On May 20, Jordan Hicks threw 2 pitches 105 mph in a major league game. If this is news to you, you just haven’t been paying attention. Since those fateful pitches, Hicks has been nearly unhittable. Curiously, though, Hicks’ turnaround this season has nearly nothing to do with the extra velocity on his fastball. It’s all about his slider.
Fair warning here: I’m not planning on going over any new ground here. Hicks has gotten a lot of attention recently. In fact, he’s been written about by Craig Edwards over at Fangraphs, and by Mark Saxon and our own stlcupofjoe at the Athletic. Just a few days ago, he was a main topic of conversation on Mike Petriello’s Statcast podcast and, in fact, much of the information that I’m going to present here comes from that podcast. The purpose then of this piece is to disseminate that information to a more Cardinals-centric audience while also trying to present it in a little different way than has been presented by Craig, Mark, Joe, or the guys at Statcast.
If you’ve read the articles that I’ve linked to above, then you already know that much of Hicks’ more recent success comes as a result of Hicks’ slider, not his fastball. Before we get to that, however, I think it’s important that we recognize just how much better Hicks has been of late. To many fans, it’s probably not obvious because on May 20, the day of the 105 mph fastballs, Hicks had a 2.08 ERA. To many, Hicks was awesome in the first 7 weeks of the season which, by the way, coincided with injuries to Dominic Leone, Luke Gregerson, and Matt Bowman and the general suckitude of Greg Holland. The Cardinals needed a reliever to come in and get outs and that’s exactly what Hicks was doing.
Others, however, were asking themselves, “How long is Hicks going to be able to keep this up?” Despite that 2.08 ERA, Hicks’ FIP was 4.88. In 22 innings, he had struck out only 9 batters and had walked 16. Normally, this is a recipe for disaster. His xOBA was .354 which, according to Petriello, translates to an ERA of about 5.50. Basically every batter that came to the plate against him was hitting him like they were Robinson Cano or Paul DeJong.
On May 20, Hicks’ 9.5% K rate was tied for the 2nd lowest K rate in the majors. He was tied with the Orioles’ Chris Tillman who had around a 10 ERA at the time and with the Padres’ Brian Mitchell whose ERA was in the 7’s. The only pitcher whose K rate was lower than Hicks’ was the Rangers’ Alex Claudio whose fastball averages 86 mph. Think about that for a minute. A guy who throws over 100 mph was missing bats at a very similar rate to a guy whose fastball is in the same neighborhood as a lot of good high school players. These guys (Tillman, Mitchell, and Claudio) are legitimately bad major league pitchers. It seemed at the time that something was going to have to change with Hicks or his luck would run out.
An inability to miss bats is a real problem for major league pitchers but there was one area where Hicks was truly good at the time. Despite the fact that Hicks didn’t miss many bats in the first 7 weeks of the season, he was especially adept at avoiding solid contact. Still today, only 1 time has a major league hitter barreled up a ball (a "barrel" is a ball that, when hit, has a high exit velocity and the right launch angle to frequently end up as an extra base hit) off of Jordan Hicks. On April 7, the estimable Daniel Descalso barreled a ball into a flyout against Hicks. As of today, Hicks’ barrels/PA is 0.7, the 3rd lowest rate in the majors among pitchers with more than 70 batted ball events against them. Perhaps that could provide us some hope when Hicks wasn’t missing bats.
But then something changed. Since that day against the Phillies when he threw 2 105 mph fastballs, Hicks has become a dominant pitcher. He has literally gone from being one of baseball’s worst pitchers to one of baseball’s best…and it seemed to happen overnight. Since that unbelievable performance, Hicks has thrown 13 innings and has walked just 3 and struck out 19. His K rate before May 21 was 9.5%. Since May 21 it’s been 40.4%. His K rate was the 2nd lowest in the big leagues prior to May 21. Since May 21, his K rate is 4th highest out of 189 pitchers. This hasn’t been a slow progression; it's been a complete reversal. His FIP was 4.88. Since May 21, it’s 0.87. Opponents xwOBA against him over those 13 innings is .218. Batters against him used to be Robinson Cano. Now each batter he faces is like facing a pitcher or Francisco Peña.
In terms of his repertoire, not a lot has changed. He’s still throwing about 75% sinkers and 25% sliders. His velocity on both has increased a few mph but the real difference is where he’s locating his sliders. The gifs below, provided by the Hicks-like talented Cardinalsgifs shows the difference between his pre-May 21 sliders and his post-May 21 sliders. They’re based on heatmaps from fangraphs of his sliders before and after May 21. The first one is pre-May 21 and the second one is post-May 21.
The difference is obvious. Prior to May 21, 26% of his sliders were in the middle of the strike zone. More than 13% were center cut, right down the middle. Since May 21, fewer than 10% of his sliders have been thrown in the middle of the zone. Instead, he's been getting his sliders on the edge of the strike zone and now, as a result, batters are swinging and missing much more frequently at his much more well-located sliders, as you can see from the table below.
Instead of throwing hittable sliders, Hicks is now throwing unhittable sliders. He's getting ahead of hitters and then throwing the sliders on the edge of the zone -- where they have to chase -- and that K rate has jumped.
It seems like Hicks is really figuring it out. Consequently, his slider – rather than being simply a change of pace from the fastball – is truly becoming an out pitch for him. He’s gone from being a guy who was just getting by on ground balls and good luck to being a guy who is dominating opposing hitters.
Thanks to all I’ve mentioned above for all the help they’ve provided – fangraphs, baseball savant, baseball-reference, and of course, Mike Petriello and our very own @cardinalsgifs. Thanks for reading.