Opportunity Seeker: Jordan Hicks
Meet the man who will soon have households asking “Aroldis who?”
Cardinals’ 21-year-old rookie Jordan Hicks has thrown the eight fastest pitches in all of Major League Baseball so far, topping out at a ridiculous 101.6 mph back on Opening Day. But even more impressive than those totals is his early success this year in 4.1 innings (2 H, 1BB, 3 K, 0 ER), and even more impressive than THAT is that prior to Spring Training last month, Hicks had not thrown more than 27 innings above Low-A. It is hard to believe that around this time just one year ago, Hicks was preparing for his second or third start in full-season ball. Now he is the hardest throwing pitcher in all of professional baseball. Just where did Hicks come from, and what is in store for the young flamethrower?
Hicks went to Klein Oak High School in Spring, Texas for his freshman, sophomore, and junior seasons, but once he realized he may have a future in professional baseball, decided to transfer just a few miles south to Houston’s Cypress Creek High School (who produced shortstop Paul Janish as well as five other MLB-draftees) for his senior season in 2015. The Cardinals nabbed Hicks with the 105th pick, and a $600,000 signing bonus was able to sway Hicks away from his commitment to Tulane University. On his decision to sign with the Cardinals and forego college, Hicks reflected: “My mom used to ask me what I wanted to do when I grew up and I said I wanted to be a baseball player. I just want to go out and compete against the best competition that’s out there. I know I can do it. I believe in myself. I’m ready to get there already.” Hicks’ college commitment and poor pitching mechanics are what likely led him to slide to the supplemental third round, and his inability to repeat his delivery led to shoulder soreness; the Cardinals decided to shut him down for the remainder of the 2015 season.
The redbirds’ decision to hold off on Hicks’ professional debut until 2016 seems to be the right one. He was very impressive in his twelve starts that season, equally split between rookie ball and short-season. He posted a sparkling 2.97 ERA, but that was accompanied by an ugly 42/29 K/BB ratio in his 60.2 innings pitched. Still, his low ERA, along with his solid 1.93 ground-out/air-out ratio and phenomenal in-person reports on his stuff caused Hicks to be ranked the fifth best prospect in the Appalachian League and the tenth best in the New York-Penn League by Baseball America in 2016 (ahead of names like Christian Pache, Adonis Medina, Austin Hayes, Garrett Whitley, and Daz Cameron). Still, Hicks didn’t receive much publicity from prospect publications heading into the 2017 season, barely making the Cardinals’ Top 30 prospects for Baseball America and hardly receiving serious mentions elsewhere.
According to the 2017 BA Handbook, Hicks had a fastball in 2016 that “has sink and zips at 92-97 mph. His changeup is firm and effective against lefthanded batters. He’s got a tightly-wound, biting 78-83 mph curve that earns plus grades, with one scout giving it a future 70. ‘It’s sick.'” However, BA’s Derrick Goold also noted Hicks’ continued issues with command and repeating his delivery. He mentioned that Hicks’ delivery adds some deception to an already electric arsenal, but he struggles to maintain his control and mechanics deep into games. Kyle Glaser’s report from this year (sub. req.) noted that his delivery still had “a lot of moving parts” but that he had “athleticism to streamline and repeat [it], but has yet to show he can.” For me, his profile has always screamed POWER RELIEVER, but I Am Not A Scout (IANAS) and, well, the Cardinals employ plenty; they decided to let him start for another season to see if he could hone his command with more experience.
This past season, the Cardinals’ brass had to be impressed with how Hicks handled the curveball they threw at him by sending him to the full-season Midwest League after just twelve professional starts as a 20-year-old, nearly two years younger than the average age of the league’s starting pitchers. Although Hicks’ command did not improve much from 2016, his strikeout rate increased ever-so steadily, and he was able to keep the ball in the ballpark (3.8% HR/FB) with his worm-killing sinker (52.2% ground-ball percentage), which is what likely led to an ERA that was more than a run lower than his FIP (3.35 ERA vs. 4.38 FIP). Although he wasn’t exactly mowing down hitters and was already extremely young for the level, the Cardinals pushed their young flamethrower even more by promoting him for eight games to High-A Palm Beach late last season. All he did there was throw 27 innings of 1-run ball in five starts with a FIP (1.83) and xFIP (2.08) to back it up. He somehow managed to strikeout 30.2% of High-A batters while only walking them 5.7% of the time, and he induced ground balls at nearly a 2:1 ratio (66.1.%). All of this while being one of the youngest players in all of High-A baseball.
The Cardinals decided to shut Hicks down again late last August so that he could participate to the fullest in the Arizona Fall League. There, Eric Longenhagen noted that Hicks was now sitting at 97-100 mph with his fastball but that “it was hit hard… as Hicks had trouble keeping it down… It very obviously doesn’t play like an 80-grade fastball.” Longenhagen gave Hicks a present-grade 60 with a future 70 for his fastball and also mentions that his breaking balls “are inconsistent but show signs of competency.” Kyle Glaser from BA had a different story, noting his “tight, power curveball” that draws future plus-plus grades from some scouts. Glaser ended his report with an outlook on Hicks’ future for this season, remarking that he “has a chance to jump to Double-A Springfield in 2018, depending on his camp performance.” Sure enough, he was about to make two jumps, a hop, skip and a leap all the way up to the Major League roster.
Hicks must have eaten his Wheaties every morning over the winter because he showed up to Spring Training equipped with a sinking fastball being clocked with even more velocity than he had shown in the Fall (all the way up to an insane 102 mph). Hicks’ stuff this spring was so impressive that, despite being optioned to minor league camp apparently because of issues with tardiness. he forced his way onto the roster at the last minute, beating out John Brebbia (and causing the Cards to waive Josh Lucas to clear a 40-man spot). According to President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak, longtime catcher and face-of-the-franchise Yadier Molina may have played a role in Hicks leapfrogging two levels of the minors to crack the Opening Day roster: “Yadi (Molina) knows our pitchers as well as anybody, and he’s looking at that type of talent and it’s like him getting behind a Ferrari. Let Yadi have the steering wheel and see where he goes. It’s just rarefied air the kind of arm he has. There’s no way getting around that. In an era of big velocity and big horsepower, he is still in that half of half of half of half of half of one percent on Earth that can do this. And I probably didn’t say enough halves.” Mozeliak may be right; it appears no one has as much “horsepower” as Hicks.
The biggest question regarding Hicks is this: Can he strike out Major League hitters (read: Is he fantasy relevant)? As we have seen with pitchers like Joe Kelly, Great Stuff doesn’t always translate to those coveted strikeouts for fantasy owners. Craig Edwards goes into great detail about this issue in the link ending the previous paragraph, but to make his long story short: Hicks needs to continue to develop his four-seam fastball if he wants to become a truly elite reliever. Edwards compares his two-seamer to that of Zach Britton’s and some dude named Thor. Right now, his two-seam/slider arsenal is great for getting groundouts, and he will likely continue to be an asset for fantasy owners as an SP-eligible reliever who will help in ERA and holds, but he needs serious developmental time to hone his four-seam fastball if he wants to become the future closer Cardinals fans (and Hicks’ dynasty owners!) are hoping he can be one day. After Greg Holland is ready for a Major League job, the Cards can always choose to send Hicks back to the minors (likely Double-A, as Glaser suggested) to develop both the four-seamer and his seemingly now-scrapped changeup (which got a 40/50 grade from Longenhagen) and continue his path towards becoming perhaps the “next Carlos Martinez.” Most of us remember the reports on C-Mart when he was coming up through the minors, and they sound eerily similar from what we have been hearing about Hicks, especially given his ever-increasing velocity. Still, as long as Hicks can stay healthy (stay away, shoulder injury bug!) and keep throwing extremely fast strikes low in the zone, he looks to be one of the rare dynasty pitchers who possesses both a high floor and a high ceiling. As someone who came into the season with next-to-no hype, time could be running out to invest in perhaps the next player in an extremely long line of St. Louis Cardinals success stories. Last year was this guy’s time to break out (shameless plug), could this one be the Year of Hicks?