To reach his ceiling, St Louis Cardinals Rookie Jordan Hicks, needs to add a little finesse
Generally speaking, when we talk about finesse pitchers in 2018 you probably think of this guy:
Kyle Hendricks, Nasty 78 mph Cut Changeup. 🤧 pic.twitter.com/CQyxBNklML
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 21, 2018
Or perhaps this guy:
— Los (@A_Dos_Of_Los) June 15, 2017
When we talk of power pitchers you probably think of this guy:
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 20, 2018
Or if you’ve been paying attention recently, perhaps you think of this guy:
Jordan Hicks is in the win column! The #STLCards prospect picks up his 1st career @MLB victory with 2 1/3 scoreless frames vs. the #Reds. Hicks is No. 7 on the @Cardinals Top 30 Prospects list: https://t.co/zGqqpcDMBG pic.twitter.com/TyxMPDgWsS
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) April 21, 2018
Except I’m here to argue that Jordan Hicks (the pitcher in that last video) belongs to that first group. Or more accurately, to succeed in the major leagues, he needs to. First though, lets get caught up.
Hicks is a former third round pick of the St Louis Cardinals. If you know of him it means you’re either a Cardinals fan or you’re aware that Hicks is the new fastball velocity champion, with an average fastball in excess of 99 mph. So far in his brief career Hicks is yet to allow an earned run, he’s running a 58% ground ball rate and a… 15.8% strike out rate? That strike out rate is the lowest of any of the pitchers we’ve named so far. Hicks has the hardest fastball in the league, his strikeout rate is 30% worse than the league average. Now you’re caught up, let’s look for Jordan Hick’s missing strikeouts.
Finding the finesse
I want to get straight into it so here is a heat map of Hick’s pitches in 2 strike counts:
Ohhhhhh boy. As you can see, Hicks has thrown 33 pitches in 2 strike counts. The overwhelming majority of those pitches have found the dead center of the strike zone – that’s bad. Now usually a pitcher who throws 100 mph can get away with a heatmap like this, Aroldis Chapman has done it for years. However, while Aroldis Chapman has a fairly high fastball spin rate, Hicks’ is among the lowest in baseball when you adjust for velocity. Low spin rates invite contact. Jordan Hicks is a power pitcher unlike most. To succeed Hicks is going to have to borrow from the soft-tossers.
For some of you, this is enough of an answer: Jordan Hicks has struggled to strike hitters out because he has thrown a disproportionate amount of 2 strike pitches in the middle of the zone. That’s fine. If you’re willing to be barraged by a whole lot more heat maps however, I want to spend some time sketching out how Hicks can fix this.
To do this let’s separate out left and right handed hitters. The first chart shows how Hicks has deployed his slider in 2 strike counts against right-handed hitters:
As a hard throwing, sinker/slider pitcher, Hicks’ slider should be a knockout punch; especially against same-handed hitters. So far however, Hicks has managed just a 9.8% swinging strike rate on the pitch – well below average for a breaking ball. If we look at Hicks’ use of the slider in 2 strike counts (0-2, 1-2, 2-2, 3-2) we can see two distinct nuclei which we can characterise as ‘uncompetitive’ and ‘hittable’. This is not a slight at Hicks’, the right-hander had never pitched above High-A before reaching the big leagues. Young hitters are likely to chase those pitches down and away and whiff on those in the zone – major league hitters are not.
So far then, Hicks’ slider has been too far out of the zone to elicit a chase or too far over the plate to elicit a whiff. However, we know that pitches don’t operate in a vacuum, they also play off those pitches that came before them so let’s take a look at Hicks’ fastball usage.
The chart above shows’ Hicks fastball location against right-handed hitters in all counts and two strike counts, respectively. The chart on the right shows contact rate against Hicks’ fastball, where blue means more swings and misses. As you can see, Hicks is working almost exclusively inside to right-handed hitters and on some level this makes sense – that’s where the swings and misses have been. However, a low spin sinker isn’t likely to generate a lot of whiffs, especially up in the zone. Instead, Hicks needs to use that high octane fastball to set up his slider later in the count.
To do this, Hicks needs to work on the outer part of the plate. Not consistently, but he has to show that he is willing to work there. Working exclusively to the inner half allows the hitter to focus on that one part of the plate. The slider breaking towards the outer half becomes an automatic take. To get hitters to chase outside, Hicks has to show he is willing to work outside.
This isn’t a novel concept. It’s one of the older adages in pitching and to demonstrate let me show you the heatmap of perhaps the best sinker/slider pitcher in baseball, Corey Kluber.
On the left is all sinkers thrown by Kluber to right-handed hitters while on the right shows sliders thrown in 2 strike counts. As you can see, Kluber consistently works to the outer half of the plate against same handed hitters, forcing them to chase sliders breaking off the same plane. Of course I’m not arguing for Hicks’ approach to be as extreme as Kluber’s but there’s something to be learned here.
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Hicks has thrown just 12, two strike pitches to left-handed hitters so far this season so I won’t dig too deep here. Instead I will say simply that a similar pattern has emerged against them. The slider, when it has been thrown has found the middle of the plate consistently, while the fastball has been located up and away to a degree that prevents the two pitches playing off each other effectively.
Wrapping it up
Jordan Hicks may be the hardest throwing pitcher in baseball but so far in his brief career, it hasn’t shown in his strikeout totals. That’s fine if Hicks is to serve simply as a middle reliever but it is clear that the Cardinals rookie is far too talented for that. If we use FIP as an ERA estimator then over a full season, Hicks and his 4.69 FIP look something like the 2017 edition of Tyler Clippard – Hicks should be better than that. Hicks’ low spin arsenal means that while he has power stuff, he can’t pitch the way traditional power arms would. Instead, to reach his ceiling at the major league level, Hicks is going to have to borrow from some of the games softer throwers and add a little finesse.
Featured Image Courtesy: Allison Rhoades/Peoria Chiefs
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