One of the more popular players in the first two months of the season was Cardinals reliever Jordan Hicks, and rightfully so. I mean, who doesn’t want to watch a guy with a fastball that touches 105 mph and consistently sits at triple-digits? But for the most part, in the first two months... he wasn’t very good. The overall results and ERA have been nice, currently standing at a more than serviceable 2.40, but the issues are no secret. Through 27 games, Hicks has a grand K-BB% of 0.0%, ranking 325th out of 333 relievers with at least 20 innings pitched this year. Hicks’ 2.40 ERA has been over-performance at a historic level.
Out of 196 relievers since 2000 with 20 innings pitched and a K-BB% at or below 0.0%, Hicks has posted the fifth-lowest ERA. The mean ERA of this group of pitchers was 5.14. The mean FIP was 5.40.
Lowest reliever ERA with K-BB% less than or equal to 0.0% since 2000
It seemed likely that the walks and amount of balls put in play against Hicks were going to come to eventually bite him. But over the past few weeks, something very interesting has been developing with Hicks. Here’s an early warning that I’m about to get really arbitrary.
For this analysis, I wanted to break the season Hicks has had thus far into two date ranges.
- March 29th to May 17th: 19.2 IP, 4.90 FIP, 6.21 xFIP, 9.4% K%, 16.5% BB%
- May 18th to June 3rd: 10.1 IP, 2.34 FIP, 2.97 xFIP, 25.6% K%, 10.3% BB%
Hicks has clearly been better as of late.
When Hicks was struggling, a lot if had to with his strike-throwing abilities. No hitter wants any business with a triple-digit fastball, let alone when half of them aren’t strikes. And when the only other pitch that he has—a slider—is also consistently missing the strike zone, it’s tough to find a recipe for success.
In total, Hicks has improved his control the past few weeks. In that first date range I highlighted above (March 29th to May 17th), a mere 57.7% of Hicks’ pitches went for strikes, a rate that ranked 347th out of 362 pitchers with at least 200 pitches thrown in that span. If he was to keep up that rate all year, it would be tough to imagine him lasting on the Cardinals 25-man roster for the long run. But in the second date range I also highlighted (May 19th to June 3rd), 67.6% of his pitches went for strikes, a very above-average rate that ranked 48th out of 304 pitchers with at least 100 pitches in that span.
Now I’m going to narrow it down to the slider. This is the pitch that I think has made the difference for Hicks these past few weeks. In my first date range, he threw his slider for a strike 54.9% of the time, and the league average is 62.8%. In my second range, 74.1% of his sliders are going for strikes.
And it’s not that he’s just laying those sliders in the zone. The whiff-rate on the pitch has skyrocketed, which has played a large part in the strike% increase. Through May 17th, hitters were not biting at Hicks slider at all, whiffing on only five of the 71 he threw (7.1% SwStr%). Since then, he’s thrown 27 sliders and induced nine whiffs.
I think this all points to a release point change.
Raising the vertical release point has tied right in with a change in velocity. In April, it was sitting at around 83-85 mph. Over a few outings in late May, it was sitting at about 86-87 mph. In his June 3rd outing, he threw one at 89.8 mph and another at 90.4 mph.
So, a guy that throws harder than anyone than baseball just learned how to harness an upper-80s slider. He’s been commanding his only two offerings to top it off. He’s now striking out batters and walking less.
There is a beast in the Cardinals bullpen. And he has awoken.
All numbers and graphs are as of June 7th.