THE REDBIRD REVIEW
After Tuesday’s 8-1 loss to Toronto and another careening, agonizingly tedious start by Jordan Hicks, the Cardinals manager Oli Marmol sounded like a man who had just about seen enough of the pitcher’s wildness, walks, low percentage of strikes thrown, and tiresome pace.
Marmol said the team would ruminate on Hicks’ place in the rotation. “At the end of the day, you can’t go out there every five days and not attack the strike zone,” he said. “We’ve been patient up to this point. It’s very difficult on your bullpen, especially when you have multiple starters giving you four innings and five innings at a time. Sometimes less than that. We’ll take a deep look at it.”
Hey, I’m willing to help in the deep-look process.
Pardon me for jumping to the conclusion: Hicks has to relocate to the bullpen. And if the Cardinals want to delay the inevitable to stay the course with Hicks, this is not only wrong. It’s irresponsible.
The Cards tried to convert Hicks from reliever to starter. The experiment is failing, and no amount of finesse can make the reality go away.
Hicks isn’t improving. He’s regressing. In his last two starts Hicks has walked 21.6 percent of batters faced, allowed 46% of those batters to reach base, and has a 7.71 ERA. The Cardinals are 2–5 in games started by Hicks, and have lost three in a row with him on the mound.
In his first start of the season, Hicks pitched three innings. That was to be expected; he wasn’t ready to pitch deeper into games. But Tuesday night, in his seventh start, Hicks lasted three innings. Yep. Right back to where he started.
Given the laborious and stressful nature of his starts, I just hope Hicks doesn’t damage his right shoulder or arm. He does not pitch with a flow or tempo, and his mechanics are unsteady. It’s a sensible time to stop this and regroup.
Here is the Hicks profile through his seven starts:
➤ Hicks is averaging 3.5 innings per start. That ranks 141st among 143 MLB starting pitchers that were listed at Baseball Reference. This is not good for a rotation that’s weakened in May.
➤ Hicks has a 5.84 ERA that ranks 113rd among 147 starters that have pitched at least 20 innings this season.
➤ The Hicks walk rate is 16.6 percent – second worst among the 147 starters.
➤ Hicks has a strikeout-walk ratio of 1.30 which ranks 140th among 147 starters.
➤ Hicks doesn’t control counts. His first-pitch strike percentage, 49%, ranks 145th among the 147.
➤ Hicks throws strikes at a rate of 39.5 percent which ranks 115th among the 147.
➤ Hitters know that Hicks won’t fill the zone with strikes, so they’re content to let him pitch his way into trouble. They’ve swung at 39.7% of his pitches; that ranks 146th among the 147 starters.
➤ In a related trend, opposing hitters chase only 25.4 percent of Hicks’ pitches out of the zone. That ranks 141st.
➤ Because of his high walk total, opponents have waltzed to a .375 onbase percentage against him. That’s the seventh highest OBP (allowed) among the 147 starters.
➤ Including his two relief appearances, Hicks has struggled to retire the first batter he’s faced in an inning. The first hitter of the inning has reached base 15 times, and that’s led to 14 runs and a rate of 8.40 runs per nine innings. Hicks has retired the first batter 17 times, and only two runs have scored for a rate of 1.06 runs per nine innings. That’s a huge difference. And a key stat that explains one of the most significant problems with his pitching profile.
➤ Hicks has an impressive ground-ball rate (55.4%) ranking 8th among the 147 starters. But he doesn’t miss many bats. His strikeout rate (21.4) is slightly below league average, and his swinging-strike rate (8.6%) is 119th among the 147 starters.
➤ Hitters are barreling pitches against Hicks at a rate of 10.8 percent. That’s the 22nd-highest barrel rate against a starting pitcher this season.
Let’s look at the big picture …
The Cardinals prioritize run prevention, and they’re slipping in that area. After giving up 3.25 runs per game in April, the Cardinals are relinquishing 4.4 runs per game in May.
With a 5.95 ERA in five starts this month, Hicks is a factor in the downturn. But the rotation’s most pervasive issue is the shortage of innings, and Hicks isn’t helping. Only one of his five May starts has lasted longer than 4.1 innings.
This month the Cardinals have received fewer than five innings from a starter in nine of their 23 games. I’m excluding a 3.1 inning start made by Packy Naughton when the Cards had to go with a “bullpen” game format on May 10. The situation is deteriorating, with Cards starters failing to go five innings in five of the team’s last seven games.
The extra burden placed on relievers has led to a 4.26 bullpen ERA in May that ranks 20th for the month. The STL bullpen was ninth in MLB with a 3.22 ERA in April.
The bullpen could use a hard thrower and intimidating presence to enter the fray and subdue hitters. The Cardinals had a guy like that in 2018 and 2019. But the pitcher suffered an elbow injury, missed a lot of time, and the team decided to make him a starting pitcher, and that turned out to be a bad idea. I believe the fellow’s name was Hicks … Jordan Hicks.
NOTES ON MY SCORECARD
1) Hicks has a 6.23 ERA in his last six starts, and a 6.75 ERA in his last three starts.
2) Dakota Hudson has pitched 40 innings in eight starts. That average of 5 IP per start matches the MLB average for starting pitchers. Imagine how much better Hudson would be – and how many innings he would last – if he could lower a walk rate (11.3%) that’s third worst among 77 MLB starters that have pitched a minimum of 40 innings this season. And Hudson’s strikeout rate (13.1%) is second worst among the 77 starters.
3) Hudson rescues himself with a reliable ground-ball rate (56.5%) that’s No. 3 among MLB starters. When opponents have runners on base, they’ve batted .194 against Hudson on ground balls. When opponents have runners in scoring position, they’ve batted .071 against Hudson on grounders.
4) That’s why Hudson has a fine ERA of 3.60. But his fielding independent ERA is 4.90. That GB rate – and infield defense – gives Hudson protection.
5) Adam Wainwright, Miles Mikolas and Hudson have combined for a 2.75 ERA in their 25 starts this season. The other dudes that have started games for the Cardinals in 2022 have an ERA of 6.85.
6) Who would replace Hicks in the rotation? The depth has been thinned by injuries to Jack Flaherty and Steven Matz. After making his MLB debut on Saturday in Pittsburgh, rookie Matthew Liberatore will get a second start this weekend against Milwaukee. Including Hicks, that’s five starting pitchers.
6a) If Hicks is pulled, then the list of candidates to join the rotation include forgotten man Jake Woodford, Angel Rondon, lefty Zack Thompson, lefty Connor Thomas, lefty Packy Naughton and Johan Oviedo.
Going back to the start of last September, Woodford has a 2.37 ERA for the Cardinals in 18 games (five starts) and 41.2 innings. He’s biding time at Triple A Memphis because, you know, who needs a pitcher that has pitched so effectively in the big leagues?
Thompson has a 3.60 ERA in his last five starts, Oviedo has a 2.75 ERA in his last five starts, Thomas has a 1.50 ERA in his last two starts.
Rondon impressed with five innings of scoreless pitching Sunday at Pittsburgh after Matz (shoulder) had to leave after throwing only four pitches. Naughton was effective in relief for the Cardinals, and I don’t think it’s fair to judge him on his one MLB start this season. He made a spot start to cover a shortage.
7) The Cardinals could try veteran Drew VerHagen, who was signed out of Japan this past offseason. Before that, VerHagen had a 5.11 ERA in six seasons with the Detroit Tigers. A hip injury has limited to only seven innings for the Cardinals this season. He has a 3.75 ERA but gave up two homers to the Blue Jays on Tuesday. I mention VerHagen because of this: if John Mozeliak signs a free agent and pays him guaranteed money, that gives the guy an advantage over other candidates.
8) A lot of this depends on Matz and how long he’ll stay on the 15-day IL with a shoulder impingement. If Matz returns in a relatively short time, the Cardinals won’t be hustling for starting pitching … even if Hicks moves to the bullpen.
9) I do, however, wonder if Liberatore is here to stay. That would be a plus for the Cards rotation depth. But the talented and inexperienced lefty has to be much more effective against RH batters. While pitching at Triple A Memphis this season Liberatore was hammered by RH batters for a .308 average and .880 OPS. And in his MLB debut, Pittsburgh’s RHB went 5 for 13 against Liberatore (.385) with three doubles and an inside-the-park homer.
10) Or maybe the front office will surprise us by fast tracking one of the two prospects that have just been promoted to Double A Springfield. Michael McGreevy, drafted in the first round last year, had a 2.58 ERA in eight starts for high Class A Peoria before moving to the next level. Gordon Graceffo had an 0.99 ERA and 34 percent strikeout rate in his eight starts at Peoria before the promotion to Springfield. I don’t think they’ll jump to the majors this soon. But at least I had the chance to update you on how well the two righthanders are doing.
11) And congrats to the Cardinals’ starting shortstop of the future, Masyn Winn, who was promoted to Springfield as well. At Peoria, Winn batted .349 with a .970 OPS, 11 doubles, seven triples and 15 stolen bases in 15 attempts. He draws walks and doesn’t strike out a lot.
12) Speaking of shortstops: After a big day at the plate on Tuesday, Paul DeJong is 8 for 21 (.381) with a 1.054 OPS in his last five games for Triple A Memphis. In 10 games since his demotion by the Cardinals, DeJong is hitting .238 with a .664 OPS. But he appears to be heating up.
13) Nolan Gorman is 0 for 7 with four strikeouts in his last two games. Not a big deal. But this is when we find out more about him. Rookie hitters have to adjust.
14) Oli Marmol is good at what he does but the Corey Dickerson infatuation is just a little goofy. Why did the Cardinals promote outfielder Lars Nootbaar from Memphis and put him on the bench? Nootbaar should have started at least one of the two games against Toronto.
Am I missing something? Dickerson is batting .183 and has an OPS+ of 35 in his 32 games for the Cardinals. That OPS+ number means he’s 65 percent below league average offensively. And with a .220 slugging percentage he has minimal power. But as a LH batter Dickerson must be doing well against RH pitchers, correct? Well, no. He’s hitting .189 against them with a .216 slug. But Dickerson has started the last four games and six out of the last eight. During the eight-game stretch Dickerson is hitting .167 with a .439 OPS … good grief.
15) Paul Goldschmidt’s last 30 games: .412 average, .462 onbase percentage, .706 slugging percentage, 1.168 OPS, 21 extra-base hits, and a combined 50 runs scored and runs driven in.
16) When the Brewers come to St. Louis to play a four-game series that starts Thursday, they’ll be without several injured players: starting pitcher Freddy Peralta (strained lat/shoulder), shortstop Willy Adames (sprained ankle), right fielder Hunter Renfroe (strained hamstring), and relievers Jake Cousins (elbow contusion) and Jandel Gustave (hamstring strain.)
The status of esteemed closer Josh Hader is uncertain. He’s away from the club to be at home with his wife, who is in the late stages of a difficult and complicated pregnancy. Perhaps Hader will return during the Crew’s stay at Busch Stadium. Or not. Manager Craig Counsell told reporters that Hader’s availability is “day to day.” Hader hasn’t allowed a run this season in 15 appearances that covered 13.2 innings and is a perfect 15 for 15 in save opps.
Peralta’s shoulder injury won’t require surgery, and Milwaukee is confident that he’ll return to pitch later in the season, but he will miss a significant amount of time … Adames will likely be back early next week …it’s believed Renfroe will miss two weeks … lefty Aaron Ashby takes Peralta’s spot in the rotation, Tyrone Taylor figures to get most of the at-bats in right field, Luis Urias is handling shortstop, and Devin Williams is serving as the closer during Hader’s absence … Renfroe had nine homers, a .503 slugging percentage and 125 OPS+ before the injury … Adames has a 115 OPS+ this season.
17) The Cardinals won’t have to face reigning Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes during this series but are scheduled to go against lefty Eric Lauer on Thursday, Brandon Woodruff on Friday, and Adrian Houser on Saturday. The Brewers haven’t decided on a starter for Sunday’s game.
18) Milwaukee plays at San Diego on Wednesday night to close a three-game series that’s tied 1-1. Going into tonight’s game the Brewers (27-16) lead the Cardinals (24-19) by three games in the NL Central.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the “Bernie Show” podcast at 590thefan.com — the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
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All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.