I guess we’d better get used to this: On Sunday, Cardinals reliever Jordan Hicks threw five pitches to the Phillies’ scorching-hot Odubel Herrera during a ninth inning at-bat. They were all sinkers, clocking in respectively at 104, 105, 104, 105 and 103 mph. They were the five fastest pitches of the season, eclipsing Aroldis Chapman’s 103.3 mph pitch into Jackie Bradley Jr. from earlier this month. That 105.1-mph sinker tied Chapman for the hardest pitch ever recorded.
If you’ve watched Jordan Hicks pitch at all this season—like when he threw two of the season’s hardest pitches to White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson during a recent at-bat—then you have an idea of how this is all both thrilling and dangerous. Hicks, a 21-year-old and former third-round pick, pitches without any apparent regard for how this continued motion could lead to something popping, tearing, or cracking. If there’s such a thing as an effortless 103 mph, Hicks has it—there’s very little violence in his delivery, and it’s not the result of any glaring physical gifts, either. He doesn’t really look like someone who should throw this hard, and at 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds he has a slighter and less imposing frame than Chapman.
But if the motion looks easy, things tend to get harder for Hicks once the ball leaves his hand. When they’re obedient, his pitches are near-unhittable. When they’re not, which they often aren’t, they swerve and zig-zag well beyond Hicks and his catcher’s control on their way to the plate. That Herrera at-bat was a decent enough encapsulation of how overwhelming it can be for everyone involved.
Herrera looked at the first pitch, a 104-mph sinker, which dropped right in the strike zone. Then, Hicks whipped a 105-mph pitch nearly two feet outside, skidding off catcher Francisco Pena’s glove to the backstop. Herrera somehow fouled off the next two, before swinging at a 103-mph bouncer off the plate to strike out. That one got away from Pena, too, and despite lingering for a few seconds in the box Herrera ended up safe at first after a similarly wild throw from Pena.
Prospect Knowers had flagged Hicks as a diabolical buzzsaw as he came up through the Cardinals system, citing what was then high-90s stuff, a slider that could sink to the mid-80s, and noting a bevy of control issues. Thus far, that’s all checked out: Hicks sports a nice 2.05 ERA through 22 innings, but is underwater elsewhere. He has 16 walks and 9 strikeouts, which is both worryingly upside down and weird in other important ways. That relatively measly 3.7 K/9 is pretty interconnected to a surprisingly low swing-and-miss rate on his sinker—he’s drawn just 20 empty swings on 229 of them.
Add it up, and you’ve got living proof that players are more than just a collection of talents and tools. Hicks is throwing harder than just about anyone the game has ever seen, but he’s probably also throwing too hard; at the very least, he struggles to command what is undeniably an elite gift. That wildness could be even more of a liability with runners on base in meaningful games, but that’s the paradox of Hicks at this point in his career—he throws heat that even big league hitters can’t catch, but he also doesn’t know where it’s going and doesn’t strike anyone out. He’s not a finished product, in other words, and while it’s hard to say what he’ll be, it should be fun to watch as he learns how to control where those balls are going.