On Tuesday morning, it was announced that the Cardinals had signed Jordan Hicks to a four-year contract worth $36 million, and while I try to give hyper-intelligent modern front offices the benefit of the doubt, I am having a difficult time wrapping my mind around this one.
Jordan Hicks, of course, emerged in 2018 as not only the most exciting St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher (one could make a case for Greg Holland as the most exciting Cardinals pitcher for his time in St. Louis, but the fact that he was terrible cut this time short), but one of the most exciting players in baseball. The youngest Cardinal, Hicks was just 21 for most of the 2018 season, but he came to national prominence thanks to his legitimately jaw-dropping velocity. He threw Major League Baseball’s only two pitches to clear 105 miles per hour, and of the 25 fastest pitches across the sport, Hicks threw 19 of them. The people who run MLB.com’s Statcast leaderboards were so tired of Aroldis Chapman dominating this leaderboard that they designed the “Chapman filter” so that you can see the results without being distracted by the dominance of New York Yankees miscreant closer Aroldis Chapman. Hicks rendered said filter downright silly.
Despite Hicks’s velocity dominance, however, his results didn’t quite measure up to what such incredible pitch speed implies. Particularly early in the season, Hicks had problems with his control–not exactly an unexpected trait for a young fireballer–but what was truly alarming was that he wasn’t striking out pitchers to nearly the level of Aroldis Chapman, or even Miles Mikolas. In April, Hicks struck out just 4.4 batters per nine innings. In May, his rate improved only to 5.52 K/9. His strikeout rate went up later in the season, which is refreshing, but it was during these first two months that Hicks cemented his reputation as a go-to part of the Cardinals bullpen. Through May, Hicks had an impressive 2.48 ERA, but a much more lackluster 4.23 FIP and 5.37 xFIP, and more walks than strikeouts.
It isn’t fair to evaluate Hicks only on his last two months, but even looking across the entirety of his 2018, it reveals a competent reliever, but hardly the dominant force that it seems like he should be. He finished 2018 with an ERA of 3.59, a FIP of 3.74, and an xFIP of 4.26, putting Hicks in the company of, respectively, Brad Brach, Jake Diekman, and Chris Rusin. By xFIP, Hicks was an inferior relief pitcher than his teammate Chasen Shreve, not exactly considered a bastion of superior bullpening. By the Baseball Prospectus metric Deserved Run Average, Hicks was even worse. Hicks had a 2018 DRA of 6.03.
There are reasons to believe that Hicks is better than his advanced metrics suggest. First, that he’s only 22 years old and has plenty of room to improve. Second is that he’s a bit different of a pitcher than most of the obvious points of comparison: his primary speedball (a sabermetric term which dates back to 1984) is not a four-seam fastball but rather a sinker, and he gets a ton of groundballs, to the tune of a 60.7% rate last year. The point here is not that Jordan Hicks is terrible, or that he should be cut, or that he can’t improve–it’s that he isn’t a lock for superstardom, and his presence on the team doesn’t necessarily make the Cardinals a leading candidate for, as the St. Louis Post Dispatch‘s Ben Frederickson called it, “a super ‘pen“.
But the awfulness of the new Jordan Hicks contract with the Cardinals goes beyond his specific merits as a player. A $9 million per year contract for a reliever is probably not a great idea in the first place (FanGraphs estimates his 2018 value at $3.9 million), but particularly for a player with Hicks’s skill set and upside, it is moderately defensible (as much as Brett Cecil has made most Cardinals fans sour on the notion of any four-year relief pitcher contract). But this implies that Jordan Hicks was available on the open market (several reports have claimed that Hicks was “joining” the Cardinals, but as any Cardinals fan knows, Hicks was on the team last season).
Because of his current level of service time, Hicks had two years of total club control remaining, as well as three years of salary arbitration. The Cardinals were in a position to pay Hicks just over a million dollars for the next two seasons of his career. No, I don’t feel great evaluating ways to suppress player salaries, but there are hundreds of players in the Cardinals organization making less than minimum wage to play baseball, so I’ll use my Wokeness Energy on those guys and not the one-percenter hanging out in the Cardinals bullpen. But when it comes down to it, the Cardinals aren’t efficiently utilizing their resources, and I want the Cardinals to be good.
Sure, this would involve buying out two years of arbitration, but the roughly $34.8 million being devoted to these two seasons ($36 million minus the league minimum salaries the Cardinals could be paying Hicks) will, unless Hicks becomes literally the best pitcher ever, be a higher sum than what Hicks would make in the first two years of arbitration, a stage during which players earn more than in their first three years but less than during the third and final year of arbitration, and certainly less than what they make as free agents. When Craig Kimbrel, the best young reliever in Major League Baseball history, signed an extension to buy out his three arbitration years plus a year of free agency (which, logically, should be more costly since the final two years generally garner the most money), his average annual salary was just $10.5 million. Sure, this was five years ago, but anybody who has followed free agency trends over the last few years knows that salaries haven’t escalated that much. The Cardinals could’ve stood pat with Jordan Hicks and signed the actual Craig Kimbrel as a free agent and still likely had some money to spare.
The only way this contract could possibly work out for the Cardinals would be if Jordan Hicks, a starting pitcher by trade in the minors, becomes a starting pitcher and is lights-out. But even early arbitration starting pitchers don’t generally make this much–even coming-off-a-Cy-Young Clayton Kershaw (granted, seven years ago) made just $9.5 million per season to buy out his first two seasons of arbitration. The odds that a four-year, $36 million contract pays off for the Cardinals better than going year-to-year would are microscopic, and while it’s easy to say “it’s not my money” in response to the DeWitts spending their money, I do wish they’d spend their money less recklessly.