From 105 mph in relief to one of MLB’s best starters

April 21st, 2024

has always dreamed of starting in the Major Leagues. But in 2022, when Hicks’ dream was first realized, it didn’t go how he envisioned.

To begin with, Hicks wasn’t fully built up as a starting pitcher after spending his first three MLB seasons as a reliever for the Cardinals. In every start he made, the right-hander’s pitch count was limited: 45 pitches for his first start on April 21, 50 for a subsequent start and 60 for two other outings.

Injuries entered the fray, too. Hicks was hit on the wrist by a line drive in his second start, later suffered a right forearm flexor strain and landed on the injured list on May 26. He returned July 2, made one more start (of 1 2/3 scoreless innings) on July 12 and never started another game for St. Louis, returning to a relief role. The totals from Hicks’ starting experiment? An 0-4 record, less than 3 1/3 innings per start and a 5.47 ERA.

Less than two years later, Hicks is living his dream for real with the Giants. Signed to a four-year, $44 million contract with San Francisco in January, the once-fireballing right-hander has reinvented himself as a starter -- and not just any starter. Coming into Sunday’s start against the D-backs, Hicks owns a 1.57 ERA with the Giants, the third-best mark among qualified National League pitchers.

“I feel like this is a real, true opportunity I’ve got,” Hicks told

Here’s how Hicks has become the latest reliever to find his stride in a starting rotation -- and how he plans to sustain his success.

Flamethrowing no longer
From the time of his 2018 debut with the Cardinals until the end of the 2023 season, Hicks was known primarily for one thing: elite velocity. With two 105 mph fastballs in a game against the Phillies as a rookie, Hicks owns the two fastest pitches thrown by anyone not named in the entire pitch tracking era (since 2008). Hicks’ average fastball velocity of 99.7 mph is the highest of ANY pitcher to throw 1,000 fastballs in that span.

But that’s not who Hicks is anymore. Starters don’t throw 105 -- not ones who want to last, anyway. To adjust to becoming a starter with the Giants, Hicks has had to conserve his velocity to last throughout the game. And so far, so good.

Hicks’ sinker, his primary pitch, has gone from a 100.1 mph average with the Cardinals and Blue Jays in 2023 to 95.7 mph with San Francisco this season. While the lower velocity is rare for him, Hicks did point out that he’s been effective that way in the past while pitching in consecutive games.

“There were times in the bullpen where I’d be on my third day or second day back to back and I would be in the 95-96 range and then I’d go in the dugout and people would ask me if I’m OK. ‘You’re not hurt, right?’” Hicks recalled. “And I got outs at that velocity in the bullpen as well. I knew I could do it. I just wanted to see how it would translate to a starting position.”

To be sure, Hicks can still dial it up when he needs to. In what he called a “hairy situation” in the fourth inning against the Marlins on Tuesday, Hicks threw as hard as he has all season. He struck out on a 98.2 mph sinker before getting to fly out to the warning track on a 98.6 mph heater. Earlier in the at-bat, Hicks threw Rivera a 99 mph sinker – tied for his third-fastest pitch of 2024.

Hicks said he’s definitely able to avoid reaching back for triple digits out of habit, but if he’s going to be beaten, he wants to be beaten with his best stuff.

“In those situations, men on base, game’s tight, it’s definitely going to come out,” he said.

Finding a natural fit
How is Hicks’ sinker as effective as ever despite its decreased velocity?

For one, it has more horizontal movement than ever. Hicks’ sinker has averaged 17 inches of arm-side run in 2024, an above-average amount and the highest rate of his career. That horizontal break comes from a new, lower release point -- something Hicks said has come naturally as he aims to conserve velocity.

A third-round Draft pick out of high school in Texas in 2015, Hicks said he was effective at that lower arm slot coming through the Minors. But with St. Louis, he was encouraged to pitch from a higher arm slot.

Hicks’ vertical release point on sinkers:
2018-23: 6.10 ft
2024: 5.74 ft

It worked -- Hicks had a 3.47 ERA in his first two MLB seasons -- but the pitcher said it came at a cost to his health. Before changing his arm slot, he said his only arm-related injury issues had to do with the strength of his shoulder.

“Right when I started doing this, that’s when I got hurt,” Hicks said, demonstrating the higher release point in front of his locker at Oracle Park on Friday. On the inside of his right elbow, a scar not unlike the stitching on a baseball is plainly visible. Hicks is one of the growing number of pitchers to undergo Tommy John surgery, tearing his right UCL in a game against the Angels on June 22, 2019.

He feels confident in the offseason training program in which he has participated since his injury, but getting back to his normal arm slot has been a plus.

“I think it’s always best to pitch how you naturally feel because that’s most likely the right way for your body,” Hicks said.

Of course, it’s not just how Hicks is throwing his sinker but where he’s throwing it that has made the pitch the most valuable sinker in MLB so far this year. Of Hicks’ 178 sinkers in 2024, 131 have been strikes -- a 73.6% rate that is easily a career-high mark for Hicks. The same goes for his 64.6% in-zone rate on the pitch.

“I’ve always wanted to throw strikes,” Hicks said. “It’s just repetition, especially after my third year back from the injury.”

That’s come with time for Hicks, who noted he was on pace for a career-low walk rate before needing Tommy John in 2019. Throwing strikes has been a struggle: Hicks’ 13.3% walk rate in 2022 was among the highest in MLB.

While Hicks’ strikeout rate has dipped to 20.7%, its lowest rate since his rookie year, his walk rate has been cut nearly in half to an above-average 6.9% clip. He’s throwing far fewer “waste” pitches this year than ever before, too.

That means hitters can’t simply wait for Hicks to put the ball in the strike zone: If they take pitches early, they’re liable to fall behind in the count quickly.

“I’m really liking the early contact,” Hicks said. “I feel like the game plan’s a little bit different from the hitters, a little bit more aggressive earlier in the games versus when I’m coming out of the bullpen.”

Offspeed on the rise
Not only do opposing hitters have to contend with Hicks’ reshaped fastball, but they have to be ready for some impressive offspeed pitches, too.

Hicks throws his fastballs (including a sparingly used four-seamer) roughly 60% of the time, but his sweeper and split-fingered fastball offer a much different look.

Hicks is allowing a paltry .071 average and .143 slugging percentage on the sweeper, which he has thrown 25.2% of the time, primarily to righties. That’s nothing new, but the splitter certainly is: Hicks had never thrown it more than 18 times in a season before 2024 but has done so 49 times already this year. Thirty-six of those pitches have been to lefties, against whom Hicks’ splitter can be absolutely devastating.

Although the pitch is designed to get hitters to chase, Hicks is still learning to land it for a strike a little bit more often -- just 10 of his 49 splitters this year (20.4%) have been in the strike zone.

“Sometimes I feel like it’s great, and sometimes I feel like it’s kind of a waste pitch,” Hicks said. “I think I’m finding more of the zone with it now. Just being able to trust it in the zone is the biggest thing for me, just to throw it for a strike and trust that it’s going to get a swing and miss or maybe some weak contact.”

Hicks’ emphasis on the splitter fits in well with the Giants, whom Hicks described as an “offspeed-heavy” club. (Indeed, since 2023, San Francisco has thrown the second-highest percentage of offspeed pitches in MLB.)

That’s just fine for Hicks, whose ability to supplement his fastball with his splitter and sweeper has already paid dividends. He praised the Giants’ coaching staff for being open and communicative with him ever since his signing in January.

“Just having that open conversation has helped a lot, to be able to go back and forth instead of just like, ‘This is how it’s going to be,’” Hicks said. “It’s just better to have a say in what you’re doing a little bit.”

What comes next?
Having that say went a long way for Hicks. The young right-hander hadn’t pitched above High-A when he opened the 2018 season with the Cardinals at age 21. A starter in the Minors, Hicks became a reliever for a St. Louis team with an established rotation -- not the path he perhaps wanted but one he ultimately is happy for.

“I can’t regret it because I wouldn’t have been a free agent at the age I am now,” the 27-year-old said. “No regrets -- I’m very thankful to the Cardinals organization for that opportunity. Obviously if I could have gotten there that same year and debuted that same day and been a starter, for sure, I would have loved to. But 2018, we had some solid guys there.”

Still, starting was on Hicks’ mind. Despite interest from other clubs in free agency, he was happy to hear the Giants could fulfill his wish to be a starter. Hicks said San Francisco’s recent World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014 as well as a plethora of talented pitchers, including and , appealed to him, too.

And so far, Hicks has been as good as the veteran starters he’s joined. Entering play Saturday, Hicks is tied with Webb for the Giants’ lead in bWAR at 1.0 -- which is already more than he’s had in any prior season.

Whether he can sustain it, of course, is the question. Hicks’ 2.35 expected ERA is a nice sign, but he’s never pitched more than 105 innings in a professional season nor more than 77 2/3 at the MLB level. Still, Hicks feels healthy, fully built up and ready to take his dream of starting as far as he can -- and enjoying the ride.

“It’s been nice,” he said. “The transition’s gone good.”