101.9 mph with movement? Try hitting this Hicks heater

Righty returns in 2022 with revamped mindset out of relief

April 1st, 2022

JUPITER, Fla. -- As if trying to hit a 101.9 mph fastball wasn’t already difficult enough, Marlins second baseman Jazz Chisholm Jr. flailed hopelessly at a tailing Jordan Hicks two-seamer Thursday the way someone would if they were trying to swat a bug. When he predictably whiffed, Chisholm put his hand on his hip and frustratingly looked at Hicks as he jogged off.

That moment from Thursday's 7-4 loss perfectly illustrated what a rehabilitating Hicks has said for weeks: He doesn’t need to throw all out -- and equal speed records the way he did early in his career -- to get outs for the Cardinals. Just imagine: Hicks’ 101.9 mph pitch wasn’t all out, and yet, per Statcast, it tailed away from the left-handed Chisholm some 18 inches.

Hicks’ days of throwing 105.1 mph -- as he did in 2018 to equal Aroldis Chapman for the fastest pitch ever recorded by an MLB pitcher -- are gone, he says. The goal is to back off the fastball just a bit to reduce the amount of torque on his arm and make him a more durable pitcher. But just so the hitters know, speeds well above 100 are still there if needed.

“I kind of left that in 2019,” Hicks said of the 104.2 mph he threw three seasons ago. “Situations will call for more velo -- hairier situations where you’ve got first and third and no outs and you need a strikeout. I still have that [103-105 mph] in my arm. But I feel like 100-101 is natural for me, and that’s something I can get to easily.”

That’s music to the ears of a Cardinals franchise that can’t wait to get Hicks’ breathtaking arm talent back on the mound and fully healthy for the first time in two and a half seasons. The 25-year-old needed Tommy John surgery in 2019, opted out of the '20 season because of a medical condition and then reinjured his elbow just 10 outings into '21. Following a lengthy rehabilitation period, a stint in the Arizona Fall League and some lights-out pitching in Spring Training, St. Louis is confident Hicks is ready for a breakout season. Hicks can do that, Cards pitching coach Mike Maddux said, without throwing the ball through the catcher’s mitt.

“I always think making good pitches is where your livelihood is going to be, and it doesn’t always matter what your [velocity] is,” Maddux said. “He’s got the special arm and he throws the fastball nobody else has. Lots of guys throw hard with four-seamers, but to have his action with that two-seamer, that’s unique and it’s an outlier.”

In Hicks’ two spring outings, he’s faced eight batters and struck out four. He threw the five fastest pitches of games against the Astros (Monday) and the Marlins (Thursday) and 12 of his 41 pitches have touched 100 mph. However, none have been harder than the 101.9 mph -- with nearly a foot-and-a-half of tail -- he threw to Chisholm for strike three.

“He looks like he’s more in control -- even in between pitches, he’s taking his time and he’s dominating moments and things aren’t speeding up on him,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said. “If he’s able to [slow down], I think he’ll be in the zone more. That will be fun for him and for us.”

Marmol, the youngest manager in baseball at 35, would prefer to have no set roles for his bullpen and instead mix and match pitchers based on analytics. Marmol can employ such a strategy with a stable of former closers in Giovanny Gallegos, Alex Reyes and Hicks. Gallegos (24 holds and 14 saves) proved to be a lifesaver for the Cardinals in 2021 when Hicks and Reyes (10 wins, 29 saves) went down with injuries. Ryan Helsley, another reliever with closer’s stuff, feels the Cards could be one of the National League’s best bullpens.

“The talent is there, but it’s more about getting the job done than thinking about what others think about us,” said Hicks, who had six saves in 2018 and 14 in ’19 before injuring his elbow. “We just want to get outs, get guys out of jams and win games.”

Hicks has a long-term goal of being a starter and claims his 220-pound frame gets stronger the longer he pitches. However, that wasn’t going to happen with him coming off another injury and the condensed Spring Training. For now, he just wants to stay healthy, fill the role asked of him and win games.

“I want to be in the innings that win ballgames,” he said. “Whenever they call, that’s when they think they need me. It’s about being ready for whatever they want from me, whether that’s going one, two or three innings. I want to be prepared, know what’s coming and be in the loop.”