Before we begin in earnest, here is a table showing the hardest thrown pitches of this young baseball season through Sunday’s games.
|Player||Pitch Velocity (mph)||Date|
Right now, St. Louis right-hander Jordan Hicks is throwing harder than Aroldis Chapman. When he did it the first time, it drew some attention, but he repeated that performance on Sunday.
His hold on the title might not last, of course: Chapman could begin throwing harder, and Hicks might not be able to maintain this level of velocity all season. For example, the 21-year-old righty averaged only 98 mph on his fastball in his performance yesterday, getting four outs in what was the first appearance of his professional career without a day of rest.
Hicks was a starter throughout the minors, during which he recorded only 165.1 innings and never worked above High-A. There were indications during spring training that he might have the talent to deal with major-league hitters, but the team sent him to the minors after some issues with tardiness. Despite that, he made his way back to major-league camp and was added to the Opening Day roster even though it required the Cardinals to place Josh Lucas on waivers. Jeff Zimmerman discussed Hicks’ talent and scouting reports after Hicks made the team. We are beginning to see why the Cardinals believed he could impact the club at the highest level in potentially important spots.
In Hicks’ first game on Opening Day, he witnessed Noah Syndegaard’s throw his sinker in the high 90s and, in doing so, might have watched the single pitch most similar to his own two-seam fastball. Witness Syndergaard strike out Tommy Pham with a 97 mph fastball.
That’s a good, hard, sinking fastball. Now let’s see Hicks do the same thing to Todd Frazier on a 99 mph two-seamer.
While high velocities might be more prevalent in today’s game, Hicks’ ability to throw a sinking fastball that hard still qualifies as a rarity. The list below shows Jordan Hicks this year and the pitchers with at least 100 twoseamers or sinkers last year with the highest average pitch velocity, per Baseball Savant.
|Player||Year||Pitches||Pitch Velocity (mph)|
If Hicks’ velocity from the first two games holds up, he can match Aroldis Chapman. If he also throws in some games where his velocity is off a couple ticks, he’ll still be among the tops in baseball this season.
I mentioned earlier that Hicks’ fastball most resembles Noah Syndergaard. Here’s some support below with the same velocity list from above sorted by average spin rate.
|Player||Year||Results||Avg. Spin Rate (rpm)|
By spin rate, Hicks is closest to Britton; however, Britton is left-handed — the only left-hander on the list — and perhaps not the best comparison.
Having a fastball like Noah Syndergaard is a very good start for Hicks. He understands that his low-spin fastball helps induce ground balls. Teaching spin rates is an organizational philosophy in St. Louis. There is a problem for Hicks, however — namely, that two-seam fastballs are not swing-and-miss pitches. Syndergaard gets good results from his two-seam fastball because he throws it for strikes and generates a decent amount of swings and a lot of ground balls. Over the course of his career, though, he has gotten whiffs on the pitch just 8% of the time. Those results are in line with Hicks’ minor-league profile, where he generated a lot of ground balls though did not strike out nearly as many batters as one would think given his fastball. Through 26 MLB fastballs, Hicks has gotten just two swings and misses.
Hicks’ signature pitch is a good one, but he’s not going to survive on incredible velocity alone. His primary secondary pitch so far this season has been his slider. He threw just one in his debut but tossed three in each of his last two appearances, getting two whiffs and a called third strike. I asked Hicks about his slider this past offseason, and he mentioned it as the pitch he uses to try and miss bats. This is what the pitch looked like against Jay Bruce.
The pitch worked well against the left-handed Bruce, but it probably has more potential against righties. This is what it looked like yesterday against Manny Pina, when Hicks entered the game with a runner on and two outs.
Hicks doesn’t have a 90 mph slider like Syndergaard. His is a bit softer, not unlike the one typically thrown by Carlos Martinez, but Hicks gets more horizontal movement. Increased usage of the slider is going to be very important for Hicks when it comes to getting strikeouts, and there has been some development in this area: starting around last year’s All-Star break, Hicks eliminated a hitch in his windup and started to get more whiffs. In his first 24 minor-league starts, Hicks struck out 16% of batters and walked 11% of the same. In his final 10 appearances last season, however, Hicks struck out 30% of batters and walked just 7% of hitters.
So far, Hicks’ success has translated to the big leagues despite the lack of experience. He’s generated seven of his 10 outs via the double play or strikeout, with just a single batted ball leaving the infield. He’s also thrown one four-seam fastball, which he had never thrown before the Arizona Fall League. It went well.
If Hicks hadn’t been brought up to the majors, he might be in Double-A Springfield trying to mix in that four-seam fastball and working on a changeup to match with his sinker, a pitch mix not unlike Cardinals’ ace Carlos Martinez. As it stands, Hicks will likely have to put the change on a shelf. That four-seam fastball looks like it could be a weapon, but Hicks should be able to get outs with just the two-seamer and the slider. The latter isn’t as consistent as might be ideal, but if he can throw strikes and get batters to chase the slider, he could be one of the best relievers on the Cardinals from the get-go.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.