Hicks shows 'high ceiling' as a starter

February 17th, 2024

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- This isn’t the first time has come into Spring Training as a starter.

Hicks worked almost exclusively out of the rotation in the Minors, though the Cardinals ended up moving the hard-throwing right-hander to the bullpen to accelerate his path to the Majors. He briefly returned to a starting role with St. Louis in 2022, but he made only eight starts before suffering an injury that resulted in a shift back to the bullpen.

Despite thriving primarily as a reliever over his first five big league seasons, Hicks decided to prioritize starting opportunities when he became eligible for free agency over the winter. He found a willing suitor in the Giants, who committed to using him as a starter after awarding him a four-year, $44 million contract last month.

“My whole life, this has been my dream,” Hicks said. “I’m fully embracing this. I’m not letting go of it. I’m excited to keep working on it and keep learning from everybody that has the experience.”

Hicks' ramp-up is already well underway at Giants camp, where he threw 40 pitches over two simulated innings in a bullpen session at Scottsdale Stadium on Friday. The 27-year-old threw all of his pitches -- sinker, four-seamer, sweeper, slider and splitter -- and topped out at 96 mph, below the 100.1 mark he averaged on his sinker last year.

Still, the dialed-back velocity is part of the transition process for Hicks, who cares less about lighting up the radar gun and more about pitching deep into games consistently this year.

“It’s relative pacing for him,” manager Bob Melvin said. “So maybe down from 105 to 99 or 100 or something like that. But I think he’s pretty aware, too, that he’s got a really good sinker. If he’s going to stay out there for a while, being economical in his pitches are going to be important and getting earlier-count outs. Whereas when you come in as a reliever, a lot of times it’s all about missing bats and letting it all hang out for an inning or so. But I think he’s got the mindset right at this point.”

Hicks has completed five innings only once in 212 big league appearances, but the Giants believe he has all the tools to make a successful transition to a durable starter this year. His elite sinker should help him induce plenty of weak contact and get quick outs, though he also features a sweeper that averaged 86.8 mph and induced a 59.5 percent whiff rate in 2023.

“The movement is nasty,” said Patrick Bailey, who caught Hicks for the first time on Friday. “I’m excited for the opportunity he’s going to get here. Hopefully he takes it by the reins and he fills it up throwing 100 mph sinkers and that sweeper he’s got with the split. It’s a pretty high ceiling, I’d say.”

Hicks anticipates his velocity will jump up to “97, 98, 99” mph once he starts facing hitters in live batting practice next week, though he’s confident he’ll be able to maintain his high-octane stuff as he continues to build up his arm this spring.

“I’ve had springs in the past where I’ve been a starter, so it’s not foreign,” Hicks said. “It’s definitely going really well. My body feels good. My arm is progressing really well. Sometimes there’s some shoulder [soreness] in the past, but it’s pretty cleared up. I’m staying on top of my shoulder strengthening stuff and arm care to make sure I’m in the best position to stay healthy and be out there for as many innings as I can.”