We think of growth as a steady progression, especially when it comes to baseball players. A guy that was great in A ball last year should be able to show improvement at AA the next year. A pitcher that threw 80 innings as a rookie should be able to go 120 as a sophomore. We often see the line going steadily up as a trend.
It doesn’t always happen that way. A guy that succeeded in AA the past year might need to go back to A ball for a while to relearn some things. A pitcher might have great success one year then slide backwards the next. Remember, Roy Halladay had to go back to A ball from the majors before he became a Hall of Fame pitcher.
The easy thing right now is to write off Jordan Hicks as a starter. I’m not here to say it is necessarily the wrong thing. I was very surprised when the club decided that they wanted him to develop as a starter in the major leagues instead of spending some time in the Memphis rotation developing. On one hand, that’s a good thing as you aren’t wasting whatever pitches he may have in his arm (any rehab starts that Alex Reyes makes from now on will feel like this, I think) but on the other, it only works if he makes a steady improvement. Suffice it to say, he hasn’t.
When you look at just the innings total, you could see a gradual growth. After the first two outings, which were two inning relief stints due to early season rainouts, Hicks went 3-2 (due to a ball off the arm)-3.1-4.1-5. He looked like he was building up the arm strength to at least regularly go five innings. There might not be any complete games in there, but folks like Dakota Hudson live in the five-six inning range and so it’s not unheard of. He reached 77 pitches in that last start and though the Giants got to him for three runs in those five, it felt like he could maybe be at 100 pitches in a start or two.
Instead, he seems to have plateaued. Including last night, he’s gone four innings and three innings in the two starts since. Instead of continuing to increase, his pitch count has stayed around the same level (82 and 78) but he’s gotten fewer outs with them. Command has always been the problem, with deep counts and walks being an issue. In his first seven outings, he walked 12 in 21.2 innings. The last two he’s walked eight in seven. The growth has stalled. It might help if he developed another pitch to throw for strikes as he’s rarely thrown his changeup, but honestly he’s got to throw something for strikes consistently to have success.
If he was the only pitcher that was having shorter outings, maybe you could continue to make do the way things have been going. However, as we noted Dakota Hudson also usually needs a lot from the bullpen and now that Steven Matz (who was a bit hit or miss, honestly) is on the injured list you have Matthew Liberatore who could go deep but probably won’t do much more than five innings for a bit. The bullpen can’t handle covering six innings a night for Hicks and then turning around to cover four for Hudson and then soon after another four for Liberatore. And that’s assuming Miles Mikolas and Adam Wainwright don’t have off nights.
I understand that the club wants to keep Hicks on a regular starter schedule because of not only his talent but because of his health. I think there’s a chance he can still be that kind of starter. It doesn’t do the major league club any good for him to continue to keep learning on the biggest stage, however. He’s got options and he’s still shy of 26 years old. He wouldn’t be out of place in Memphis for a while, learning how to hit the strike zone more effectively and more often with less pressure to see results. While Jake Woodford isn’t exciting to anyone, he’s fairly competent at the major league level and can regularly give you five innings. That’s not much better than Hicks in length but it’s going to be more consistent, more like Hudson.
I don’t think the Cardinals are doing Hicks any favors by leaving him in the big leagues to figure all this out when Memphis is not a major demotion for a guy that has never played AA or AAA ball. The idea that Hicks could learn to be a consistent and successful starter without those minor league reps seems to have proven false. We saw that major league struggles eventually sent Paul DeJong to the minors and DeJong had a great day yesterday, with three hits including a home run. We’ll see if that leads to more success for DeJong but it might be nice for Hicks to get some of that success as well.
Jordan Hicks walked five in three innings and allowed a three-run homer to Danny Jansen, which given that Kevin Gausman was on the other side really was all the Blue Jays needed, so he gets the Goat for last night. The bullpen didn’t really do much better, though. Nick Wittgren gave up two runs in his two innings, raising his May ERA to almost seven, and Drew VerHagen got torched for two long home runs, one by Jansen and one by Vladimir Guerrero Jr. At least the Cardinal fans got to see what the buzz was around Vlady, I guess. Junior Fernandez, who was called up before the series, pitched two scoreless innings, which was nice to see.
Cardinals only mustered six hits so it’s hard to find a Hero. We’ll go with Paul Goldschmidt, who had two of those hits. Brendan Donovan drove in the only run, but he also had an error (dropping a foul ball at first base) and a misplay in the outfield that led to Toronto runs. While he wasn’t the only one, it’s notable that Nolan Gorman went 0-4 with three strikeouts. Gausman’s a tough pitcher so we’ll see how Gorman responds to that against the Brewers, who also have good pitching.
Off day today then a decent-sized series against the Brewers. It’d take a sweep for the Cardinals to move into first place but it’s at least theoretically possible. Winning the series would be a real good thing!