Jordan Hicks Is a Starter Now. How in the World Did He Pull That Off?

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

In 2022, Jordan Hicks briefly converted from relieving to starting for the Cardinals. The experiment didn’t go particularly well. He made eight starts and lasted a combined 26.1 innings with an ERA of 5.47. He walked nearly 20% of the batters he faced, barely struck anyone out, and seemed to struggle to adjust from his old role. He threw sinkers or sliders 94% of the time, didn’t dial down his velocity much, and looked exactly how you’d expect a closer cosplaying as a starter to look. So much for that experiment; he promptly returned to late-inning duty.

When the Giants signed Hicks this offseason, rumors of his return to the starting ranks bubbled up, but I didn’t believe it. After all, we’d already seen this exact experiment before. But fast forward to today, and Hicks looks like a revelation. Through two starts, he’s thrown 12 innings and allowed a single earned run. His strikeout rate has barely budged from his career average, and he’s only issued two free bases (one walk, one HBP). It’s a remarkable turnaround, and one that I can’t help but dive into. How has he done it?

The most striking change to Hicks’ arsenal is his new sinker. He was one of the hardest-throwing pitchers in baseball history as a reliever. This year, 19 different starters are throwing harder than he is. Take a look at how different this new pitch is compared to both his sinker from last year and from the last time he started in the majors:

Jordan Hicks, New Sinker Shape
Split Velo (mph) HMov (in) VMov (in) VMov+Grav (in) Rel Height (ft)
Reliever, 2023 100.1 -15.8 8.4 -19.0 5.93
Starter, 2022 99.0 -15.8 7.8 -20.2 5.99
Starter, 2024 95.6 -16.4 6.9 -23.2 5.78

By dropping his release point and throwing more slowly, Hicks has created more horizontal movement. The result makes for some pretty GIFs, and also some befuddled takes from hitters:

I know what you’re thinking. It’s not like Hicks particularly needed more movement. His biggest issue in the past has been throwing strikes. But even with more movement, Hicks is commanding his sinker in the strike zone far better in 2024 than he did earlier in his career:

Jordan Hicks, New Sinker Command
Split Zone% Zone%, 0-0 Zone%, Behind O-Swing% Z-Swing% Ball%
Reliever, 2023 56.0% 57.2% 57.9% 27.6% 53.4% 33.8%
Starter, 2022 50.0% 52.8% 52.1% 19.6% 61.4% 41.5%
Starter, 2024 63.2% 70.0% 58.1% 40.0% 61.7% 25.3%
League Average 55.8% 56.6% 60.3% 24.5% 61.4% 32.3%

That’s a lot of numbers, but the gist is easy to understand: more pitches in the strike zone, more swings, and far fewer balls per sinker thrown than before. That’s how you end up with fewer walks, but it also means more pitches thrown in pitcher’s counts, more opponents on their heels, and a whopping three fewer pitches per inning than Hicks averaged last year. That matters a ton; assuming a roughly static per-game pitch count, Hicks could finish roughly an extra inning per game if he keeps up his current rates.

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that. Part of the reason for his low pitch count is that he’s allowing a .250 BABIP, and that won’t hold up. Another part of the explanation is that opponents are swinging at sinkers out of the strike zone at an unsustainable rate. That 40% mark is going to come down; only one pitcher who threw 200 sinkers last year topped 40%.

It’s not all unsustainable improvement, to be clear. It’s a lot easier to make opposing batters swing when your pitches are close to the edges of the zone, but in his career, Hicks has missed by a lot fairly often. In his career before this year, he threw 26.4% of his sinkers in the “chase” or “waste” zones as defined by Baseball Savant. Opposing batters swung at only 13.2% of those pitches – they’re just too far away to fool anyone. In 2024, batters are swinging at 17.6% of Hicks’ sinkers in those zones, which isn’t much different. Far more importantly, though, he’s throwing far fewer of those pitches. His chase and waste rate is down to 18%. Fewer uncompetitive pitches means better outcomes, in other words.

That’s only part of what’s going on with Hicks, though. From a pure stuff standpoint, this year’s version of the sinker is worse. But he never missed a ton of bats, even when he was sitting above 100 mph, because of the shape of the pitch. By throwing it slower, he’s gained enough in command to more than offset what he lost in raw velocity. Both of our pitching models think that Hicks’ sinker is just as good overall as it was last year, which is an incredible coup for someone stretching out from single-inning stints to starting.

Of course, Hicks’ job is a bit more complex than just throwing sinkers all day and checking the pitch metrics afterwards. In fact, by the time Hicks reached free agency, his sinker was a less important pitch than his slider. It’s taken on an increasingly sweeping shape in recent years, and it was his go-to out pitch in 2023, with an impressive 20.4% swinging strike rate. He hasn’t missed bats with quite the same frequency this year, which makes sense. After all, he’s throwing the pitch four ticks slower with roughly the same shape.

That hurts Hicks against righties, but the truth is, he’s never needed much help there. Even a diminished version of his slider is enough, particularly when he’s spotting his sinker as well as he has been this year. High octane sinker/slider guys just don’t have trouble with same-handed batters. His career .247 wOBA allowed to righties says one thing: Good luck, buddy. Meanwhile, lefties have frequently gotten the better of him. That’s because sinkers and sweepers both work a lot worse without the platoon advantage.

In seasons past, Hicks has tried a few different things to handle lefties. He dabbled with a changeup for years, never throwing it more than 5% of the time. He tried a cutter one year, and he’s occasionally taken a ton of velocity off of his slider and tried to throw it like a curveball. None of these things have worked. Lefties rarely strike out against him, walk quite frequently, and hit the ball on the ground far less frequently than righties do. Grounders are Hicks’ great equalizer; without them, he doesn’t strike out enough batters to outpace all the walks he generally issues. Lefties have posted a .326 wOBA against him, better than league average for all hitters.

The answer was obvious in retrospect: throw the new hotness. Hicks has a splitter, and it looks like a good one to me. It’s a classic version of the pitch, without a ton of induced break in any direction. He just kills the spin with his grip and lets gravity do the work:

The splitter works against righties, but the real reason he’s added it is for lefties. Jackson Merrill is the exact kind of hitter who would have given Hicks fits in the past, but this is one of two strikeouts (in four plate appearances) Hicks has recorded against him using a splitter this year:

He’s throwing the split 20% of the time against lefties so far this season. With two strikes, he’s thrown seven times out of 19 pitches, 36.8%. That takes pressure off of the rest of his game, because converting two-strike counts into outs against lefties has long been a big weakness. Now it’s more of a fair fight, because the old wait-and-foul plan doesn’t work well against that splitter.

Now, lefties are still killing Hicks this year, to the tune of a .313/.389/.375 line. But that boils down to a ridiculous .500 BABIP allowed, and that won’t continue. He has six strikeouts against lefties already, as compared to one walk and one HBP. In his entire career before this year, 19% of his two-strike pitches to lefties ended in a strikeout. This year, that number has ballooned to 31.6% in a tiny sample. The league average for starters is 18.6%.

I don’t think Hicks will keep his strikeout rate nearly so high against lefties; we’re just looking at a small sample for now. On the other hand, he’ll probably start striking out more righties in two-strike counts. He’s at a piddling 15.6% putaway rate (two-strike pitches that turn into strikeouts) against righties so far in 2024, as compared to 24.7% in his career so far. With his slider and sinker, I’m confident that he should be at least league average there, so he’ll get back plenty of the strikeouts he’s missing against lefties when facing his natural prey, right-handers.

This almost sounds too easy. How did Hicks turn into a great starter? By changing his sinker shape to suit his diminished velocity, going from scattershot to pinpoint accuracy, and adding a new pitch out of nowhere. Oh, sure, simple! Everyone should do those things.

In reality, it’s unlikely that Hicks will keep cruising to the extent he has so far. He’s going to have a game where the command doesn’t come easily. He’ll have a few calls go against him and have to fight back, or lose command of the splitter briefly and have to come up with a new plan against lefties. Righties won’t keep batting .136 on balls in play against him, just as surely as lefties won’t keep batting .500. But overall, I think Hicks has done what I didn’t think was possible: turn himself from a wild reliever into an acceptable starter in a single offseason. I’m incredibly impressed, and I look forward to seeing more of his new form the rest of the year.





Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

43 Comments
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SenorGato
1 month ago

I’m shocked, shocked, that a pitcher who throws gas and gets a ton of weak contact with a variety of pitches can succeed as a SP.

RP to SP is a little bit The Future of FA spending so get used to it? There’s so many talented relievers since 3 pitches and velo dang near pre-reqs for a high leveragez role. It’s inevitable guys who build up their strength and conditioning *and* survive to even reach FA with any leveragez will seek starting roles.

I’d check out the prospect meta for an explanation too. Cade Horton – who is very srs and good – has workloads the past 3 years of TJ, ~60 innings NCAA, ~90 innings mix minors, and everyone on the planet thinks this is a Future (2.0) first division SP. In this world why not a Hicks or Lorenzen or Puk and all those coming next?

Last edited 1 month ago by SenorGato
EonADS
1 month ago
Reply to  SenorGato

To be fair, without the new splitter, that profile looks less appealing given that lefties would crush him.

Also, can I just note that splitters are becoming common again for both starters and relievers? Several iffy guys have added a splitter and taken off the last few years, plus some good guys have just added them and gotten better. Trevor Stephan and Cade Smith for my Guards in addition to Hicks, but there are definitely more. Joe Ryan and Logan Gilbert added them, Felix Bautista had a good one to pair with that ridiculous fastball, Nathan Eovaldi’s became his best swing-and-miss offering again…

sadtrombonemember
1 month ago
Reply to  EonADS

Splitters and cutters are pitches that seem to be added with some frequency. If you need another pitch to mix things up those seem to be the ones to go to. My guess is that these pitches don’t get taught much early in pitchers’ careers, so they’re available when they’re looking to pick up something later.

EonADS
1 month ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Makes complete sense; from what I recall from HS and college, coaches never wanted us to pick them up because they were worried that they could damage our arms, but more recent research shows that it’s mostly down to how hard you throw and how your mechanics affect your arm. They’re also common because they neutralize platoon splits. The Splitter may become an easier changeup for some (learning how to throw a functional changeup is hard), and cutters are pretty decent against lefties in general, plus they sit in a comfortable velo and movement band between 4-seams and sliders, two of the most common pitches. Makes sense that guys struggling might pick up a pitch that covers one of their weaknesses and just immediately has some basic synergy with their arsenal, at minimum.

Last edited 1 month ago by EonADS
Ivan_Grushenkomember
1 month ago
Reply to  EonADS

Has the more recent research caused coaches to teach splitters and cutters more?

EonADS
1 month ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

I don’t know one way or the other, but given that Hicks isn’t that much younger than me, I’m going to assume that he wasn’t taught them for the same reasons I wasn’t, as with many pitchers in the 25-30 age bracket. They probably developed those pitches either on their own or in the pros. I had to “retire” in college due to injury (not that I likely would have made it far if I had tried to go to pro ball), so I couldn’t say with certainty.

Last edited 1 month ago by EonADS
sadtrombonemember
1 month ago
Reply to  EonADS

I have been told that cutters were easier to pick up than most other pitches. I didn’t know about splitters but I guess the relevant comparison is “easier compared to a changeup.”

For a while, even MLB orgs were skeptical of cutters. I remember Duquette with the Orioles going on a rather animated anti-cutter rant.

baseballfan115member
1 month ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

If I remember right, they forced Dylan Bundy, then a super prospect whose best pitch was his cutter, to abandon his best pitch.
One size does not fit all

EonADS
1 month ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Yeah, splitters were the same way for a while. The 2000s had the pitch basically disappear among US-born pitchers for the same reason.

The thing with splitters is that the grip kills spin by default, so they’re slower and fall pretty much as a given. The difficulty with them is primarily location + having a good grip so that they break with good timing, whereas with a changeup it’s that plus a bunch of other stuff (controlling the velocity, being able to make it look like or spin opposite a fastball, sinker, or slider from a spin perspective, getting the movement profile that you want, ect). Splitters are more platoon-neutral, while changeups are more anti-platoon, so there are reasons to use a changeup. But if a splitter works and a changeup doesn’t or gives you problems, the splitter is an easy choice.

Last edited 1 month ago by EonADS
Sonny Lmember
1 month ago
Reply to  EonADS

A bad splitter stays up in the zone and stays up for about 400’ or so. That and the maybe incorrect idea they lead to injury were the big reasons it was discouraged states side for so long.

A Salty Scientist
1 month ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Right, and I think that mediocre cutters and splitters are more credible weapons against the platoon than mediocre changeups (which end up being more like batting practice fastballs).

Envy Angelmember
1 month ago
Reply to  EonADS

Am I misremembering? I thought Roger Craig was a big advocate of the splitter back in the eighties because he thought it was easier on the arm than other breaking pitches.

EonADS
1 month ago
Reply to  Envy Angel

Oh yeah, in the 80’s they were in vogue. But by the early 2000s, it was basically a non-factor among US-born pitchers. That was the peak of the steroid era, and hanging splitters got mashed for home runs even by non-buff batters. That plus the idea that the wider finger grip is bad for your arm (it is uncomfortable if you aren’t used to it) pretty much removed the pitch from most contemporary US development programs. The Vulcan-grip changeup became a touch more common at the time because it approximated the movement of the splitter while (theoretically) putting less stress on the arm and being more unfriendly towards opposite-handed hitters.

Modern research from the past five-ish years or so suggest that velocity and effort are the issues, not particular pitches, but back then it was “common knowledge” that it was the other way around.

LMOTFOTEmember
1 month ago
Reply to  EonADS

I mainly remember Jack Morris and Mike Scott both took big steps forward with their splitters (and I think Roger Craig worked with both), maybe a couple SFG guys that I don;t remember, and before that was Bruce Sutter. But I don’t think there were that many guys who were able to master it.

SenorGato
1 month ago
Reply to  EonADS

Wait, what are we being fair to by acknowledging the splitter we should be acknowledging? He was throwing it last year!

I’m a curmudgeon so splitters and sliders and cutters being the hip pitches doesn’t appeal to me. *That* said because the Cubs use it (Imanaga, Neris, Leiter Jr., Little) I’ve definitely noticed its presence (the Reds signing Montas, Logan Gilbert adding it, etc). I also like how its resurgence is tied to the international game – Tanaka’s and Montas’ splitters getting them tabbed as Astros killers