February 2, 2023

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Hicks' role to be evaluated after tough start

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ST. LOUIS — Jordan Hicks is having a hard time transforming himself from one of baseball’s hardest-throwing relievers into a starting pitcher who can carry his team deep into games. His struggles with efficiency could force the team to confront the question of whether or not the makeover is worth it.

Hicks walked five batters before he got an out in the fourth inning of an 8-1 loss to the Blue Jays on Tuesday night at Busch Stadium, forcing yet another early hook from manager Oliver Marmol in what has become an early-season pattern of short starts for Hicks.

The loss snapped the Cardinals’ four-game winning streak.

“It’s a good question and one we’ll evaluate,” Marmol said, when asked how much longer the team will keep Hicks in a starting role. “At the end of the day, we want to feel like we’re competing and, when guys go out there, to think they have a shot. I think the combination of not commanding his pitches and just the overall pace made that difficult.”

Hicks, 25, still has plenty of raw weapons and talent most pitchers would envy. His fastball has dipped a couple of ticks off its average of around 101.1 mph from 2019, when he pitched exclusively in relief, to a still-intimidating 98.8 mph now that he has to try to navigate a lineup at least a couple of times. His high-spin slider remains devastatingly difficult to hit, with 3.5 inches of vertical movement per Statcast, a devilish pitch that breaks 70% more than the average Major League slider.

It just doesn’t look enough like a strike to tempt good hitters to swing, particularly when the pitch isn’t always necessarily near the zone. Hicks set a laborious tone early Tuesday, with only one of his first seven pitches hitting the strike zone. Home-plate umpire Pat Hoberg barely had to lift his right hand early on. The night didn’t get much easier from there.

“I feel like if I can get that fastball in there, that’s the game changer,” Hicks said. “I can’t be out there throwing slider or changeup on every pitch. It’s frustrating. You’re supposed to get the fastball in there and working everything off that. It’s just not happening.”

Another question confronting Hicks is whether two effective pitches is enough to be a successful starting pitcher in the Major Leagues. His third pitch, the changeup, is a work in progress that he’s thrown less than 6 percent of the time this season.

The conundrum for the Cardinals is who would replace Hicks if they move him back to the bullpen. The club already has promoted top pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore to fill in for injured starter Steven Matz, and several of the starters at Triple-A Memphis, such as Jake Woodford and Johan Oviedo, have had chances to grab Major League spots before with limited success.

The Cards also want to be sure, because of Hicks’ immense upside, that they give him enough time to learn the craft of being a big league starting pitcher. That’s why they have given him the runway to build up to this point in the first place. He said he remains confident he can do it.

Tuesday’s start was Hicks’ first without a predetermined pitch count, but his ineffectiveness made Marmol’s decision to pull him early an easy one.

“One hundred percent I do,” Hicks said. “Like I said, it’s just about commanding that fastball, and once I do, I believe the sky’s the limit for myself. And that’s just my confidence, but it’s hard to read when you’re not throwing any fastball strikes.”

George Springer and several of the other patient Blue Jays hitters didn’t look particularly bothered taking pitches from Hicks on Tuesday, as they broke out of their early-season hitting torpor after Hicks started giving free passes. By the end of the game, Toronto’s offense — stuck in a lengthy slump coming in — had broken out definitively against the Cardinals’ middle relievers forced to pick up Hicks’ slack. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. launched a massive home run off Drew VerHagen, 109.1 mph off the bat for his first extra-base hit since May 5.

Hicks has yet to record an out as late as the sixth inning this season. By now, he was supposed to be built up into the range of 100 pitches, but his difficulty throwing enough strikes and getting through lineups three times has made that unattainable so far.

It wasn’t as if the Blue Jays teed off on Hicks, exactly; Toronto hit only six balls off him as hard as 95 mph. Catcher Danny Jansen had two of those hard-hit knocks, including an arcing fly ball that clanged off the left-field foul pole for a three-run homer one batter before the walk that ended Hicks’ night. Two of Hicks’ walks came around to score. Jansen, having a career night, also homered off VerHagen.

Hicks’ struggles were more glaring juxtaposed against the established starter the Cardinals were facing, Kevin Gausman, who pitched six scoreless innings while allowing just four hits. He struck out eight Cards to give him 64 punchouts for the season, good for fourth in MLB.

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