Jordan Hicks Is Like the First Half of Arcade Fire’s Third Album: A Modern Man, Ready to Start

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco Giants have reportedly agreed to a contract with right-handed pitcher Jordan Hicks worth $11 million a year. (Makes sense, Hicks was really good out of the bullpen for St. Louis and Toronto last year, and reliable relief arms are hard to come by in free agency.) The deal will run for four years. (Wow, that’s a long time.) It also contains $2 million a year in workload-based incentives that start at 100 innings per season, because the Giants (hold onto your butts) intend to use Hicks as a starter.

Fascinating!

Taken in concert with the highly similar deal Reynaldo López signed with Atlanta in November, this anecdote has become data: Contending teams are giving multi-year deals to high-quality relievers who have already failed as starters, and trying to put them back in the rotation.

Let’s take this in two parts: First, why are teams (at least two of them now) trying this? Second, can it work with Hicks specifically?

As recently as 10 years ago, there were two kinds of pitchers: Starters and relievers. Starters would throw 100 pitches every five days; relievers would throw about 15 or 20 every two or three days. In both the tactical (in-game) and strategic (season-long) sense, managers liked their starters to throw as high a percentage of the team’s innings as was practicable. Starters were the team’s best pitchers, and teams with four or more good ones — the Giants, Phillies, Tigers, and Reds all had rotations like this in the early 2010s — could just cruise to the postseason.

Over the past decade, technological advancements have allowed teams and coaches — and even private trainers like Driveline — to systematize mechanics and pitch design in order to achieve maximum nastiness on a per-pitch basis. Thanks to those same newfangled tools, batters adapted quickly. Now anything less than perfectly located upper-90s filth gets punished, especially by good lineups in high-leverage moments.

This constant high-intensity churn comes at a price, as human physiology did not make a similar evolutionary jump during the network run of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Human pitchers are not quite like racehorses, euthanized on the spot when their bodies can no longer cope with the strain of the sport, but thanks to the MLBPA, most people don’t realize how close that timeline is to our own.

A century ago, a similar watershed moment replaced 350 innings of Christy Mathewson with 250 innings of Lefty Grove. Where the standard for a starter was once 30 starts and 200 innings a year, the Hicks contract sets the bar at 100 innings, constituting some 20 starts, though more would obviously be nice.

Unfortunately, only a handful of starters can be the best inning-by-inning option for 30 starts and 180 to 200 innings a year. Effective one-inning relievers are more plentiful. In the playoffs, it’s no longer about stretching the starter out; it’s about surviving until the relief aces can take over.

That’s how rotations are managed in the postseason. Even $100 million Cy Young-type starters can only air it out for 85 to 90 pitches. In the 12-team playoff era, only 14 times has a starting pitcher even completed a third trip through the lineup; the absolute high-water mark for batters faced in a postseason game in the past two seasons is 28. Time was, they’d let Nolan Ryan walk 28 batters in a playoff start, but kids these days…

Unfortunately, a pitcher usage pattern that works in the playoffs — one month, with five games a week at the absolute maximum — does not work for the six-month, six-games-a-week grind of the regular season. Anyone who tried would face a mutiny by the All-Star break; if his pitchers could still lift their arms, such a manager would probably be strangled.

So now we have not two classes of important pitchers, but at least five. There are full-time starters and one-inning relievers, but also innings-eaters who float the team through the regular season but barely see any action in the playoffs. Then we have the reliever version: High-usage but low-leverage bulk bullpen arms. And finally, there is the emerging hybrid role for which Hicks and López have seemingly been groomed. It’s now acceptable for a starting pitcher to turn over the lineup twice and bail, because that’s all he’ll be needed for in the playoffs anyway. And who cares if he can only do it 20 times in the regular season? If he can do it three or four times in the playoffs, that’s worth $10 million all on its own.

We know this because even low-volume playoff-quality starters are quite expensive. The Dodgers gave up two young players, including Ryan Pepiot, to acquire Tyler Glasnow (30 years old, career high of 120 innings) and sign him to a five-year contract worth $27.3 million a season. Glasnow’s former teammate Blake Snell has taken some heat for being a low-volume starter, topping out at 180 innings a year. And greater context does not make Snell’s track record of reliability any more flattering. He’s only gone over 130 innings twice in his career, which goes underreported because the only times he’s met that workload, he’s won the Cy Young. And when he signs, Snell will likely make just as much per year as the top free agent starters.

What these deals, and their contrapositive, the $13 million Kyle Gibson contract, tell me is this: A starter who can actually meet the volume demands of the regular season and the quality demands of the playoffs — Aaron Nola, Sonny Gray, Yoshinobu Yamamoto in this free agent class — are enormous bargains in the $24 million-to-$27 million range.

It is Moneyball to spend less by re-creating a single star in the aggregate. Spending the same to be slightly worse off with multiple players filling one spot is not Moneyball; that is being an unhappy middle-aged divorced man.

Nevertheless, Hicks has been singled out as the Giants’ new mom. Will he be accepted in that role?

Physically, I think he can hold up for 20 starts and 100 innings in the regular season. I don’t know how much more than that he can manage; Hicks missed most of 2021 with elbow inflammation, then spent two stints on the IL in 2022 with a forearm strain and arm fatigue. It’s a simple, fluid delivery, though, and Hicks seems to come by his velocity easily.

And we actually have some data on how Hicks’ velocity holds up in the rotation, thanks to his brief stint there with the Cardinals in 2022. That season, Hicks’ average fastball velocity out of the bullpen was 99.7 mph; as a starter, it dropped, but an even 99.0 mph is still elite velocity out of the rotation.

The problem was that Hicks walked almost a batter an inning as a starter. It’s a small sample — eight starts, 26 1/3 innings pitched — but in the same way that if you try to fry a frozen turkey in your kitchen once and burn your house down, it’s a small sample. Some experiments don’t need to be repeated.

At least, that’s what I thought. The Giants obviously disagree. So I assume they have a better plan than just repeating what the Cardinals did two years ago.

When the Giants got their hands on Kevin Gausman, he was also an effective reliever who’d failed as a starter; after two seasons in San Francisco, Gausman quickly became just the kind of expensive, high-volume, high-workload starter they’re trying to re-create in the aggregate with Hicks. Gausman and Hicks are very different pitchers, but it’s possible that Hicks has already undergone the change will allow him to stick in the rotation.

As a young reliever, Hicks was mostly sinker-slider. The old axiom about starting pitchers is that they need at least three pitches. In addition to fastball-breaking ball, an off-speed pitch is necessary in order to show batters different looks on trips two and three through the order. So the Cardinals took this two-pitch reliever and figured the way to get him to stick in the rotation was to have him throw a show-me changeup about once an inning.

You’re not going to believe this, but it didn’t work. During his tenure in the St. Louis rotation, Hicks didn’t allow a single hit off his changeup, but that’s only because batters can’t hit what they can’t reach. Hicks threw 26 changeups as a starter in 2022; 21 of them were balls. We talk about swing-and-miss pitches a lot. Usually the hard part is getting batters to miss; Hicks couldn’t even get them to swing.

The Cardinals quickly put Hicks back in the ‘pen and scrapped the changeup. Sure enough, he was effective again before the season was out.

Pitch Usage by Role
Role Year Sinker Slider Change Four-Seamer Sweeper
Starter 2022 64.0 30.0 5.3 0.8 0.0
Reliever 2022 66.4 33.0 0.2 0.4 0.0
Reliever 2023 64.4 3.5 1.6 10.7 19.8
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Hicks now throws two distinct fastballs regularly, having gone to a four-seamer with an identifiably different movement pattern than his sinker. Hicks is now throwing a sweeper, which is similar in velocity and movement to the pitch he threw as a slider as a rookie; it’s two ticks harder on average than his slider from 2022, with slightly less vertical drop.

Most importantly, it’s an actual weapon against lefties. Not that it could be any worse than the changeup was — at least it’s not an automatic ball. Last season, Hicks threw 53 sweepers to lefties, generating 20 swings. Of those, only one was a hit (though all four sweepers that were put in play were hit hard), while 12 were swings-and-misses.

If the sweeper plays anything like that over a full season in the rotation, Hicks will be fine. Does a traditional starter need a legitimate off-speed pitch? Probably. And maybe the Giants will teach Hicks one. A starter who’s only going to turn the lineup over twice, with a 100 mph sinker and a breaking ball with a 60% whiff rate — does he need a legitimate off-speed pitch? I’m not convinced that’s the case.

It’s obvious why Hicks would want to go the starter route: Even after everything I said about the starting pitcher being a dying profession, he’s getting a little more money per year over more years, and in a best-case scenario he’ll hit the open market again after his age-30 season looking for the Gausman contract adjusted for inflation.

And Hicks’ age bears mentioning, because it illustrates why this gambit is less risky for the Giants than it looks. If it works, they get Kirkland Signature Glasnow. If not, they get one of the top relievers on the market on a four-year deal. And while long-term reliever contracts are generally inadvisable, Hicks is one of the youngest pitchers worth talking about in this entire free agent class. It’s not every day a team can sign a free agent to a long-term deal without eating any of his decline phase.

With all that having been said, the Giants still have some work to do if they’re going to put together a credible rotation. Even accounting for the return of the currently injured Alex Cobb (offseason hip surgery, due back after Opening Day) and Robbie Ray (Tommy John last May; we’ll get back to you on what that means for a potential 2024 comeback), the Giants have one legit 200-inning hoss in Logan Webb, followed by a lot of question marks in terms of workload.

Last season, Webb threw 216 innings in the majors. Hicks, Ross Stripling, Kyle Harrison, and Keaton Winn threw an additional 231 2/3, all put together. A Snell addition would not be unwelcome, even if it’s the 130-inning version instead of the 180-inning one.

But reliable, high-quality starting pitching is hard to come by on the free agent market. Which is, you know, why the Giants are trying to plug that hole with a reliever in the first place.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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tyke
3 months ago

title is super-cringe

Poor Mans Rick Reedmember
3 months ago
Reply to  tyke

Meanwhile, I absolutely loved it.

sadtrombonemember
3 months ago
Reply to  tyke

People keep on encouraging his titles and they should not have.