Hicks eyes starting 'down the road,' but set on relief in '23

March 22nd, 2023

JUPITER, Fla. -- Jordan Hicks is healthy and happy as a key piece of a Cardinals bullpen that could be among the most dominant in the National League, and he wants nothing more out of the 2023 season than helping St. Louis contend for a World Series crown.

Still, Hicks is irked by the perception that he failed as a starter in 2022, and the idea that he will forever be confined to the bullpen instead of the starting role he covets. A reliever his first three seasons, Hicks finally got the opportunity to start last season, but it came only after being alerted in the final week of a compressed Spring Training that he would be eased in. Predictably, it didn’t go well, as Hicks went 0-4 with a 5.47 ERA over eight starts before an injured list stint and a return to the bullpen.

Being back in the bullpen went well for Hicks, who went 3-2 with a 4.37 ERA over 35 innings. Hicks, who threw the five fastest pitches of the Cardinals’ 0-0 tie with the Marlins on Wednesday, thrived out of the ‘pen in the Wild Card Series loss to the Phillies, not allowing a run in two outings.

Now 26 and as healthy as he’s been since 2019, Hicks will be back in a similar bullpen role this season, using his 103 mph fastball and sinker as a bridge reliever to get the ball to closer Ryan Helsley. However, just don’t automatically assume that 2022 was the last word on his starting career.

“No, I don’t feel like I got my fair shot [starting],” Hicks said bluntly. “I didn’t come in built up, I built up during the season, and I don’t agree with people who come up and say, ‘You feel like you got the starting bug out? Are you done starting?’

“I don’t have an [ambition to start] or want to start because it’s not in the plans right now; things aren’t lining up for that this season,” added Hicks, whose starts in 2022 never lasted more than five innings. “But, down the road, sure. This year, I am preparing for [relieving], and why would I want to go back to doing something else? Overall, I’m in a good position, and I’m happy to be in the bullpen right now.”

The Cardinals are happy to have Hicks as part of a bullpen that was one of baseball’s best last season. Combining with Giovanny Gallegos, Helsley and others, the Cardinals bullpen was tied for first in the National League in wins (41) and it ranked fourth in ERA (3.61) and fifth in fewest home runs allowed (59) and opponents’ batting average (.234). That group has the potential to be even better in 2023, Hicks said. 

“We’ve got three or four arms that should be starters somewhere else, and we’ve got true bullpen guys who are elite,” Hicks said. “[Opposing] teams are going to know we’re good. We want them to know that if you don’t have many runs by the seventh, we’re winning, and it’s going to be a tough comeback."

Hicks made it tough for teams last season when he shifted to the bullpen and used his hard stuff to blow hitters away. He relied on his sinker 66 percent of the time, and it averaged 99 mph, per Statcast. He briefly had MLB’s fastest pitch of 2022 with a 103.8 mph sinker on July 7, but that mark was topped two times by Helsley at 104 and 104.2 mph. He ranked in MLB’s 89th percentile in hard-hit rate, but his 13.3 percent walk rate was in baseball’s bottom 1 percent. That comes down to focus, manager Oliver Marmol said. 

“He's improved a ton when it comes to that [focus],” Marmol said. “When I say night and day, it's impressive. Now, there's a level of focus from pitch one. If you start looking at his outings, there are like 10 pitches, or even less, where he’s really scattered and not dialed in. After that, he dials it in and it's nasty, and it's a difficult at-bat.”

Hicks trained his focus in the offseason on having a healthy shoulder. A free agent after the season, Hicks knows there is a lot on the line -- for him and the Cards. He said he will push aside his starting dreams in hopes of helping the Cardinals win. 

“I want to win a ring with this team, and I feel like this is our best shot,” Hicks said. “We have a lot of guys who might not be here next year -- that’s something we have to look at with honest eyes. But my main priority is winning a ring. That’s my only focus."