There are two things that stand out immediately about St. Louis Cardinals rookie relief pitcher Jordan Hicks–he throws preposterously hard and he is very young. There really isn’t much to say about the former–“Aroldis Chapman is the only person in the same stratosphere of velocity” and call it a day from there. That Hicks has topped out at 105 miles per hour on the radar gun sure seems like a good sign, but there isn’t precedent for pitchers in the mold of Jordan Hicks.
By age, Hicks is less of an outlier, but players so young–Jordan Hicks is 21 and will turn 22 in September–are uncommon, particularly in modern baseball. The club control system incentivizes teams to keep young, pre-prime players in the minors: even if a player is capable of playing Major League Baseball at a representative level of age 18, putting him in the big leagues would mean he would reach free agency at 23 or 24. By keeping him in the minors beyond when he really needs to be from a developmental perspective (there are many examples of this, but Kris Bryant is probably the most famous recent example), teams are able to get the peak years of top players at minimal cost. It’s a shady, underhanded system that needs to be changed through the Collective Bargaining Agreement, but that’s a different subject altogether.
Very young players were much more common in the Majors before 1976, the first year of free agency. In the 42 seasons prior to free agency, from 1934 through 1975, 97 batters and 91 pitchers had enough plate appearances or innings pitched to qualify for MLB leaderboards in their age-21 season or younger. In the 42 seasons played since, from 1976 through 2017, those numbers stand at 74 and 57. In the 18 full seasons this century, the rate has slowed even more dramatically–only 27 batters and 16 pitchers.
Jordan Hicks, as a relief pitcher, will not throw enough innings to qualify for the league’s ERA title, but in some ways his role coming out of the bullpen makes him an even more extreme outlier. For most of the free agency era, the bullpen was the final destination for failed starting pitchers–unless you were Mariano Rivera, your impact as a reliever would inevitably pale in comparison to those who cracked the rotation. But in 2018, the gap has closed considerably–in 2017, the MLB leader in innings pitched was Chris Sale, whose 214 1/3 innings for the Boston Red Sox would have placed him in 48th place among pitchers in 1976. Starters pitch less often, for shorter outings, and relievers are expected to (and usually do) perform at a high level.
Since free agency began in 1976, only three Cardinals have had qualifying 21-or-younger seasons–unsurprisingly, two of the players were All-Stars (1977 Garry Templeton and 2001 Albert Pujols) and the third, 2000 Rick Ankiel, was a superprospect who had, by all accounts, a successful rookie campaign (in his age-20 season!). Players who debut this early are expected to be exceptional.
A decent number of age-21 players have appeared for the Cardinals, but most were on a very limited basis–as emergency call-ups or, more often, brought to the big leagues as part of MLB roster expansion in September. If the standards are lowered from qualified to 100 plate appearances and 30 innings pitched–enough to eliminate those who were very obviously temporary solutions and instead to focus players whose arrival to the big leagues was very much as an earnest attempt to improve the team. By these standards, including the aforementioned trio of Templeton, Ankiel, and Pujols, eleven player seasons fit this criteria from 1976 through 2017. Hicks has the twelfth.
Of the twelve seasons, four occurred within the first seven years of the 43 year time frame being exaxmined here–1976-1977 Garry Templeton, 1980 Andy Rincon, and 1982 David Green. The group is a relatively underwhelming lot, given the excellence one might expect from players debuting at such a young age. Templeton was a good player for the Cardinals, but is now best known for being traded to the San Diego Padres for Ozzie Smith. Rincon pitched well in 1980, but an arm injury kept him from a long MLB career, being released by the Cardinals at 24. Green never developed into more than a backup outfielder who was traded at 24 to the San Francisco Giants for Jack Clark (he later rejoined the Cardinals for his final MLB season, at age 26).
Following Green, there was a seventeen-year gap between age-21 or younger Cardinals regulars, a streak which was broken by 1999 Rick Ankiel and then by 2000 Rick Ankiel. Most expected that 2001 Rick Ankiel would continue the run, but instead it was 2001 Albert Pujols, whose MVP-caliber season was easily the best of this group, and pitcher Bud Smith, that continued the trend. In 2004, Yadier Molina was brought to the team in a time-share situation with incumbent catcher Mike Matheny. It was another nine years until the next age-21 mainstay, when Michael Wacha debuted in memorable fashion for a 2013 squad for whom he was the team’s NLCS MVP. In 2016, the Cardinals got the electric debut of top pitching prospect Alex Reyes. And now, in 2018, we have Jordan Hicks.
Ankiel, despite an admirable career second act as a competent outfielder, had a disappointingly brief run as an overpowering starting pitcher. Pujols, of course, was great, but Bud Smith pitched very poorly in 2002 before being included in the Scott Rolen trade–Smith never made it back to the majors. Molina and Wacha can be fairly called successes–Wacha may not quite have lived up sky-high expectations, but this is more a reflection on the expectations than on him. Reyes, who has spent most of the last two seasons on the Disabled List, is certainly a question mark, but it is too early to jump to any conclusions.
Exempting Reyes and Hicks, there are two overwhelming successes (Pujols and Molina), two mostly successes (Templeton and Wacha), one mostly disappointment (Ankiel), and three which qualify as true disappointments (Rincon, Green, Smith). Jordan Hicks seems like he should have a can’t-miss future: although his inexplicable inability to strike out batters (while also having very little control) early in the season were a major red flag despite his low ERA, but since the beginning of May, Hicks has managed a sub-3 mark by ERA, FIP, and xFIP despite a lackluster outing on Saturday.
Jordan Hicks is an undeniably interesting player, no matter what you make of his future. His inability to strike players out despite regular triple-digit heat early in the season arguably made him more interesting than if he had struck players out at a predictably high rate. In the second quarter of the season, however, Hicks has gone from objectively interesting (though perhaps less so if you’re a statistically-inclined Cardinals fan) to compelling from a Cardinals fan perspective.
The temptation is to look at Jordan Hicks as, bare minimum, the new Trevor Rosenthal–a flamethrower who rose through the minor league system as a starter and then became a top reliever in lieu of developing a complete arsenal. But the truth is that we just don’t know. Particularly in the case of pitchers, an impossible group to accurately forecast, who knows what kind of shelf life Jordan Hicks will have?
I don’t want the Cardinals to run Jordan Hicks to the ground, even though I know this might be the “smart” thing to do–get tremendous value out of him while he’s making league minimum (which, barring an extension, he will until at least 2021) and then discard him if and when he deals with the injuries one might expect from somebody with such velocity. But from a purely fan perspective, I want to enjoy this not because it is such an uncertainty that this kind of excitement will last beyond any given Jordan Hicks appearance.