On May 21st, Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs wrote about the unusual case of Jordan Hicks. Hicks is a 21-year-old rookie relief pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, who made the incredible jump from High-A ball in 2017 to the MLB following Spring Training. Working exclusively out of the bullpen for the Cardinals, Hicks has led MLB pitchers in fastball velocity, surpassing Aroldis Chapman as MLB’s premier fastball pitcher.
Although he possessed elite velocity, he struggled to strike batters out at the MLB level. In fact, as of May 21st, Hicks had walked more batters than he had struck out through his first 22 Big League innings. His -7.4 K-BB% was second-worst in the MLB ahead of only his teammate, Greg Holland. Among pitchers with at least 20 innings pitched, his K% was second-lowest in the league, at 9.5%.
Despite his lack of whiffs, Hicks boasted a 2.05 ERA; however, the outlook on his performance was not as appealing, as his peripherals included a 4.87 FIP and an unsightly 6.05 xFIP. While it was tempting to argue Hicks’s impressive velo and sinker movement were generating enough weak contact to make up for the lack of strikeouts and high walk rate, he ranked in just the 16th percentile in terms of xwOBA against, which determines what a pitcher’s wOBA against should be based on the quality of contact against. This did not support the belief that he is an elite contact-manager; instead, it suggested he had been very lucky to that point in the season.
Towards the end of his article, Sullivan wrote that Hicks’s luck would run out, unless he improves. It appears that Hicks has accepted Sullivan’s challenge and has not only begun striking batters out at an elite pace, he has also vastly improved his walk rate, which is a statistic that has plagued him all the way back to his Minor League days.
Since Sullivan published his article, Hicks has been baseball’s best reliever and leads MLB relievers in FIP and ranks second in K-BB% after increasing his K% by nearly 31% and still managing to cut his BB% to less than half of its previous rate. His recent increase in strikeouts is due in large part to the success of his slider. Hicks’s slider generated swings and misses just 5.45% of the time in April; however, that number increased to 22.5% in May and sits at over 50% in June. While it is possible these improvements are merely luck in a small sample, Hicks has made tangible adjustments to the pitch, as he as sharpened the pitch by increasing its velo and shortening its break. The harder and shorter slider has baffled hitters thus far and is likely to continue to do so. His improved slider has allowed him to command the strike zone better and given him a genuine put-away pitch.
In addition to improving his strikeout and walk numbers, Hicks has also vastly improved his xwOBA against, which now ranks in the top half of the league for the entire season. His contact-management skills may be best exemplified in his ability to miss barrels, as he has been barreled just once, which trails only Adam Cimber among pitchers with at least 80 batted ball occurrences.
All of his improvements should be taken with a grain of salt, as they have occurred for just 13 innings. However, his season statistics are trending in the right direction and carry much stronger peripherals through his full 35 innings than they did through his first 22 innings. He now boasts a respectable 19.7% strikeout rate that is on the rise and has maintained his ERA at 2.06, while dropping his FIP to 14% better than league average from 24% worse than league average through his first 22 innings.
While Sullivan found Hicks interesting because of his lack of strikeouts in spite of leading the league in velo, Hicks is now interesting for his quick and remarkable adjustment at the game’s highest level. It will be important to see how the league adjusts to Hicks’s newfound ability to command the strike zone and miss bats with his slider.