Watching the 2019, and probably 2020, St. Louis Cardinals just became a lot less fun.
The announcement on Monday afternoon that Cardinals relief pitcher Jordan Hicks had suffered a torn ulnar collateral ligament. While no timetable was announced for his recovery, this is almost always a sign that a pitcher will miss the remainder of the season and probably most, if not all, of next season.
It is difficult to conjure the proper terminology to describe the emotional impact of Jordan Hicks not being available for the forseeable future. But it is my obligation as a writer to attempt to convey the feeling of his looming absence, so here it goes…this sucks.
Jordan Hicks is not the best player on the St. Louis Cardinals, but he might be, for better or worse, the most interesting player on the St. Louis Cardinals. No player on the Cardinals has a more extreme skill than Hicks’s velocity. Marcell Ozuna hits the ball hard; Aaron Judge hits it harder. Harrison Bader is fast; Byron Buxton is faster. Matt Carpenter draws a lot of walks; Mike Trout draws more. But nobody, not even Aroldis Chapman of Statcast’s eponymous “Chapman filter”, can touch Jordan Hicks in terms of sheer pitch velocity. Of the fifty fastest pitches thrown in 2019, Miami Marlins reliever Tayron Guerrero threw two of them–one tied for #22 and one tied for #30. Each of the other forty-eight pitches were thrown by Jordan Hicks. Last year, Hicks had 39 of the top 50 pitches. And he is still only 22 years old.
The velocity of Jordan Hicks was immediately the headline, but in his rookie campaign, the results were a bit more mixed. He struck out 8.11 batters per nine innings, a rather pedestrian rate given the very obvious weapon in his arsenal, and even more alarmingly, Hicks was issuing far too many walks for sustained success, even had his strikeout rate been higher. Among pitchers with at least 70 innings pitched, only two had a higher walk rate than Hicks’s rate of 13.3%. His results were hardly disastrous–his ERA and FIP were unexceptional but each was still better than average (3.59 and 3.74, respectively)–but xFIP, which normalizes his very favorable home run to fly ball rate, had Hicks a tick below-average, and his 4.21 SIERA suggested that Hicks was probably slightly below-average for a Major League pitcher, and certainly below-average for a Major League reliever. He was still young, and he had tools, but Jordan Hicks wasn’t quite all the way there as a complete MLB package.
But in 2019, things started to turn around in terms of his results. His 2018 ERA/FIP, which previously sat in the mid-to-high threes, dropped to the low threes–3.14 and 3.18, respectively. And this was with a home run rate that nearly tripled–his previously worst of the big three rate metrics, xFIP, was now his best, standing at a sterling 3.02. His strikeout rate improved, and while 9.73 K/9 may not quite have been what you’d expect from a guy with a 104 mile per hour sinker, the results were at least trending in the direction of matching the stuff. But most strikingly, his walk rate had some back down to Earth. He went from 5.21 BB/9 to 3.45 BB/9–it wasn’t quite pinpoint control, but based on the admittedly limited sample size of 2019, Jordan Hicks no longer appeared to be irredeemibly wild.
However, one thing that stood out about Jordan Hicks in 2019 was how absurdly low opponents’ batting averages on balls in play were against him. It makes some sense that a sinkerball pitcher would surrender a fairly low BABIP, as he is inclined to allow an abormally high number of ground balls which can more easily be fielded than line drives, but a .215 BABIP is unprecedented. Even so, his expected results, as determined by Statcast data, indicated that Hicks was one of the most dominant pitchers in the game. His opponent expected wOBA, or xwOBA, stood at .237. This was higher than his actual allowed wOBA of .234, but not by enough to say that Hicks had been preposterously lucky.
In 28 2/3 innings, Jordan Hicks was worth 0.5 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, making him the third most valuable reliever on the Cardinals. The two ahead of him, John Gant and Giovanny Gallegos, were not considered major parts of the Cardinals bullpen entering the season, but they have provided a level of consistency that high-profile free agent signing Andrew Miller (although he has recovered dramatically from his disastrous April) has not. And for those who criticized the Miller signing from the beginning, the point couldn’t be proven more obviously–in a Major League bullpen in 2019, guys come out of nowhere. Relief pitchers are only temporarily strong. By this logic, the loss of Jordan Hicks might not mean much–even if he maintained his strong early season results, he would be expected to produce less than an additional win over the more fringey player who will take his place.
But to view Jordan Hicks strictly through the prism of wins and losses is a bit cynical, as there is a joy to watching him pitch. Sentiment does matter, and certainly, from the perspective of Jordan Hicks and his friends and family, rationalizing that the next man up won’t cause that much of a quality drop-off isn’t going to do much. And even though John Gant and Carlos Martinez and other reasonable candidates for the team’s new de facto closer role are themselves hard-throwers, no candidates brings such a unique set of skills as Jordan Hicks.