In some MLB injury news that felt as sadly inevitable as it is disappointing, St. Louis Cardinals closer Jordan Hicks is likely out for the long-term future, as the team announced today that he tore the UCL in his right (throwing) elbow. The Cardinals said they are “determining the next course of action” for Hicks, but oftentimes this injury leads to Tommy John surgery.
Hicks, a 22-year-old in his second MLB season, is a flamethrowing maniac, and his name absolutely dominates the fastest-pitch leaderboard. Hicks has thrown 48 of the 50 fastest pitches of 2019, and he’s the only pitcher to top 104 miles per hour (four times) and 103 mph (21 times). That’s over the course of 110 batters faced. Per Fangraphs, the average velocity of his most popular pitch on the season—his sinker—is 101.5 mph. It’s not all speed, either—that sinker can be filthy as shit, too:
Hicks has the stuff that announcers love to call “electric,” but as he brings a fried elbow to the IL, it’s worth wondering if Hicks’s kind of pitching is humanly possible over a long-term period. As someone whose early baseball memories include oft-injured ex-Tigers reliever Joel Zumaya in a prominent role, I find it both easy and reasonable to worry about what kind of damage today’s elite fastballers might be doing to their arms by charting new territory on the radar gun.
“We’re seeing so many young kids come up, they throw 95, 98, as hard as they can for a full season and then they come back and their arm’s gone,” said then-A’s catcher Stephen Vogt back in 2017. “Our bodies are not designed to withstand that much velocity. If you do, you’re a freak.”
Throwing blazing heat isn’t necessarily a death sentence for every ulnar collateral ligament. Aroldis Chapman, to use the most prominent example, can top 100 mph yet still has enjoyed remarkable longevity—he’s made over 50 appearances every year since 2011. But as the threat of Tommy John surgery becomes more and more visible—29 percent of pitchers from the past 10 years have had it—it’s no huge surprise that the number of players who can throw triple digits appears to be flat for the time being.
If Hicks can somehow get back to safely throwing the mach-five pitches that made him so much fun to watch, that’d be fantastic. But for now, and likely for the next year-plus, baseball is down one of its most exciting young players, and it’s fair to be pessimistic about a future return to form. If someone can devise an effective way to keep a talent like Hicks healthy while still allowing him to throw 104, they might just revolutionize baseball.