It might have been lost in the shuffle of the deal spree the Yankees embarked on late last week, but by the sounds of it, the Yankees still have an eye turned towards improving the bullpen. There have been reports in the aftermath of the Juan Soto trade connecting the team to free agent reliever Jordan Hicks. What’s to it?
The Yankees’ rumored attraction to Hicks is quite simple. He throws a 100-mph sinker, which is cool in and of itself, not taking into consideration the fact that the Yankees have made a point to weaponize high-velo sinkers more than most teams in recent years, as seen in Clay Holmes, Jonathan Loáisiga, Frankie Montas, Jimmy Cordero, Wandy Peralta, and even Michael King. And like King, Holmes, Clarke Schmidt, and to a lesser degree, Nestor Cortes, Hicks has got a pretty nasty sweeper to accompany that sinker.
Against opposite-handed hitters, though, Hicks is a slightly different pitcher, relying more on his four-seamer and a little-seen slider/change combo. In any case, it’s a wide arsenal, and one I imagine the Yankees could get a lot out of working with.
2023 Stats: 65 G, 65.2 IP, 3.29 ERA (132 ERA+), 3.22 FIP, 28.4% K%, 11.2% BB%, 1.1 fWAR
Hicks had the best full season of his career in 2023, finally staying healthy for a full campaign for the first time since his rookie year in 2018 and matching some of his previous personal bests in ERA, FIP, strikeout rate, and barrel rate over a full season of work. The then-26-year-old shared closing duties in St. Louis with Ryan Helsley and Giovanny Gallegos, picking up eight saves before moving to Toronto at the deadline.
At the time of the deal, Hicks had a 3.65 ERA, and he was even better as Jordan Romano’s setup man down the stretch, giving the Jays 24 innings of 2.64 ERA ball that both FIP and xERA think was well-earned. He couldn’t have timed it better, either. After earning just over $1.3 million in his final year of arbitration last year, Hicks will be in line for a fat multi-year deal, with MLB Trade Rumors prognosticating a four-year, $40 million deal and FanGraphs’ Ben Clemens calling a similar three years and $30 million.
Why shouldn’t the Yankees be the ones to give him that deal (other than the whole “not having a fifth starter’ thing)? With Holmes and Loáisiga in tow and Matt Blake’s aptitude for pulling diamonds out of the rough, the bullpen isn’t a glaring hole, but with Matt Krook currently occupying the last spot on the team’s Roster Resource page, it could definitely use more substance beyond Tommy Kahnle and Ian Hamilton.
It’s a weak free agent market and Hicks might be the best name available behind Josh Hader, so he may have a hot market, but the Yankees are more or less all-in over the rest of Aaron Judge and Gerrit Cole’s prime, and if they’re prepared to blow through multiple tiers of the luxury tax to retain Juan Soto and/or obtain the services of Yoshinobu Yamamoto, then it stands to reason that another ~$10 million spent to shore up a bullpen that can’t be entirely developed internally shouldn’t be a bridge too far.
It might be fair to fear a bit of redundancy, given the similarities between Hicks and Holmes/Loáisiga. If you only show hitters one type of pitcher, it’ll get easier to hit. With Hicks, though, the stuff is good enough that might not be something worth bothering over. You probably first heard of Hicks for the record-brushing 104-mph fastballs he was throwing when he first got to The Show, and even if he doesn’t do that with much regularity anymore, he still definitively throws harder than just about anyone in the game.
Only Jhoan Duran beat Hicks’ 100.3-mph average four-seam velocity, and only Aroldis Chapman could beat his 100.1-mph sinker, which isn’t a bat-missing pitch so much as simply being tough to square up because of the combination of velocity and drop. At 68.5 percent, it had the fifth-highest ground-ball rate of any sinker in the game — Holmes is at the top of the leaderboard — and while average exit velocity doesn’t necessarily tell us all that much, it’s not nothing that his average EV on sinkers was one of the 10 lowest in the game.
That being said, on the whole, it still was close to an average pitch in terms of contract metrics, like a .311 expected wOBA. But what doesn’t show up in the stats how it helps set up Hicks’ sweeper.
When a hitter always has to be ready for that 100-mph bowling ball, it just messes them up even more when you drop 12 mph and add a ton of sweep in the opposite directions.
In terms of movement, it’s not an exceptional pitch, but its results were incredible: a .217 expected wOBA that was in the top-20 percent of all sweepers, and an absolutely absurd 59.5-percent whiff rate that was more than 10 percentage points higher than the next-highest finisher. Even if a hitter manages to time up the fastball, there’s simply nothing that can prepare you for that change-of-pace.
Jordan Hicks, 99mph Two Seamer and 87mph Sweeper, Individual Pitches + Overlay. pic.twitter.com/eXRcpYpa8E— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 9, 2023
Most importantly, at age 27, Hicks still isn’t a finished product yet, despite reaching free agency at an unusually young age. He’s been good to this point, but he has the tools to be great. It’s often just a matter of finding the right team to figure it out.
For the Yankees, the interest in Hicks might not just be that he immediately fills a need, but that with some tweaks and adjustments, he might become a $20 million pitcher on a $10 million salary. Personally, I hope it comes to fruition.