The Cardinals Lose Their Closer

The St. Louis Cardinals announced Monday afternoon that their closer, Jordan Hicks, has torn the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. The news didn’t immediately come with a prognosis, a course of treatment, or a timetable for his return, some of which we’ll likely find out in the coming days. With a healthy elbow being a highly useful part of the body for a pitcher to have, there certainly isn’t much in the way of optimism that can emerge from this development.

While the news about Hicks has not been highly specific as of yet, I have not seen the word “partial” used to describe the tear. Assuming, for the sake of pessimism, that Hicks’s injury will require Tommy John surgery, the typical recovery time quoted these days is 12-15 months for a pitcher. That quite obviously would put 2019 out of the question and, given that we’re almost into July, would also seriously threaten all of 2020.

A lot of the initial buzz surrounding Hicks’ injury focused on his status as the hardest-throwing pitcher in baseball today, with fingers pointed at his velocity as a key factor in his injury. According to Statcast, of the 100 hardest-thrown pitches in 2019, 94 were thrown by Hicks. The only pitchers to intrude on this list are Tayron Guerrero (Nos. 24, 31, 54, and 70), Aroldis Chapman (No. 87), and Thyago Vieira (No. 61). 45% of all 100 mph pitches this year were thrown by Hicks. The fastball cred is real.

But is the Tommy John connection? The data for this has led to mixed results. I haven’t seen anything new in the last year or so, so I did a quick look at the pitchers who threw 150 innings between 2013 and 2016 (380 pitchers). I utilized Jon Roegele’s excellent dataset. Since 2013, 49 of those pitchers have undergone Tommy John surgery, or 12.6%, which includes 18 of the top 100 in terms of fastball velocity. Of the bottom 100, only eight have needed the procedure. If you look at quintiles or other slightly more robust measures, you see a general trend.

The trend, however, is not strong. There are also confounding variables involved here when you dig into the data. The hardest-throwing pitchers tend to be, in broad terms, younger and better pitchers overall, so they also have a tendency to survive long enough to need surgery. And though the trend line is there, it’s not particularly strong; logistic regression doesn’t indicate a very robust relationship based on velocity. It’s just not a strong causative boogeyman.

My initial findings here tend to jibe with a more detailed 2016 study that for the most part didn’t find strong relationships between pitch velocity or pitch type and requiring Tommy John surgery (with one relevant exception).

MLB pitchers requiring UCL reconstruction do not pitch at higher velocities than matched controls, and pitch velocity does not appear to be a risk factor for UCL reconstruction. However, MLB pitchers who pitch a high percentage of fastballs may be at increased risk for UCL injury because pitching a higher percent of fastballs appears to be a risk factor for UCL reconstruction.

The researchers found that throwing over 48% fastballs was in fact a significant predictor of UCL injury. Jordan Hicks throws a lot of fastballs, but so do a lot of pitchers. Of pitchers with 20 innings this season, 70% have thrown fastballs at least 48% of the time. This list includes many of the noted flamethrowers, but quite a lot of icetossers as varied as Adam Cimber, Jason Vargas, Kyle Hendricks, and Zach Davies as well.

There’s even a bit of a silver lining in the data. Remember how I mentioned that 18 of the 100 hardest throwing pitchers in 2013-2016 needed Tommy John surgery since 2013? 24 of others had Tommy John surgery at some point before 2013, meaning that there are a lot of hard-throwing pitchers that live to fight again. When the 2021 season starts, Hicks will still be just 24.

Looking past the effect on Hicks, the injury carries significant repercussions for the Cardinals. The bullpen ranks twelth in WAR in baseball, the first time the team has been in the top 15 since 2015 (with nearly an entirely different group of players). While St. Louis’ bullpen has rarely been as horrid as the locals feel in recent years, it hasn’t been a team strength, either. The development of Hicks, who more than doubled his K-BB% from 2018 to 2019, has served as the foundation for an improved relief corps. As much as I hate saves as a stat, Hicks has only blown a single one this year, which means fewer very obvious meltdowns in the late innings in St. Louis. And the team needs it, with neither the offense or the starting pitching playing all that well in 2019.

The likely beneficiaries in terms of save opportunities are still yet to be determined, but the odds right now point to some kind of mix of John Gant and Carlos Martinez. From a roster standpoint, I’d rather see Gant used more heavily as a closer as opposed to C-Mart. There are mixed signals about the likelihood of Martinez returning to the rotation this year, and reading between the lines, I believe Martinez is far more enthused by the idea of getting back into a starting role this season than the team is. If he’s not in the rotation, I’d hate to see him shoehorned into a one-inning role, and would rather see him throw more 30-40 pitch outings. The long-term plan should still be to get him into the rotation, even if it’s not this season, and I think you want to preserve the chance that he can at least be an emergency option this year. Adam Wainwright is leading the rotation in FIP after all, at a so-so 4.37.

Hopefully, the Cardinals will explore the chance to get Giovanny Gallegos some higher-leverage innings. I swear, I’m just not saying it because ZiPS was extremely aggressive with Gallegos at the start of the year, projecting a 3.02 ERA in 2019. He has pitched very well in the majors, with a 2.60 ERA and a 2.55 FIP for 0.7 WAR and nearly 13 strikeouts a game. They haven’t been very high-leverage innings, however, with 17 of Gallegos’s 30 appearances featuring an initial leverage index of 0.5 or lower. The team appeared to use him in more crucial situations over the last two weeks, predating the Hicks injury, and it’s a trend I’d like to see continue.

The injury has a larger effect on the team’s playoff odds than you might think. Costing a projected 0.5 wins, it’s not a headline-grabbing number. 0.5 wins, however, is enough to knock the team from 33% to 28% in projected playoff probability. You have a middle-of-the-pack team that stands in the middle-of-the-pack of very competitive divisional and wild card races. I’d say 13 of the 15 National League teams can still harbor at least semi-realistic playoff hopes at this point. A win here or there at the margins is a lot more significant for a team like the Cardinals than for the Twins, Astros, or Dodgers.

However severe the injury turns out to be, losing Jordan Hicks is a blow both to him and the Cardinals. But in 2021, he has an excellent shot at returning to throw the best fastball in baseball for the best fans in baseball.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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4 years ago

“The bullpen ranks ninth in WAR in the National League, the first time the team has been in the top 15 since 2015.”

Based on a quick search, the Cards bullpen is 4th in the NL and 12th overall. Is this based on bWAR, or just a typo?

4 years ago
Reply to  coldbagel12

Yeah, that sentence has all sorts of problems – it would be difficult to not be top 15 in the NL in any category.

He might have meant FIP – they are 9th in FIP – however, they were 8th in FIP as recently as 2017 so I don’t know.

4 years ago
Reply to  Anon

…”it would be difficult to not be top 15 in the NL in any category”

Thank you for this. For some reason made me laugh out loud!

4 years ago
Reply to  coldbagel12

not to mention that the Top 15 of the National League is… the entire National League

4 years ago
Reply to  coldbagel12

Likely meant 9th in MLB, being as they are in the top 15 in the NL every year by default of being in the NL. The difference between 9th and 12th can probably be chalked up to timing of leaderboard pull.