5 key questions about surprising Hicks deal

January 13th, 2024

The fact that has landed a four-year, $44 million contract with the Giants (per a source) is not necessarily surprising.

Hicks is only 27 years old. He has remarkable stuff and has been dominant for stretches of his big league career, if not consistently. He had an argument as the second-best relief pitcher available on the free-agent market, behind five-time All-Star closer Josh Hader. And the Giants, coming off consecutive disappointing seasons and having missed out on Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto, clearly were still looking for ways to bolster their roster.

But in one way, Hicks' deal came as something of a shock. That’s because the right-hander is expected to come to San Francisco as a starter, according to ESPN’s Jeff Passan.

This raises five interesting questions. Let’s try to answer them.

1) Why would the Giants give Hicks a chance to start?
For one thing, that could be what it took to land to a pitcher who has been pretty clear in preferring a starting role. Hicks, the Cardinals’ third-round pick in the 2015 Draft out of a Texas high school, worked almost exclusively as a starter in the Minors from '16-17. But in '18, moving to the bullpen allowed Hicks to take the fast track to the big leagues, making his debut with St. Louis as a 21-year-old on Opening Day and never looking back.

That didn’t change Hicks’ belief that he could succeed in an MLB rotation, however. And in 2022, he won the Cardinals’ fifth-starter job out of camp. While that resulted in only a brief rotation stint, that wasn’t the end of it for Hicks. Last spring, MLB.com Cards beat reporter John Denton wrote that 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.”

“No, I don’t feel like I got my fair shot [starting],” Hicks told Denton at the time, adding that he still had starting ambitions “down the road.”

Then there is the fact that the Giants' rotation wasn’t overflowing with reliable options, especially early in the season. Alex Cobb and the newly acquired Robbie Ray will start 2024 on the injured list, and veteran Anthony DeSclafani was sent to Seattle in the Ray trade. A lot was going to be riding on unproven young pitchers, such as prospects Kyle Harrison and Keaton Winn. Hicks gives San Francisco another option, one with intriguing potential, and if this doesn’t work out, the bullpen is always there as Plan B.

2) What went wrong with Hicks’ previous chance?
It’s important to note that Hicks may not have had the best opportunity to succeed when he got the starting role in 2022. First, he missed the entire second half of the 2019 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. Then he opted out of the COVID-shortened season in '20 as he finished rehabbing his elbow and took his status as a Type 1 diabetic into consideration. Then he made just 10 appearances in '21 as he battled more arm injuries. So heading into '22, Hicks had logged fewer than 40 Major League innings over the previous three seasons.

And even then, with 2022 Spring Training starting late after the completion of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement between MLB and the MLB Players Association, Hicks did not get much runway with which to prepare. He made just three Grapefruit League appearances that spring, none as a starter and none lasting more than 1 1/3 innings. (His first two regular-season appearances were two-inning relief outings, as the Cardinals didn’t need a fifth starter right away.)

In that sense, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that things didn’t work out too well. Hicks made seven starts in April and May before landing on the injured list with a right forearm issue, and he averaged about 3.5 innings per start while posting a 5.84 ERA and a 5.54 FIP.

3) How did Hicks change as a starter?
Not that much, actually. Hicks remained mostly a two-pitch pitcher, leaning heavily on his sinker and slider. Those two offerings accounted for about 94 percent of his arsenal during his seven-start stint, compared with about 99 percent after coming off the IL and returning to the bullpen in July. Hicks did make his changeup a third pitch as a starter, but only showed it six percent of the time

As far as velocity goes, Hicks’ sinker was about one mph slower as a starter. But it still averaged just under 99 mph, putting him right alongside Hunter Greene and Jacob deGrom for the fastest pitch type among starters that season.

4) How might things be different this time?
For one thing, Hicks is coming into 2024 after a full, healthy season in which he threw 65 2/3 innings. And he will enter camp knowing that he has a chance to start, allowing him to prepare and get stretched out for that role.

Hicks might be a different pitcher now, too. He started throwing more four-seam fastballs in 2023, to go along with that bowling-ball sinker, offering a different look. He also joined the sweeper revolution, and as MLB.com’s Brent Maguire recently explored in more depth, that pitch was a huge success.

That might not be the last change Hicks needs to make if he is to have lasting success as an MLB starter. But a more diverse arsenal -- and a demonstrated ability to tweak his offerings -- is, well, a start.

There is also the fact that the Giants have proven in recent years that they can help veteran pitchers improve -- albeit not necessarily those in exactly the same situation. Still, perhaps Hicks can follow the lead of the likes of Cobb, DeSclafani, Kevin Gausman and Carlos Rodón.

5) Has this sort of transition worked before?
It may not be common, but it has happened. Look no further than another free-agent pitcher who signed this offseason. Seth Lugo isn’t a perfect comp for Hicks because he made 26 starts over his first two MLB seasons, but he logged 227 relief appearances and only 12 starts with the Mets from 2018-22 before becoming a full-time starter with the Padres in '23. Lugo gave San Diego nearly 150 innings of above-average work (115 ERA+) and turned that into a two-year deal (with a player option) to keep starting for the Royals.

Mike Axisa of CBSSports.com recently pointed out a few other relevant examples from the past couple of seasons. Michael Lorenzen worked almost exclusively out of the bullpen from 2016-21 before becoming a solid starter for the Angels, Tigers and Phillies from '22-23, even throwing a no-hitter last year. In the same span, the Rays did well with conversions for both Jeffrey Springs and Zack Littell, although the former wound up needing Tommy John surgery last April.

While the need for competent starters seems to get greater every year, this isn’t a new phenomenon. Going back a bit further, the list of pitchers who enjoyed extended runs of success as starters after initially coming to MLB in a relief role includes Derek Lowe, Chris Sale, Jeff Samardzija, Johan Santana, Adam Wainwright and C.J. Wilson

That’s not to say Hicks will certainly stick and excel in the Giants' rotation -- far from it. But despite how surprising this news seemed initially, there are plenty of reasons to try it, and to think it might work.