AnalysisNL West

The Jordan Hicks Gambit

To this point in a sluggish offseason, there’s been several acquisitions that immediately grabbed the attention of baseball fans. After their respective moves, players such as Shohei Ohtani and Juan Soto dominated headlines for weeks. 

But when Jordan Hicks signed with San Francisco, the move flew under the radar, and for fair reasons. Hicks is a solid reliever, arguably the only fire-baller who rivals Aroldis Chapman when it comes to fastball velocity. However, Hicks has suffered serious elbow injuries in his major league career, and he’s not an established closer.

Despite those concerns, the Giants gave Hicks a sizable deal for a reliever, at four years and $44 million. But that’s because he isn’t signing to be a reliever – the Giants view him as a cog in their rotation. 

This move is fairly on-brand for San Francisco, as they’ve been fairly creative when filling starts in recent years. In 2023, the Giants split Sean Manaea, Alex Wood, and Ross Stripling pretty evenly between the bullpen and the rotation, while also using openers such as Ryan Walker and John Brebbia. But even Farhan Zaidi would admit that this signing is a much more radical maneuver.

The Hicks rotation experiment isn’t a completely novel idea, the Cardinals even tried the same tactic for a seven start stretch in 2022. But he was largely ineffective as a starter, failing to complete five innings in six of his starts and producing a 5.48 ERA in that span. 

The Giants are taking a massive risk here, essentially banking their rotation’s success on a free-agent reliever. Could this gambit work? Sure, anything’s a possibility. But will it work? That’s another question entirely, and that’s what this article aims to determine. 

How Do You Turn a Reliever Into a Starter?

The Hicks signing is another example of a trend that’s becoming increasingly prevalent in the baseball landscape: converting relievers to starters. 

Failed starters converting into relievers is a tactic that has existed since the dawn of time, with Andrew Miller and Zack Britton serving as two notable examples in recent years. But relievers becoming starters? The precedent hasn’t existed until recently, in a modern baseball environment where the lines between the bullpen and the rotation are becoming ever smaller.

What makes a reliever a good starter candidate? How do we determine who can start and who can’t? It’s a complex process, and there are many factors that go into identifying the right candidates to start. So, let’s look at some recent examples of relievers-turned-starters to identify traits that separate them from the pack. 

First, I tried to identify a relationship between pre-MLB starting experience and starting pitcher performance in the majors. After taking a sample of ten reliever/starter hybrids, I plotted them on a graph, with pre-MLB games started as my x-axis and MLB starter ERA as my y-axis. The results were inconclusive, at best. 

Unsurprisingly, the line of best fit indicated a weak negative relationship between pre-MLB games started and MLB starter ERA. Logic dictates that the more experience a pitcher receives as a starter, the lower their ERA would be as a starter. But I could tell that the answer to the Jordan Hicks question wasn’t going to be that easy, forcing me to take a deeper dive into the pitchers I sampled.

The Rays are sort of masters when it comes to this, so I immediately knew to start in Tampa when looking at relievers-turned-starters. There are a few decent examples, the most recent one being Zack Littell from this year. But, I think the most successful example of the trend I’m looking to highlight is Jeffrey Springs.

At Appalachian State, Springs was a mediocre starting pitcher, registering a 5.10 ERA across 43 starts in four years. In the 2015 Draft, the Rangers took a flier on him in the 30th round. But they viewed him as a reliever more than anything, and that was reflected in their approach to his development. 

In 120 minor league appearances with the Rangers organization, Springs only made 28 starts. Of the ten reliever-starter hybrids I examined, Springs’ 23.3% minor league start percentage was the lowest by a country mile. Prior to reaching Tampa, the intention was always for Springs to be a reliever, and that’s an awfully rare occurrence, even among reliever-starter hybrids. 

For example, just look at his fellow Ray, Littell. Before earning an opportunity in the Twins bullpen, Littell started over 71% of his games in the minors. Despite being developed as a starter, he failed to earn a rotation spot until injuries forced him into Tampa’s rotation, similar to Springs.

Most starter-reliever hybrids follow that path, and Hicks is no exception to that rule. As he was fast-tracked through the minors, Hicks started 85.4% of the games he pitched. But after reaching the majors, the Cardinals opted to make him a reliever, so that’s where he has resided since.

There are many different ways to be an effective starter, and the things that make Springs effective aren’t going to necessarily fit Hicks’ profile. Every pitcher is working with a different toolbox.

For example, Jeffrey Springs’ fastball couldn’t be more different than Hicks’. While Hicks averages triple digits on the pitch, Springs sits at a crisp 91 miles per hour, velocity that’s comparable to Hicks’ changeup more than anything. So, how is the pitch successful for Springs with such a low velocity? Because it’s remarkably spin-efficient and it has an above average induced vertical break. Both of these characteristics give the pitch a rising effect, limiting the damage it allows. 

Hicks, however, uses a sinker-primary, which is less spin-efficient and has a much different movement pattern than Springs’ fastball. His sinker still generates plenty of weak contact, which is what it is designed to do, but it’s effective in a different manner than Springs’ four-seam.

What’s The Deal With Michael King?

There is a path to success for Hicks as a starter, but I think newly-acquired Padre Michael King is a much better example of that. Similar to Hicks, King was brought up through the minors as a starter, starting 73.8% of his minor league appearances before cracking the big leagues. But in the majors, he saw his workload limited, mostly working out of the bullpen with occasional spot starts. 

Similarly to Hicks, King dealt with a season-ending elbow injury during the early stages of his major league career. In the midst of a breakout 2022 campaign out of the bullpen, King fractured his elbow, prematurely ending his season. These are two relievers, who both suffered severe elbow injuries early in their careers, who are now both being converted into starters. So, what does King do that can work for Hicks?

One-to-one pitch comparisons are a very rudimentary way to look at two pitchers. But if you look at the movement patterns of both of their arsenals, you’ll actually notice a lot of similarities.

The velocity is obviously not the same, as there are maybe three pitchers on the planet who can replicate Hicks’ velocity on a consistent basis. But King’s 95-mph sinker is a much better comparison for Hicks than, say, Jeffrey Springs’ 91-mph four-seam. Both pitchers feature wipeout sweepers, sinkers that are tailor-made for weak contact, and strong four-seam offerings that are effective at limiting damage.

Stuff is not the only variable that comes into play here, but Hicks’ stuff is definitely good enough to play as a starter. So what does King do that sets him apart from Hicks? There’s a myriad of possible answers, but I think a good place to start is King’s pitch usage.

King has four above-average pitches, and he uses them fairly evenly, as you can see in the chart. Because of this, King is able to keep batters guessing without using an overwhelming amount of offerings, allowing him to be effective over the duration of a start. Hicks, on the other hand, is the complete opposite.

Coming out of the bullpen, Hicks is usually able to overpower batters with his sinker without issue. They aren’t going to have multiple turns against him in one game, so he can utilize the pitch to induce weak contact and get out of jams.

But when Hicks began to start games in 2022, this strategy became much less effective. When you’re facing the same batters three times in a game, using the same pitch over 60% of the time is not a sustainable approach, even for known fireballers such as Spencer Strider. In order for this experiment to work, I’d expect San Francisco to work on having Hicks balance out his arsenal.

It’s not going to be an immediate fix, but Hicks has the stuff necessary to be a major league starter. If he starts diversifying his pitch usage, it could go a long way toward helping him become a fixture in San Francisco’s rotation next year.

Mauricio Palmar

Aspiring journalist, occasional Nationals fan. Tweets can be found at @sixmileshow or @RoblesTruther.

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