The SF Giants made a surprise move on Friday, adding veteran reliever Jordan Hicks on a four-year, $44 million pact. The bigger surprise was when Jeff Passan of ESPN reported that the Giants intend to try Hicks out as a starter. It may not work out in the end, but it is a fascinating experiment for several reasons.
Why the Jordan Hicks addition is such a fascinating experiment
The hard-throwing pitcher has worked primarily as a reliever since he debuted with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2018. The Cardinals did try him out as a starter in 2022, but they pulled the plug on that experiment after eight starts.
During that time, Hicks posted a 5.48 ERA with almost as many walks (21) as strikeouts (25) across 26.1 frames before experiencing forearm tightness. It did not work out, but that was not Hicks' first shot as a starter since becoming a pro in 2015. In fact, he came up as a starter but shifted to the bullpen when he was called up by the Cardinals.
Perhaps, St. Louis could have waited to see him continue as a starter. However, the quickest path to the majors for a pitcher with premium fastball velocity and below-average command is through the bullpen. Hicks performed well in that role, recording a 3.65 ERA across five seasons, so sticking in that role made sense.
For the Giants, they are taking a chance on a pitcher with impressive arm talent. Hicks has posted a 9.4 K/9 ratio with a 60.4 percent ground ball rate throughout his career. He has a couple of ways in which he can get opposing hitters out and that type of combination should have success as a starter.
Plus, his arsenal is impressive. He flashes a sinker that comfortably sits in triple digits. Given the velocity, it is a mild surprise that he does not get more swinging strikes with it. That said, it is a tough pitch to lift as the average launch angle against it has never been above zero in any one season.
The 27-year-old pairs this with a sweeper and a changeup. The sweeper was previously listed as a slider, but was reclassed in 2023 when the sweeper was added as a pitch in Baseball Savant. Opposing hitters posted a .136 batting average against it in 2023. Though, Hicks did use it only 19.8 percent of the time. It stands to reason that an increase in usage makes sense.
On the other hand, the changeup is not a pitch he uses often. According to Baseball Savant, he has not allowed a hit against it since 2021. That is more of a function of its limited usage. If he is going to transition to the rotation, he will need a third pitch. That changeup could see an increase in usage as well.
So, Hicks has been a reliever for much of his career. He does have an intriguing sinker-slider combination that does well to get strikeouts and ground balls. There is a lot to like in Hicks' profile. Plus, he will be entering his age-27 season in 2024, so it would be a good bet that he has more peak years ahead.
There are not many opportunities to add a hard-throwing, 27-year-old pitcher in free agency. The Giants may have found a way to add both upside and youth in a creative way. In that respect, it is a fascinating experiment at a cost that is not prohibitive by any means.
Of course, there is a reason as to why this deal was even available. Hicks has worked primarily as a reliever and there are a couple of good reasons why he has remained in that role - durability and command.
The veteran reliever has undergone Tommy John surgery, experienced recurring forearm tightness, and dealt with a flexor strain in recent seasons. He has never pitched more than 77.2 innings in a year and that was back in 2018. Can the Giants pencil him in for 25 starts and 150 innings in 2024? That seems unlikely.
Similarly, Hicks has been plagued by below-average command. This includes a 4.9 BB/9 ratio. That type of number is extremely high and one that is arguably not sustainable for a starter. It can work in the bullpen where the pitcher only needs to record three outs and can pitch in traffic to do so. Despite poor command, Hicks has a high margin for error with location thanks in part to premium fastball velocity. Even if he misses his spot, he can still get the out. He does not have to be too fine with his command. He just needs to show better control.
I should re-emphasize that the Hicks addition is an experiment. He may never be able to command his pitches in all four quadrants of the strike zone, but he has to show better control, which involves throwing more strikes. If he cannot, then his starts are going to be short in a way that exposes the bullpen.
The control is going to be the factor that influences the direction of this experiment. IF he can show improvement, he has the pitch mix to develop into a mid-rotation arm. However, if he cannot, then reverting back to the bullpen as a leverage reliever is not a terrible outcome either.
This is an experiment that could be over after just a few starts. The Giants cannot go another year where their starters do not pitch deep into games. They need outs and it is tough to record enough outs as a starter when you walk batters at too high of a frequency. Although, this is an experiment that could make the front office look smart by June if it works out.
San Francisco needed another starter and they seemingly filled that in a creative way rather than go with someone who has a more reliable track record. I can understand if fans are not too keen on experiments at this point. This would have been a fun idea five years ago when the front office took over. That patience and goodwill have waned. The results speak louder than anything else.