Cardinals: Examining Jordan Hicks as a Closer

This is not what you would consider a hot take. Jordan Hicks has been touted as the Cardinals’ closer-of-the-future for quite some time. The line is an easy one to draw, considering the man sports a high-octane fastball (sinker) and a slider that is dominant at times. His repertoire plays for the role. At only 21 and never pitching above High-A prior to this season, his composure has been very impressive.

Bud Norris has been trending down for a while as his K% has plummeted from 32.9 in the 1st half to 18.4 in the 2nd. Meanwhile his walk rate has soared from 3.9% to 13.2%. Eye-test alone, you could clearly see him missing his locations badly on a regular basis over the last month or so. He managed to get the job done, until his issues came to a head on Sunday and Monday. Those implosions have pushed Mike Shildt to consider other options.

That leads me to wonder, should Jordan Hicks get the job?

Let’s examine.

A Pool of Candidates

Hicks is not the only option that the Cardinals have to fill the 9th inning role.

Carlos Martinez, currently on reassignment in the bullpen, is a logical choice. He possesses the ability to dominate with strikeouts as well as induce a ground ball if the situation calls for it. Now in his 6th season, he has the savy and experience to excel in the role. Ultimately, it may end up as his job, but I think Shildt likes the idea of having him as a more versatile “relief ace” rather than a designated closer.

I don’t care much for the thought of Dakota Hudson as the closer. Though his sinker/cutter/slider combo would seem to have strikeout potential, it has yet to develop. Pitching to contact in the 9th inning of a pennant race is risky. Besides, he has done well in his current role and his ability to go multiple innings to bridge from starter to closer has been a plus.

Yesterday, I was very close to writing a post that championed for John Brebbia or Dominic Leone to get the first look. My thinking was that they have attractive strikeout ability — 28% and 23.7% rates, respectively — and using one of them in the role would allow Mike Shildt to keep Hicks, Hudson and Martinez in position to pitch in the pivotal moments outside of the 9th inning.

Then on Tuesday, Leone and Brebbia failed to lock down what was a 6-run lead in the 9th inning against Washington. Leone was good in his first inning and probably should not have been stretched to a 2nd. Brebbia complicated matters. All of it led to a tighter-than-it-should-have-been situation that pulled Jordan Hicks into the game for the save.

And so we circle back to him.

What Do the Numbers Say?

We all know that we would like to see more strikeouts from a guy pumping 102mph. To his credit, the strikeout rate has climbed throughout the year. Through the end of May, his K% was a low 13.3%. From June 1st to now, it is 25%. The rate has ebbed and flowed, but the ability is in there if he needs to draw off of it.

People do not hit Jordan Hick hard. Of 219 MLB with at least 60 IP this year, Hicks’ 28% Hard-Hit% ranks 14th lowest. Meanwhile, his Soft-Hit% of 22.3 rates at the 20th highest.

His groundball rate is extreme (good) at 60.7%. Among those same 219 MLB pitchers, only 6 have a GB% at 60% or higher. Of those 6, Hicks has the highest K/9 rate. As you might assume, his FB% is also extremely low at 18.3%, good for 5th best among the 219 qualifiers.

The biggest risk with an extreme ground ball pitcher, and one that allows a lot of soft contact, is what I will call the Rosenthal Effect. That is, being so dominant that guys get cheap hits and create rallies despite never putting a good swing on the ball. It can also be called “getting BABIP’d” as ground balls in play find holes.

A huge advantage that Hicks has over other candidates is that he just doesn’t allow HR’s.

We’ve seen Carlos Martinez be susceptible to the long ball, despite being predominantly a groundball pitcher. Brebbia has been a strikeout/flyball (28%/47.7%) pitcher in his major league career and has been tagged for 12 big flies in his 93 career innings. Leone has also had trouble with HR’s this season, allowing 3 early in the season and another 3 during his rehab assignment. He allowed 6 as a reliever in 2017. For reference, Bud Norris has allowed 8 this season.

Hicks has allowed 5, total, in his professional career. This covers 234.1 innings going back to Rookie ball in 2016. In the majors this season, he has allowed 1 HR in 68.2 innings. As frustrating as a luck fueled rally can be, there is nothing as crippling as a lead cancelling, or reversing, homerun. I already said that his FB% was super low, but even more impressive is his HR/FB%. It sits at a league-low 2.9%.

I have a lot of faith that Hicks isn’t the guy to give up the dramatic bomb.

Can He Handle the Moment?

The eye test tells you that Hicks shows good composure. He doesn’t get rattled by much, and with the guidance of Yadier Molina, there is no reason to believe that will change.

But there are quantifiable ways to view this.

First, I took a look at Saves/Holds.

Strictly looking at saves and opportunities, Hicks’ 6-for-11 doesn’t look very good. But the issue with Save “opportunities” is that they can technically come in any inning, whereas a save can only come by finishing the game. Giving up a lead in the 7th inning leads to a “blown save” whereas holding that lead earns you a Hold (unofficial, pre-9th inning equivalent of a Save).

So we can determine how many save/hold opportunities Hicks has had by adding up his converted saves, blown saves, and converted holds. What we end up with is 28 converted in 33 opportunities, an 84.8% success rate.

For comparison, Bud Norris has 30 converted out of 35 opportunities, an 85.7% success rate.

He done well when it comes to converting these opportunities.

Next, I looked at his numbers in tough situations.

In high leverage situations, opponents hit .203/.337/.234 against him with a .268 wOBA.

With runners in scoring position, opponents hit .189/.291/.216 with a .235 wOBA.

A lot of people will say that the 9th inning is a different animal.

So, I checked the game logs.

Hicks is a perfect 6-for-6 in saves when he finishes the game, as all 5 blown saves have occurred in the 7th or 8th inning. In 1 blown save, he gave up the lead in the 8th, the Cardinals scored in the top of the 9th, and he locked down the win with a scoreless bottom of the inning. It was a vulture win, but the fact he closed out a 1 run game counts for something.

For what it’s worth, when Hicks pitches the 9th inning of a game this season (16.1 IP) he has a 0.55 ERA, a 2.50 K/BB ratio, and opponent slash line of .161/.266/.196. These are his best numbers in any particular inning, especially the K/BB ratio.

Pretty good stuff.

The Negatives

Walks are still an issue with Hicks at times and the strikeout punch isn’t consistent. The walks haven’t gotten any worse, they just haven’t gotten any better either. But overall, opponents just don’t hit him well enough to do serious damage and cause the walks to complicate matters.

Fatigue is something that is likely in the back of our minds as we come down the wire, knowing that Matheny rode Hicks pretty hard in the early going. It’s encouraging that since Mike Shildt took over, Hicks has been stretched further than 1 inning on only 3 occasions and never for 2 full innings.

As far as his innings go, he threw 105 in the minor leagues last year. He is currently at 68.2. From a pure innings standpoint, he should be fine. Now, whether the relief role has been more taxing than starting is much more difficult to determine. It’s possible he hits a wall, but I would say its probable that he doesn’t.

As you can see in the chart below, there has been no drop in velocity to signal fatigue, to this point. In fact, his go-to sinker is actually a hair harder now than it has been previously. (Keep in mind, he rarely throws the Fourseam, his Sinker is his primary pitch and the one to focus on. The last point that looks like a velo drop is based on only 1 Fourseam thrown this month.)

Bottom Line

Hicks has had a really strong rookie year. He seems to have great composure and, based on the numbers, takes it too another level when the time comes to shut down a game.

Despite a couple of Rosenthal-ish outings that involved multiple baserunners, Hicks has allowed a run to score in just 3 of his 21 appearances since the All-Star break, so he has been productive for some time.

Much like Trevor Rosenthal did when Edward Mujica ran out of gas in 2013, I believe this is Jordan Hicks’ job to run with. I believe he will be very successful in the role.

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Thanks to Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference for the stats!

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