Jordan Hicks Throws 100 MPH, So Where Are the Strikeouts?

Let’s explore the increasingly mysterious case of Cardinals’ rookie reliever Jordan Hicks.

I must say, the 21-year-old phenom has an unusual pitching profile.

There’s plenty of smoke — caused by Hicks’ blazing fastballs — but hitters aren’t blinded by it.

If anything, Hicks is using smoke and  mirrors  for his early-season success.

Here’s one of the strangest contradictory stats I’ve seen in a while:

  • Hicks has thrown the most 100 mph + pitches in the majors this season, with 35. He’s been clocked with the six fastest pitches by a pitcher this season — and has his name on nine of the 10 fastest pitches, and on 12 of the 14 fastest. Aroldis Chapman has moved onto the leader board to give Hicks some competition in the fastest arm contest. Hicks is still on top; his sinking fastball has the highest average mph (99.1) of any pitch in the majors.

And yet …

  • For all of his natural, raw, scary, overpowering stuff, Hicks is running low on strikeouts.  Despite having all of that firepower popping from his right hand, Hicks has struck out only six of 47 batters faced so far. His strikeout rate of 12.8 percent ranks 185th  among 201 qualifying MLB relievers. Hicks has a lower strikeout rate than former Cardinals relievers Fernando Salas (17.7%), John Axford (18.2%) and Steve Cishek (19.2%.) Thirty MLB relievers have a K rate of 30% or higher … but none deliver the ball faster than Hicks. Since the start of the 2000 season, only one RH reliever working out of the Cardinals bullpen has posted a lower strikeout rate than 12.8 percent … that would be Luther Hackman’s 11.8% rate in 2002. Heck, even BRAD THOMPSON had a higher strikeout rate than this (12.9%) in 2005.

Hicks is getting batters to swing and miss at a rate of 20.7 percent. That’s OK … but I you may be surprised to know that he isn’t getting as many swings-misses as John Brebbia (33.3%) and Ryan Sherriff (25.5%) among Cardinals relievers. Heck, Hicks is barely above Matt Bowman’s swing-and-miss rate of 19.7 percent.

Hmmm.

OK, what’s going on here?

It’s confusing, but the factors behind this unusual high-voltage, low-strikeout make it easier to understand.

In no particular order:

1.  The young man is getting hitters to fill up a bushel basket of ground balls. His overall 61.3 percent GB rate is 22nd highest among qualifying relievers, and well above the MLB average of 44.1 percent. The Hicks’ sinker is downright evil, with the way it cuts and slices away from RH batters and darts to the side, riding low, on LH batters. It’s been more of a killer pitch against LH batters, producing an absurd GB rate of 78.6 percent. In 22 plate appearances against Hicks, the LH bats have hit one fly ball, and 11 grounders. They’re batting .176 and have hit into two ground-ball double plays. Hicks’ GB rate against RH batters is 47 percent (still above average) but they’re 2 for 20 against him and have grounded into two double plays. Yep, four double plays already. Ground balls are one way to get quick outs and throw fewer pitches. I doesn’t always work as desired; Hicks has command issues and tends to run up pitch counts. But his pitch counts would be extremely high if he relied on mostly strikeouts to get outs.

2. Hicks isn’t getting hitters to chase many pitches out of the strike zone. And he’s given them plenty of opportunities to swing at pitches that zoom off the plate. They’ve done a good job of laying off, holding back, and maintaining solid discipline. One of the easiest ways to pile up the strikeouts is to get jumpy hitters lunging at out-of-zone pitches. Through Sunday, 98 qualifying MLB relievers had a “chase” rate of 30 percent or higher. But Hicks has a very low chase rate of just 14.5 percent. Only one reliever (the Mets’ A.J. Ramos) has gotten fewer swings (14.4%) on bad pitches, and that’s a factor in Ramos’ five-percent drop in strikeout rate this season.

Here are some other numbers on this, courtesy of our friends at Inside Edge:

  • Hitters chased just 5 of Hicks’ first 46 fastballs out of the zone (10.9%) this season; that’s the fifth-lowest rate among qualifying relievers and not close to the league average of 23.6 percent.
  • Opponents have a swing rate of just 22.9%  against Hicks on elevated fastballs this season, the fourth-lowest among qualifying relievers and well below the league average of 47.7 percent.
  • Opponents have swung at 39.1 percent of Hicks’ total pitches this season; that’s 19th lowest among qualifying relievers and below the league average (46.0%).
  • Hitters have chased just 2 of Hicks’ 22 breaking balls out of the zone so far, a chase rate of 9.1 percent that’s the third-lowest among qualifying relievers. The league average for chasing out-of-zone breaking pitches is just under 31%.
  • When Hicks throws strikes on a consistent basis, and gets hitters to go after the strikes, they’re hitting only .152 against him when putting the ball in play. That’s the 11th lowest (as in best) batting average among relievers, and way better than the league average of .267.

But Hicks is still trying to tame his control, and that’s been made more difficult by the hitters’ discipline. Hicks has walked 8 of 47 batters faced this season (17%). Only 16 qualifying relievers have a worse walk rate than Hicks, and the league average walk rate is 9.6 percent.

Hicks doesn’t recover particularly well when he’s behind in the count, delivering strikes 54.3 percent of the time in those situations — the 11th worst rate among qualifying relievers and 13 percent below league average.

And the heat maps show that Hicks is putting too many pitches right down the middle. Even the hardest of throwers are vulnerable when they center the ball for skilled major-league hitters.

Once we review all of this information, we have a better understanding of Hicks’ low strikeout rate.

It isn’t easy to accumulate a bunch of strikeouts when you’re getting so many ground balls, not getting hitters to chase your out-of-zone pitches and walking too many opponents.

That said, I’m surprised to see the contract rate against Hicks on strikes is on the high side at 89.1 percent. Given his torrid velocity, I’d expect to see Hicks missing more bats than that.

Hicks has displayed impressive poise when confronting trouble. Of the 47 batters he’s gone against this season, 28 have stood in with men on base, and 20 have been up with runners in scoring position. But opponents are 0 for 16 with four walks against Hicks with runners in scoring position …  even though 10 of the 16 batters who didn’t walk were able to put the ball in play.

Which brings me to a final point…

Hicks hasn’t allowed an earned run in nine appearances covering 11.2 innings. But that will change, and soon. Why? We’ve discussed a couple of the reasons: too many walks, not enough strikeouts, too many balls in play, too many runners on base.

Hicks has stranded 93.3 percent of the runners on base, and that isn’t sustainable. He’s allowed a .161 batting average on balls in play (even lower with runners in scoring position) and that isn’t sustainable either. The MLB strand rate is 73 percent, and the MLB average on balls in play is .296.

Meaning this: Hicks won’t be able to avoid the consequences of his current pitching patterns much longer. Opponents will break through on him; it’s just a matter of time. There are some warning lights with Hicks. It’s just important to identify what they are — and why. But he’s a formidable talent, and he should be able to adapt and evolve through added experience.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

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