I want to make it clear as I begin here that I am not an expert on pitcher injuries, or pitchers, or injuries of any kind. I do read a lot, especially as it pertains to baseball and pitching, because I’m interested in it and, as the father of a pitcher, I’m concerned about his welfare. Consequently, I do try to stay current on what others who are smarter than me have to say about pitching, pitchers and their health. And I saw something Sunday night that concerned me.
I’ll also fully admit to having an Eno Sarris piece on pitcher health on my mind because, though the piece is about a year old, he had retweeted it just 24 hours before that Sunday night game. I read it when it was originally published and reread it when he retweeted it so I am doubtless guilty of some sort of recency bias here. But I still think what I noticed is worthy of discussion.
Here’s the tweet, which includes the link to the article, and while the article is specifically about the playoffs, we should consider every game the Cardinals are playing right now to be a playoff-type game.
I would encourage you to read the article for yourself. The salient argument that Eno makes is that while the torque put on the elbow by individual pitchers vary, as each pitcher throws harder, he puts more and more torque on the elbow. Moreover, the table he included in the article shows that it is becoming increasingly common for pitchers to max out their velocities and the gap between their average velocities and their max velocities is becoming particularly narrow in the playoffs.
So that brings me to Jordan Hicks’ outing against the Dodgers Sunday night. Hicks has been wowing Cards’ fans and non-Cards’ fans alike all year long with his incredible velocity on both his sinker and his slider. He’s had a phenomenal rookie season as a Cardinal and has given all Cards’ fans something to look forward to for the next several years. He also, from a non-baseball standpoint, just seems like an incredibly great guy whose family Cards’ fans have come to know and love on social media. He is absolutely the kind of guy we all want to root for. He’s already quite special. He could be phenomenal.
He entered Sunday night’s game – the Cards reeling a little bit from a 4-game losing streak and needing a win against a team they’re competing with for a Wild Card spot – with a runner on 1st base and a 4-0 lead. Cody Bellinger, a great hitter in his own right, was at the plate. It was a big game but it wasn’t the biggest of situations. Bellinger is obviously a great hitter but a homer there still leaves the Cardinals with a 2-run lead in the bottom of the 7th. The team had a 91.7% chance of winning that game when he entered, according to Fangraphs, and would have still had a 65-or-so percent chance of winning if Bellinger had homered. The leverage index was 1.10 (1.00 is average). So it was a slightly pressured situation but not what anyone would really consider a high pressure situation.
Hicks came in throwing straight fire, inheriting a 1-0 count and walking Bellinger on a 3-1 count after throwing 4 pitches at 102 mph or above. The last 3 pitches to Bellinger – all balls – were clocked at 103.6, 104, and 103.1 mph, respectively. Then, Yasiel Puig came to the plate – Puig, you’ll surely recall, had hit 6 homers in the 1st 3 games of the series, including 3 the day before – and Hicks struck him out on 3 pitches like a volcanic eruption, the last 2 being a 104 mph sinker and a 93 mph slider, both seen below.
Then 39 year old Chase Utley, sporting a .620 OPS, and rookie Alex Verdugo stepped to the plate and Hicks quashed the “rally” fairly easily with sinkers in the 103 mph range and sliders above 90 mph.
The concern I have is not with Hicks’ velocity on those pitches. As Eno’s article and subsequent tweet makes clear, the fact that Hicks throws harder than every other pitcher in baseball does not, in and of itself, make him more likely to succumb to injury and it doesn’t make his pitching any riskier to his arm than another pitcher who throws in the low-to-mid 90’s. The concern I have is that Hicks was so obviously close to “maxing it out” in a situation that didn’t really seem to call for it.
I went to Baseball Savant and was able to download the velocities of all the sinkers and sliders that Hicks has thrown this year. To this point, Hicks has thrown 864 sinkers which have ranged from 94.6 mph all the way to 105 mph and 260 sliders which have ranged from 80.5 mph to 92.7 mph. Here is a link to the google doc that contains the relevant data, including the date, the pitch result, and the Baseball Savant zone where the pitch crossed home plate.
First, it’s reasonable to assume that Hicks’ max velocity is 105 since that’s the highest velocity he’s hit but we don’t know for sure that’s true. It’s possible he could get it higher than that but seeing as how he hasn’t yet – and neither has any other mortal – it’s reasonable to assume that 105 is his peak or extremely close to it. I’d be surprised if there’s another 4 or 5 mph sitting around just waiting for the right opportunity to appear.
If 105 is Hicks’ peak then he threw 7 pitches within 2 mph of that peak and another 2 pitches were slightly more than 2 mph from the peak, checking in at 102.9 and 102.8, respectively. In fact, 7 of the 32 fastest pitches (about 22%) of the hardest fastballs Hicks has thrown this season were thrown Sunday night. Those 7 pitches were in the 96th percentile in terms of fastball velocity of all the fastballs he’s thrown all season.
The sliders he threw may be even more dramatic. For one thing, he threw his 2 hardest sliders of the season Sunday night, including that 93 mph masterpiece that annihilated Puig in the 7th inning. He also threw his 4th hardest slider of the season Sunday and threw 2 more sliders that rank among the 20 hardest he’s thrown this season. That means that 25% of the hardest sliders he’s thrown all season were thrown Sunday night and those 5 pitches all sit in the 93rd percentile or above in terms of slider velocity.
Again, it’s not that his sinkers and sliders are harder than everyone else’s. The concern I have is that he threw 14 pitches that rank among the hardest 48 he’s thrown all season in just 1 night, most of which were thrown in the 7th inning. As I alluded to before, it’s not all that evident that he needed to max out his velocity 14 times in order to get through those 2 innings.
For one, the team had a 4-run lead and the leverage index was not all that high. Did he really need to dial up 102 or 103 to get Chase Utley out? I doubt it. He’s been getting a ton of outs at 99 all season long. People will doubtless point out that, if the team is going to go far in the playoffs this year or any year, sometimes pitchers will have to max out their velocity. That is surely true. This is why, however, it may have been more prudent for Hicks to save that velocity for those times when he surely needs it. As I mentioned earlier, if Bellinger homers in the 7th the Cards are still in a pretty good spot and I doubt that Hicks really needed all that additional velocity to get Utley and Verdugo out.
It's also true that Hicks had had a week off before being summoned against the Dodgers and so his arm almost certainly felt very fresh. Maybe Hicks wasn’t trying to max out but that’s just what happened based on having that week off. That’s also a good point but it’s still probably true that he came very close to maxing out several times in a situation where it probably wasn’t needed.
The team will certainly play several more big games down the stretch and Hicks will surely be called on several more times in the regular season alone. It’s also likely that he’ll be used in more than half of all the postseason games the team plays in this season. Hicks will probably need to get to 103 on the sinker and 93 on the slider at some point. It’s just important that he and the team manage that velocity so that he uses it when he needs it and knows when to back off a touch when he doesn’t.
Thanks to @cardinalsgifs for all the pics and gifs. As usual, they're fantastic.
Thanks to www.baseballsavant.com and fangraphs for all the great data and thanks to you all for reading.