MIAMI — The starting pitching assignment Jordan Hicks was awarded in Spring Training came much later than expected, and it included a couple of stopovers in the bullpen, but the delay did little to alter the focused mindset of the Cardinals’ fireballer.
Hicks thinks of himself and carries himself as a starting pitcher in every sort of way. His days of being a reliever — one who set records with fastballs clocked at 105.1 and 104.3 mph — have been over since a preseason meeting, in which manager Oliver Marmol informed him he had won a spot in the rotation.
Now, on the precipice of his first career start on Thursday against the Marlins, Hicks is eager to show off the massive potential he feels he has as a pitcher who can be a stopper for the Cardinals every fifth day.
“When [Marmol] told me I was getting that starting role and told me, ‘I’m excited to see what you’re going to do these next couple of years,’ that’s where my mindset went,” said Hicks, who had his first two shots at starting wiped out by rainouts. “I finally got to this point — we’re 10 games in, and I’m about to get my first start — so I’m just locked in and ready to go.”
Hicks, 25, missed most of the last 2 1/2 seasons while he battled through Tommy John surgery, a 2020 opt-out and a minor reinjury to his elbow in ‘21. The Cardinals brought Hicks along slowly in Spring Training, but they chose him as the No. 5 starter over Jake Woodford and Drew VerHagen because of the enormous potential they feel he has with his arsenal of triple-digit fastballs and sliders with jaw-dropping movement.
Because Hicks is still building up his arm, Marmol slotted him in between workhorse starters Miles Mikolas and Steven Matz to not overtax the bullpen on consecutive days. At most, Hicks will pitch three innings and no more than 55 pitches — meaning either Woodford, VerHagen or Aaron Brooks will be used as a “piggyback” starter on Thursday.
Asked if Hicks’ potential as a starter outweighed the complications that his modified role creates for a pitching staff, Marmol said the Cardinals’ actions answer that question.
“There’s serious upside to him being a legit starter,” Marmol said. “It’s a matter of getting the length out of him. When you think about starting the season and trying to keep him healthy, having a schedule is going to be the best thing health-wise for him.”
At the age of 21, Hicks made the remarkable leap from Class A to the Major Leagues in 2018, when he used a blazing fastball to register 24 holds and six saves out of the Cardinals’ bullpen. That season, the 6-foot-2, 220-pounder fired a 105.1 mph fastball that tied Aroldis Chapman for the fastest-recorded pitch in AL/NL history. In 2019, he had the fastest pitch of that season (104.3 mph), and he became the Cardinals’ closer with 14 saves in 15 opportunities.
However, Hicks’ enormous promise was put on hold when he needed Tommy John surgery in 2019. A Type I diabetic, Hicks then opted out of the ‘20 season, and he reinjured his elbow after 10 appearances in ‘21.
Hicks’ injury history taught him that less velocity could mean many more appearances for him in years to come. In Spring Training, most of his pitches were in the 97-99 mph range instead of the 101-104 mph range he often featured prior to his arm injury.
In what he hopes will be his final bullpen appearance, Hicks allowed just one hit in two scoreless innings against Milwaukee on Sunday. More important, he struck out three batters and walked just one. Of the 35 pitches that Hicks threw, 10 were at least 100 mph and most of those came after he got into a bit of a jam. As Hicks has repeatedly stated, the ability to go deep into triple digits is still there when needed.
“It gives me confidence that I can throw those 96s and 98s, because I’ve never really done that unless I was [tired] from back-to-back [outings] and that’s all I had that day,” he said. “It gave me some confidence I can be in the zone with that stuff.”
Hicks, who was once a starter in the Minors, thinks his recent ability to adapt to the torque on his elbow will make him an effective starter for the long term.
“I know this is where I want to be,” he said. “And I know my stuff plays. I just want to go out there and show it over a full season.”