Young fireballer Jordan Hicks is making an unexpected trip on Opening Day after breaking spring camp as part of the St. Louis Cardinals major league bullpen. How will his skills translate to the MLB?
On Wednesday morning, Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch broke the surprising news that Jordan Hicks, the Cardinals number 7 prospect according to MLB Pipeline, would be joining the team to start the regular season as part of the major league bullpen. I don’t want to read too much into the organization’s long-term intentions for Hicks just yet, but the move certainly signals the front office views him as a potential high impact reliever even at the extremely young age of 21.
According to multiple scouting reports, including this summary from Jeff Zimmerman of Rotographs, Hicks features a plus fastball that touches triple digits but with limited command and a breaking ball that flashes above average. We saw both of those in Spring Training. As a reliever, his fastball and an average secondary offering should be plenty.
After a promising start to his year in Peoria, Hicks turned a corner in Palm Beach. Down in Florida last year, he allowed a miniscule .241 wOBA over 27 innings compared to a league average wOBA of .309. Including his time in Peoria, Hicks' wOBA allowed for the year came in at .306 in line with the overall league average of .307 despite his being two to three years younger than the average player in the league. Hicks strikeout rate of 30.2% in Palm Beach would have ranked in the top five among qualified MLB starters and his ground ball rate of 66.1% would have ranked first.
While we can't simply translate minor league performance to MLB production, it is promising that Hicks' two dominant skills are two which correlate most strongly to the Major Leagues, as shown above and below.
While there isn't much predictive value when translating stats from the lower levels of the minor leagues to the MLB, it's probably worth seeing how other players who made the jump straight from A/A+ to MLB in one season have fared.
Using information available on mlbfarm.com, I pulled the available data for every single-A/A+ plate appearance from 2010 to 2016 (over two million of them) and generated a list of players who made a leap to the MLB after spending approximately 25 innings or more in single-A the year before. I eliminated any players who were older than 24 during their minor league stint to help avoid counting MLB players on rehab assignments. This method is far from perfect, but I’m willing to call it good enough and it resulted in a list of exactly one hundred prospects.
Next, I calculated a few selected metrics for those players during their identified minor league season and compared them to their stats the following year in the MLB. Below, I’ve included a table which illustrates the “exchange rate” for these metrics when those players moved from the lower levels to the MLB, as well as a derived baseline forecast for Hicks in 2018.
There’s a substantial penalty across the board as players jump this far up the ladder. Applying the average differences directly to Hicks stats (again, a poor method but it’s all I can do for now) shows that, at least right away, Hicks is likely to be a below average MLB pitcher. A .340 wOBA allowed would place him exactly in line with Adam Wainwright and a single point behind Luis Perdomo, a former Cardinals prospect who also made the jump from Palm Beach to San Diego in 2016.
Using the K%, BB%, and HR/FB rates above and adding a forecasted fly ball rate, I ran a regression to determine a projection for Jordan Hicks’ 2018 FIP, a proxy for a ERA. Based on that analysis, his projected FIP comes in a 4.27 as a starting pitcher.
We aren’t trying to project Hicks as a starter, though. There are advantages to being a reliever which should lower our projected FIP – those advantages include increased velocity, facing hitters only one time, and making better use of platoon advantages. Consequently, as a reliever, Ben Markham’s research suggests we could expect Hicks to drop nearly two-thirds of a run off that projection just by moving to the bullpen. For our purposes, we’ll call it about a half-run and drop his projected FIP to 3.75.
Assuming we believe in that number, we find that Hicks could be counted on as the Cardinals fourth best bullpen option behind only Brett Cecil, Luke Gregerson, and Tyler Lyons. A 3.75 FIP projection is right in line with Tyler Lyons and Sam Tuivailala, as well.
In fact, Tui makes for a good comp in terms of what we should expect - a high octane fastball, a limited secondary offering, and streaky production. Let's hope Jordan Hicks gets his career off to a hot start.
Thanks for reading. Credit to MLBfarm.com and FanGraphs for their contributions to this post.
I’ve included a few more charts regarding the stats mentioned above. The correlations between single-A and MLB stats are unsurprisingly weak, especially given the sample sizes considered in my analysis. There is still a small amount of predictive value for the stats mentioned above (except wOBA, apparently).