A relief ace, the position made popular by current Indians reliever Andrew Miller, can be just as valuable to Major League Baseball teams as a top-line closer. For the St. Louis Cardinals, they may have found their version in 21-year-old rookie Jordan Hicks. Despite his struggles with command (6.92 walks per nine innings), Hicks has pitched to a dazzling 0.69 ERA in his limited big league time.
The Cardinals selected Hicks in the Supplemental Round of the 2015 MLB Draft, signing him away from a commitment to Tulane (per perfectgame.org), but his professional debut was delayed until the following summer. Despite just 34 minor league appearances (31 starts), Hicks made the MLB roster out of spring training, and has seen plenty of action of the bullpen in the early part of the season. In his brief 10-game, 13-inning cameo, Hicks has surpassed flame-throwing New York Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman for hardest average velocity (Hicks’s sinker clocks in at 99.3 mph compared to Chapman’s four-seam fastball at 98.4 mph).
While most of his appearances in the minor leagues came as a starter, Hicks resembles Miller as a perfect potential high-leverage reliever. Hicks possesses some of the best pure stuff in baseball, using only a sinker and a slider.
As demonstrated in the videos above, Hicks’s two-pitch combo has baffled veteran hitters in the first month of the season. Still, a high walk rate, low strikeout rate (4.15 strikeouts per nine) have left many wondering where the strikeouts are. While the strikeout numbers are lower than one would expect, a deeper dive into the numbers offer some clarity.Much like Andrew Miller, St. Louis @Cardinals right-hander @Jhicks007 has all the makings of an elite relief ace.Click To Tweet
By inducing groundballs at an overwhelming 55.6% (per fangraphs.com), and holding batters to a minuscule .167 BABIP (batting average on balls in play), opposing hitters have simply failed to find holes against Hicks. FanGraphs’ split stats also show that Hicks, while effective against left-handed batters (.200 opposing batting average in 26 at-bats), dominates right-handed batters to a tune of a .091 average in 28 at-bats. As a whole, opposing batters have managed just six hits in 54 at-bats against Hicks (.143 average).
As 101sports pointed out in an earlier article, Hicks induces swings at a below-average (37.6%), and opponents chase just 15% of balls outside the strike zone. With a nasty slider and tormenting sinker, there is no reason to believe that these numbers will not rise throughout the season. Even without elite swing and miss numbers, Hicks has allowed just one earned run this season. Imaging what could become as the control returns to Hicks’s minor league numbers (4.03 walks per nine), the swing and miss stuff will seemingly follow.
The small sample size has opened a world of possibilities, and hope, for the future of the Cardinals’s bullpen.