don’t care. I’m not logical about this. There’s no player on this team I enjoy watching more than Hicks, and no one is going to replace the visceral thrill I got from watching him pitch.

Picture a Jordan Hicks fastball in your mind’s eye. It’s wild, unpredictable, awe-inspiring. It flies in at preposterous speeds, fading and sinking with a mind of its own. Batters look awkward, flinch uncontrollably. Watch Joey Gallo here: this pitch isn’t even close to being a ball, and he recoils like he fears for his ribs:

That pitch might not be the best fastball in baseball when it comes to getting swinging strikes. It doesn’t have the best linear weights of any fastball in baseball -- heck, Hicks’ own slider gets better results. That fastball, though -- and the slider, too, for that matter -- are must-watch TV. I don’t watch every single Cardinals game these days, but when St. Louis leads heading into the ninth, I’m there.

Most of my favorite moments on this year’s Cardinal team have come courtesy of Hicks. Machado tipping his helmet after Hicks out-dueled him in April? Loved it. Hicks getting Christian Yelich on a 91 mph changeup to even the slate after Yelich doubled off of him earlier in the year? Incredible. If it seems like Hicks has dueled all the marquee names in baseball this year, that’s because he basically has. He rung up Machado, split two rounds with Yelich, got Bryce Harper swinging, and got Gallo and Mike Trout looking. Every single one of those at-bats are things I’ll remember about the 2019 season later on.

This isn’t supposed to be a slight of John Gant or Giovanny Gallegos. I enjoy watching those guys, too. Gallegos, in particular, feels like he might end up a favorite of mine; I’m generally averse to using the word ‘giffable,’ but good luck finding a better way to describe his slider. Still, both of those guys pale in comparison to the experience of watching Hicks. Hicks is Trevor Rosenthal turned up to eleven, or maybe a real-life, better-control version of Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn from Major League.

Maybe I’m imagining it, but I feel like there’s a trend in the majors today towards more aesthetically pleasing pitches. This isn’t a knock on baseball in the past; pitches just look cooler to me than they did fifteen years ago. Jose Alvarado, the Rays reliever, throws a sinker-ish thing that looks like it dances. Adam Ottavino throws a slider that looks like a frisbee. Rich Hill’s and Lance McCullers’ curves bend minds and hitters’ knees. Jordan Hicks, though, is a different level. You don’t need a particular team affiliation to appreciate Hicks; I saw his debut live, and Citi Field was downright electric when he took the mound. He was unknown, a nobody who hadn’t pitched above High A before that game, and it didn’t matter. That fastball commanded the attention of 40,000 people.

The origin story, too, adds to Hicks’ appeal to me. His minor league numbers were forgettable; he was pretty bad in low-A, quite good in high-A in a smaller sample, and then got lit up in an even smaller sample in Fall League. He was a 21-year-old kid given a courtesy invite to Spring Training because he’d made the Fall League team, but his fastball was so otherworldly that Yadier Molina lobbied to have him on the team. He was, quite literally, a major leaguer out of nowhere. I remember writing articles about Hicks early last year and coming up empty looking for ZiPS projections -- they simply didn’t exist. He wasn’t high enough in the minors before 2018 for the model to cover him.

Watching a kid barely old enough to legally drink learn how to pitch while in the big leagues has been incredibly rewarding. For most of my Cardinal-watching career, I’ve followed players that seemed to appear on the team fully-formed. Mark McGwire showed up with 80-inch biceps. Jim Edmonds was a personal favorite, but he looked like he’d been that polished and smooth his whole life; same with Scott Rolen. Albert Pujols was nicknamed the Machine, for heaven’s sake. These guys were great, but they seemed to appear on the Cardinals that way. Not until Hicks, and to a lesser extent on the hitting side Paul DeJong, did I get the joy of watching someone figure out how to play baseball at a high level on the fly.

Still, the feeling of watching a player struggle to adapt and survive in the major leagues isn’t unique -- I remember Bo Hart, or heck, Pete Kozma and Patrick Wisdom. The unique joy of watching Hicks was that he was trying to figure out the art of pitching, but also literally threw Zeus’s lightning bolts. The juxtaposition of middling-at-first results and electric-from-the-start stuff was, and remains, compelling. Cardinals games the rest of the year won’t be the same without it.

This isn’t the end for Jordan Hicks, of course. He’ll hopefully be back at the very end of next year, or at least to start the 2021 season. His story will continue, and I’m sure I’ll end up rooting for him even more knowing the small personal hell he’ll have gone through to rehab from his exploded elbow. But none of that is happening for a year, and maybe not for two years. I can’t shake the fear that Hicks might never be the same, might never be a simultaneously mythical and relatable figure I can watch during the most exciting part of most baseball games.

Jordan Hicks wasn’t the most important player on the 2019 Cardinals. His injury doesn’t doom them to miss the postseason. It’s quite possibly the injury I feared most on the whole roster, though. Baseball will be less fun for not having Hicks in it. Get well soon, Jordan. We’re all waiting with bated breath for you to come back and amaze us again.