I’m going to show you two clips, featuring right-handed rookie relievers around their top fastball speeds. One of these relievers has struck out almost a third of the batters he’s faced. That’s good! It’s not exactly Josh Hader good, but then, nobody is. Hader is on another level. Anyway, the other one of these relievers hasn’t struck out even a tenth of the batters he’s faced. Absent any other information, that’s bad! It should at least make success very difficult to achieve. I know I’ve kind of ruined it with the headline, but I don’t care, we’re still doing this. I’m the one in control of how this goes.
Pitcher A is Jordan Hicks, of the Cardinals. His fastball has averaged about a hundred miles per hour. Pitcher B is Adam Cimber, of the Padres. His fastball has averaged about 86 miles per hour. Hicks has thrown his fastball roughly three-quarters of the time. Cimber has thrown his fastball roughly three-quarters of the time. But it’s Cimber who has 31 strikeouts in 24.2 innings. Hicks has nine in 22. This is the opposite of what the average person would think.
Hicks, today, stands as the hardest thrower in the major leagues. He’s the hardest thrower by average velocity, and he’s the hardest thrower by peak velocity. There’s not that much of a separation between Hicks and Aroldis Chapman, because Chapman will be throwing 96 even after he’s dead, but Hicks has the lead by almost a tick. And he made waves on Sunday when he reached almost unprecedented speeds. Facing Odubel Herrera, Hicks threw a couple fastballs that might’ve been 105. They also might’ve been 106. The recording instruments can be only so precise, and the specific number doesn’t really matter, anyway. No one ever sees 105. Only Chapman had ever done that, to our knowledge. Hicks pitched at the very limit of human capability. No, he wasn’t sitting at 105, but even just getting there is amazing.
You’d think that we should be able to draw a straight line. The faster the pitch, the harder it is to hit. Indeed, major-league pitchers benefit when they get to higher speeds. It seems like it ought to be simple. Hicks throwing 105 is amazing in part because, pretty much no one else can do that. And Hicks throwing 105 is amazing in part because, who could possibly hit that? It feels like Hicks should be the most dominant pitcher in the game. At least, the toughest to make contact against.
Nope. Out of every pitcher who’s thrown at least 20 innings, Hicks has the second-lowest strikeout rate, ahead of only Alex Claudio. And out of the same pool, Hicks has the single lowest K-BB%. Over the past five years, when position players have taken the mound, they’ve posted a collective K-BB% of -4.3%. Hicks is at -7.4%. Out of 95 batters faced, he’s struck out nine of them, while walking 16. He’s also hit another three. The saving grace here is that Hicks has a top-ten rate of ground balls. He hasn’t allowed a homer. But his xFIP is 53% worse than the average. Jordan Hicks is perplexing.
And Hicks is useful, because he’s a reminder of a few different things. He’s a reminder of just how good major-league batters are at getting the bat on the ball. He’s a reminder of how fastballs are more than just their velocities. And he’s a reminder of how pitching is more complicated than it seems like it should be. You have to do more than throw hard — even if you throw harder than literally anyone else.
Part of this is easy to understand. Why doesn’t Hicks strike more batters out? Just look at the walks. He’s wild. Been better lately, but still wild. Hicks’ overall strike rate ranks in the sixth percentile. Batters are better when they’re not behind in the count. If you don’t have command, you want to at least have control.
Another factor here is that Hicks doesn’t throw a hard four-seamer. Rather, he throws a sinker, and while it’s a hard sinker, sinkers in general are more hittable. This year, four-seamers at 95 or harder have allowed a contact rate of 76%. Meanwhile, sinkers and two-seamers at 95 or harder have allowed a contact rate of 81%. Not all sinkers are created alike, and, of course, someone like Zach Britton can get whiffs on a sinker all day long, but the movement tends to just be more contact-friendly. We know that because it’s what the numbers have always suggested. A rising four-seamer can appear to be deceptive. Sinkers are thrown lower, and they drop closer to the bat path.
As you’d imagine, there’s still another factor. Hicks doesn’t exclusively throw his fastball — he also has a breaking ball around 85. But it’s not a slider he controls very well. I looked at pitcher swing rates, league wide, when they throw non-fastballs. The swing rate against Hicks’ non-fastballs ranks in the 1st percentile. Almost the lowest rate in the game. Which could be a good thing, if Hicks could reliably spot his slider around the zone edge. Instead, Hicks has been a fastball pitcher without a pitch for hitters to chase. As noted earlier, major-league hitters are exceptionally good, and they can time any existing fastball provided they don’t have to worry about anything else.
It seems bizarre for Hicks’ strikeouts to be where they are, just given his arm strength. And yet we should remember we’ve seen hints of this. Chapman has forever been a strikeout machine, because he’s paired his four-seam fastball with a dangerous slider. Yet Brian Ellington averaged almost 100, and he posted underwhelming strikeout rates. Ditto last season’s Joe Kelly. Ditto 2016’s Mauricio Cabrera. Cabrera’s fastball actually averaged over 100. He struck out 19.8% of opponents. Josh Collmenter struck out more batters than that. Hicks is the most extreme data point in both directions, but baseball has been telling us for a while that velocity doesn’t equal punch outs. Not, at least, at the velocity levels we’ve observed.
Some of you might be thinking that I’m overrating whiffs. Sure, Hicks hasn’t missed many bats, but he’s got a 2.05 ERA. Hasn’t allowed a home run. He’s allowed a total of only four home runs as a professional, over more than two full seasons. Isn’t that ultimately the point? Getting outs on weak contact? Especially given how aggressively Hicks has been managed by the Cardinals, you could easily see his debut as impressive.
It is impressive, for Hicks to go straight from High-A to important innings in the bigs. He’s 21 years old. There’s so much remaining room for growth. In part, I’ve talked about strikeouts because it seems like that should be the greatest, most obvious consequence of extreme velocity. But in part, I’ve talked about strikeouts because, at some point, you need to get strikeouts. Either that, or you need to have pinpoint command. Hicks doesn’t seem to have pinpoint command, nor does he even seem to generate particularly weak contact. By regular wOBA allowed, Hicks ranks in the 62nd percentile among relievers. But by expected wOBA allowed, he’s in the 16th. By average exit velocity, he’s in the 24th. Hicks can use double plays to get out of some jams, but this is going to catch up to him. That is, unless he gets better.
Josh Hader is the best reliever in either league. The progress began last August. Through August 12, Hader threw just 61% strikes. After that, he threw 70% strikes. This year, he’s at 68% strikes, with a much-improved slider. Over the span of a week in the middle of August, Hader started to figure it out. It happened on the fly, and he hasn’t looked back. Hader came up as a thrower. Less than a year later, he’s perfect. He’s making the most of the talent he has.
I wouldn’t say that Hicks is there yet. Hicks is remarkable for the fact that he throws so fast, and for the fact that he strikes so few hitters out. Pitching is hard, and the hitters are outstanding. When you see a clip of Hicks throwing 105, you’re not seeing the most unhittable pitcher in baseball. What you’re seeing is someone who could become the most unhittable pitcher in baseball. What the velocity gives Hicks is a foundation. Dominant upside, should he ever improve a second pitch. Major-league batters can time any fastball, if all they have to think about is the fastball. If they also have to think about something else — that’s where the speed becomes deadly.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.