Jordan Hicks’ Problem With the Strikeout

Jordan Hicks’ Problem With the Strikeout

Jordan Hicks has been a revelation for the St. Louis Cardinals, but why isn’t he racking up strikeouts?

You don’t have to squint too hard to see the similarity between Jordan Hicks and Aroldis Chapman. Sure he’s a righty, and he’s not quite as tall, but come on. His triple-digit heater has fueled an onslaught of content about the new “Fastest Pitcher in Baseball.” After years of being tormented by the former Reds closer, it’s hard for St. Louis Cardinals fans to resist getting excited. It’s about time we had one these things in our bullpen.

The 21-year-old holds the top 11 spots on Statcast’s fastest pitch leaderboard, and he compliments his elite fastball (sinker? it’s nasty) with an impressive slider that can completely freeze really good hitters:

When I first got a look at him, I started drooling too. For a player who didn’t play a game above high-A ball prior to this season, Hicks is demolishing expectations. He’s yet to allow a run in 9.1 innings and has been one of two relievers (the other being Bud Norris, who I will likely write about soon) to pitch effectively out of the pen in the first few games of the season.

But there’s one key way that he differs from Chapman, and it concerns me a fair amount. Jordan Hicks isn’t getting a lot of strikeouts. A big part of what makes Chapman so dangerous is his career 14.93 K/9 (higher than any other pitcher in baseball history). Right now, Hicks’ K/9 is sitting down at 5.79. Pitchers with his repertoire should be unhittable whiff machines, but that’s not what we’ve seen so far.

Of course, 9.1 innings is a really small sample size, and there’s plenty of time for him to turn into the pitcher he looks like he should be. Maybe he’s just had a few bad calls in two-strike counts. Maybe the cold has taken some of the life out of his fastball or affected his command a little bit.

The fact is that I don’t know why Jordan Hicks isn’t getting strikeouts, but I definitely know that he isn’t. Here’s a heat map of his whiff rate so far:

By comparison, here’s Chapman’s whiff rate:

No one expects Hicks to be generating that many swings and misses at this point (although it would be nice), but right now he has a cumulative swinging strike percentage of 7%. That’s in the bottom third of all pitchers so far this season. It’s bad.

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Worse yet, it doesn’t appear that Hicks is fooling hitters very much at all. With an O-Swing% (percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone) down at 16.7%, a swing rate of just 40%, and a contact rate of 82%, there’s no indication that the young righty is catching anyone off balance. Batters are laying off his pitches when they’re out of the zone, and hitting them consistently when they’re in the zone. Needless to say, that’s not what you hope for as a pitcher.

Now maybe this is meaningless. We’re still just talking about 9.1 innings of work, and maybe he just needs refinement before he starts locating his pitches and setting opponents down with ease. That would certainly be understandable for a young player who never got a chance at AA ball, much less AAA. I certainly don’t mean to imply that Jordan Hicks and his 100 mph fastball are a bust. All I know is that, even though his raw stuff looks spectacular, he’s not fooling hitters at this point.

I hope that Hicks makes this whole piece completely irrelevant in his next few appearances. I certainly wouldn’t be surprised based on what he’s shown us. There’s no reason I can see why he shouldn’t be dominant, but I also know that he hasn’t been truly dominant. I’m just trying to temper my own excitement some. Jordan Hicks isn’t Aroldis Chapman. At least not yet.

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