10 Degrees: The story of Jordan Hicks' 105.1-mph pitch, which was (maybe) the hardest ever thrown

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

There’s a theoretical limit on the human arm, a point at which a ligament or muscle or tendon or bone will combust under the stress and strain of throwing a baseball. So long as that exists only in the abstract, there is always the possibility of seeing something like 43,560 fans did Sunday in St. Louis: the hardest pitch ever.

Now it is not entirely clear whether the 105.1-mph sinking fastball St. Louis Cardinals rookie Jordan Hicks threw against Philadelphia Phillies star Odubel Herrera deserves that title. The system that tracks such things differs from ones that declared Aroldis Chapman hit 105.1 on pitches in 2011 and 2016. And then there are the pre-camera-and-radar years in which Nolan Ryan and Steve Dalkowski and Bob Feller and Bullet Rogan and Walter Johnson may stake their claim.

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Provided one believes in the Statcast system’s fidelity — and seeing as its computational elements are black-boxed, trusting it to the tenth of a mile per hour does take a slight leap of faith — it’s fairly safe to claim 21-year-old Hicks did have the single hardest-throwing plate appearance ever. That 105.1, which Herrera fouled off, was the fourth pitch he saw. The first left Hicks’ hand at 104.2 mph. The second, maybe the most impressive of all, zoomed away from catcher Francisco Pena’s glove, as if guided by some demonic spirit, at 105 mph. Hicks sandwiched 104.3 and 103.7 around the record setter.

St. Louis Cardinals’ pitcher Jordan Hicks threw perhaps the hardest pitch ever thrown in the majors. (AP)
St. Louis Cardinals’ pitcher Jordan Hicks threw perhaps the hardest pitch ever thrown in the majors. (AP)

This is baseball in 2018. Everyone throws hard. While the gold standard of pitch interpretation, Brooks Baseball, had yet to fully sic its algorithm on Hicks’ pitches — its initial reading was 106.1 mph, though its proprietor, Dan Brooks, warned to wait a day for the site’s true verdict — a look at its velocity leaderboards tells an incredible story.

Coming into Sunday, 373 pitchers had thrown at least 50 four-seam fastballs this season, according to Brooks Baseball. Only 21 had an average fastball below 90 mph. Nearly 95 percent of pitchers, 90 and above. Almost a full third — 123 of 373 — average 95 mph or better, per Brooks’ calculations. It’s getting truer by the day: If you don’t throw 95, you have two choices. Either figure out how to or get so good at something else — command, an off-speed pitch, movement — that teams can’t ignore it.

Because every day there’s someone new coming up and breathing fire. If it’s not Seranthony Dominguez with the Phillies, it’s Justin Anderson with the Los Angeles Angels. If it’s not Lou Trivino with the Oakland A’s, it’s Reyes Moronta with the San Francisco Giants or Justin Hancock with the Chicago Cubs. Five rookies. All sit at 98 or 99. Which somehow feels slow when …

1. Jordan Hicks is redefining what a hard-throwing pitcher can be. Ever since the Cardinals took him in the 2015 draft — with, naturally, the 105th pick — he has tantalized the organization with his athleticism. Nobody saw this.

Even with a velocity jump last season, which Hicks spent in Low-A and High-A, the prospect of him doing much more than spending this season rounding out his arsenal to remain a starting pitcher seemed far-fetched. Then he came out in spring training busting triple digits and strong-armed the Cardinals into making him part of their opening day bullpen.

And he’s been excellent, with a 2.05 ERA over 22 innings, though Hicks may well be the greatest curiosity in baseball, and not because the world wonders how a 6-foot-2, 185-pound right-hander may throw harder than anyone in history. No, it’s because in this moment, this baseball epoch where striking guys out is easier than ever, Jordan Hicks, he of the 105-mph fastball, has the 235th strikeout rate of the 236 pitchers with at least 20 innings. He has struck out nine batters — and walked 16. Coming into Sunday, Hicks had thrown 229 sinkers and generated swings and misses on just 20, according to Brooks.

Seeing as its average velocity is over 100 mph, Hicks’ two-seamer has the potential to be the rare groundball-heavy swing-and-miss pitch. (See: Zach Britton’s sinker.) For now, it’s just something to ogle. The major league version of what …

2. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is doing in the minor leagues. On May 1, I wrote a column suggesting the Toronto Blue Jays bring Guerrero to the major leagues immediately. All he has done in the 19 games since is hit .466/.500/.822 with six home runs, 20 RBIs, 20 runs and five strikeouts in 82 plate appearances at Double-A.

By the way, he turned 19 in March.

If that happens to sour the notion of Guerrero’s readiness for the big leagues — well, that would be nothing more than ageism. Because Guerrero, son of a Hall of Famer to most, son of something else to pitchers, is not just ready to hit in the big leagues now. He would be a good major league hitter today.

No matter how much the Blue Jays rationalize the decision to keep Guerrero down, the logic falls apart. They want him to improve his defense at third base and don’t see him getting reps with Josh Donaldson already in Toronto? The truth is, Guerrero’s ability to stay at third already faces significant doubters within the organization, and using him as a designated hitter this season could facilitate a positional transition without having to learn on the fly. They want him to face Triple-A pitching first? Well, what is he still doing at Double-A, where he has flambeed pitchers going on two months now?

General manager Ross Atkins told Sportsnet this week that “where we are in the standings really won’t have a significant influence into it because we always want the best possible team on the field.” Which is funny, because the arguments Atkins makes in favor of keeping Guerrero down — that the team wants him to become an elite fielder (nope) and an elite teammate (players almost universally agree that they learn how to be a big leaguer in the big leagues) — have next to nothing to do with what he’d do on the field in 2018, which is hit.

Look, maybe the Blue Jays have a perfectly reasonable excuse for keeping Kendrys Morales and his .163/.248/.279 line at DH while one of the finest hitting prospects in decades goes wild in the minor leagues. Maybe they fear what DHing him will do to his psyche, even if it takes some kind of psyche to destroy Double-A at 19. Or maybe they’re just waiting to get past the Super 2 cutoff date of around June 1 to keep Vlad Jr. from qualifying for an extra year of arbitration and reaping the $10-$15 million that could come with it.

Now that is cynical … though when all the explanations otherwise defy logic, it tends to breed cynicism. It’s not like the Washington Nationals hesitated to summon …

3. Juan Soto when Howie Kendrick went down with a torn Achilles’ and left the Nationals with a perilous lack of outfield depth. Seven weeks ago, the 19-year-old Soto was in Low-A. Now, he could get a lion’s share of the at-bats in left field for a National League contender.

Granted, the calculus for the Nationals is not nearly as opaque as the Blue Jays’: Washington is all-in on 2018, and with the injuries to Kendrick and center fielder Adam Eaton and top prospect Victor Robles and Brian Goodwin and Rafael Bautista and even Triple-A depth Alejandro de Aza, the Nationals called upon their most talented option, even if he’s barely 500 plate appearances into his career.

Washington Nationals prospect Juan Soto is making his MLB debut at age 19. (AP)
Washington Nationals prospect Juan Soto is making his MLB debut at age 19. (AP)

Soto does have an incredibly pure left-handed stroke, the sort that allowed his Low-A-to-High-A-to-Double-A jump without missing a beat. In 39 minor league games this season, he slashed .362/.462/.757, hit 14 home runs and drove in 52. At 19 years, 207 days old, Soto became the youngest player in baseball to debut since his teammate, Bryce Harper, who in 2012 was 19 years, 195 days.

If you’re noticing a pattern, yes, this 10 Degrees is about baseball’s uber-youth, its 21-and-under set making waves in 2018. And no team embodies that quite like the Atlanta Braves, who have …

4. Ronald Acuña, Ozzie Albies and Luiz Gohara on their roster (and Mike Soroka on the disabled list). They aren’t the youngest team in baseball — geezers Peter Moylan (39) and Nick Markakis, Brandon McCarthy and Kurt Suzuki (34) make up for it — but the Braves are the biggest surprise, and their resurgence is fueled not just by their incredible young talent but the reality that even more is on the cusp of the big leagues.

It’s enough that they’ve got Acuña, who will play the entire season at 20, OPSing nearly .800 and showing flashes of future MVP-type talent. And that they’ve got Albies, 21, and is already doing MVP-type things. Gohara looks like CC Sabathia 2.0: lefty, hefty and armed with a big fastball and big slider.

Should he struggle or get hurt, left-hander Kolby Allard is dealing at Triple-A, with a 2.02 ERA in eight starts. He’s 20. And if not Allard, perhaps Bryse Wilson, who jumped to Double-A a few weeks back and across two levels has a 1.28 ERA. He’s 20, too.

All the excitement about the Braves in recent years, it turns out, was more than warranted, and the chances of the 21-and-under set having an even deeper impact this summer grow with each swing …

5. Austin Riley takes. He’s the latest beneficiary of Atlanta’s aggressiveness with its prospects. A second-round pick in 2015, he crushed rookie ball, jumped to full-season ball the next year, thrived at Double-A last season and now at 21 is on the cusp of the big leagues. His numbers there, when removing a three-homer, eight-RBI game a week back, aren’t nearly as spectacular. But then the existence of a three-homer, eight-RBI game in and of itself should serve as at least a crumb of proof that Riley is the goods.

Whether he gets his opportunity depends mostly on how Johan Camargo, whom the Braves like as more than a utilityman, performs as the everyday third baseman following the release Sunday of Jose Bautista.

(A quick aside: If this is indeed the end of Bautista’s career following a .143/.250/.343 showing in 12 games, it will go down as one of the most unlikely ascents in baseball history. From a 20th-round pick to a Rule 5 pick who played for five teams in 2004 to a star with the Blue Jays, Bautista embodied the Blue Jays’ ascent from American League East mediocrity to contender. His bat flip is iconic and his 333 career home runs proof that even those who emerge in their late 20s still can carve out memorable, highly productive lives in the sport.)

If Camargo does stick, it offers the Braves a world of possibilities with Riley as a trade chip. Every selling team would do backflips for him, just as they did when the Cubs last season made …

6. Eloy Jimenez available. He went to the Chicago White Sox last season as the centerpiece of the Jose Quintana trade, and all he’s done since is hit and cement himself as the best prospect in the minor leagues, non-Vlad division.

With a 6-for-7 weekend, the 21-year-old Jimenez bumped his season line at Double-A to .331/.364/.595, and though his arrival on the South Side is not imminent, the White Sox’s current corner-outfield duo of Leury Garcia and Daniel Palka isn’t exactly standing in the way of his arrival. The White Sox have scored the second-fewest runs in the big leagues.

At the same time, their general awfulness doesn’t scream for a Jimenez promotion. They’re bad. They’re going to continue to be bad. A bad team’s desire to shelve a player past the Super 2 deadline is prudent. Once that passes within the next two weeks, of course, the reasons for keeping a player like Jimenez down tend to erode. He’s ready to do what …

7. Gleyber Torres, his classmate in the Cubs’ boffo international signing class of 2013, already has done: prove himself more than worthy of an everyday big league job. Torres, 21, is the Yankees’ everyday second baseman and won’t be relinquishing that gig anytime soon.

Since his April 22 debut, Torres is hitting .309/.374/.494 with four home runs and 13 RBIs. The Yankees continue to bat him ninth most days, easing him in to an eventual spot at … the top of the lineup perhaps? With Aaron Judge, Didi Gregorius, Giancarlo Stanton and Gary Sanchez in the mix, it’s not like the middle of the order is exactly begging for more thump.

This is just one of the things that makes the Yankees so frightening. They’re playing rookies across three-quarters of their infield. They can stick a middle infielder with opposite-field power at the very bottom of their lineup. They’re on a 113-49 pace that shows little sign of relenting. The Boston Red Sox are excellent in their own right, and the Houston Astros boast a pitching staff that has allowed 123 runs in 48 games — the fewest since 1968, when the mound was 5 inches higher — and toss the Yankees in the mix, and the three best teams in baseball reside in the AL.

So do four teams on pace for more than 100 losses — three of them for 110-plus. That one of those is not the Detroit Tigers is something of an early-season surprise, and even better, the Tigers soon get their choice among …

8. Casey Mize, Alec Bohm and Joey Bart with the first pick in the June 4 draft. All are 21, and though none will find himself in the major leagues this year, the top end of the first round is expected to skew particularly college-heavy, and that could lead to a few rocketing toward the big leagues quickly.

Mize is the overwhelming favorite to go first overall. A right-hander from Auburn, he dazzled scouts early in the season and tempered questions about arm issues that caused him to leave Team USA last summer. In 178 2/3 innings over the last two seasons, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Mize has struck out 242 and walked 19, and his downer of a split-fingered fastball is the draft’s single best pitch — a baseball barbiturate, if you will.

They could go with Bohm, a monster third baseman from Wichita State in the mold of Kris Bryant, or Bart, a big-batted, big-bodied catcher out of Georgia Tech, or perhaps another player who will sign for well under slot and allow the Tigers to pursue better talent with later picks. Whomever they choose, Detroit can only hope he arrives with the sort of impact …

9. Alex Reyes did as a 21-year-old. Apologies for cheating — Reyes is now 23 — but what he’s done this year, and what it portends, deserved to be highlighted.

In 2016, Reyes debuted for the St. Louis Cardinals after a unique journey to the big leagues. He grew up in New Jersey but couldn’t afford to attend the showcases so imperative to American amateur talent. So he moved to the Dominican Republic, where he lived with his grandmothers. His velocity jumped into the mid-90s, and the Cardinals signed him for nearly $1 million as an 18-year-old — a rarity in Latin America, where the best players are scooped up at 16.

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Alex Reyes throws sizzled in his debut 2016 season. He’s in the minors on the mend from Tommy John surgery, but expect him back in MLB soon. (AP)
St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Alex Reyes throws sizzled in his debut 2016 season. He’s in the minors on the mend from Tommy John surgery, but expect him back in MLB soon. (AP)

Reyes added another 5 mph to his fastball and regularly touched 100 when he stormed St. Louis and put up a 1.57 ERA over 46 innings. The next spring, his elbow started barking and required Tommy John surgery. Fifteen months later, he’s back in the minor leagues, unscored upon over 16 innings in which he has struck out 31. The Cardinals don’t exactly need to rush him back, either: Even with Adam Wainwright sidelined and Carlos Martinez on the DL, they’re getting superlative work from Miles Mikolas, Jack Flaherty, Michael Wacha and Luke Weaver. Dakota Hudson’s power sinker is carving up Triple-A hitters. Austin Gomber is an option. John Gant is filling in admirably.

At a moment when the Tampa Bay Rays are demonstrating the fungibility of traditional starting pitchers — career reliever Sergio Romo started both of their weekend games against the Angels — the Cardinals’ cup runneth over. That doesn’t exactly address an offense whose OPS is barely .700 or a bullpen still trying to find its footing, but it’s enough to allow the masses to gawk at …

10. Jordan Hicks and for at least one sweet moment extinguish the conflagration of anger over the moves of Mike Matheny, St. Louis’ human dartboard of a manager. Say this much for Matheny: He had no fear putting a 21-year-old without an inning past Class A into high-leverage situations.

Hicks has rewarded him, and in a season with so many exciting 21-and-unders — Soto and Acuña and Albies and Gohara and Soroka and Torres, not to mention Boston third baseman Rafael Devers and the Angels’ Jaime Barria, perhaps the best pitcher from Panama to debut this century — the guy who throws 105 is holding his own.

In fact, after the demonball version of 105 darted away from Pena, Phillies reliever and noted memorabilia collector Pat Neshek immediately called dibs on it. This was a piece of history, and he wanted it. Once he got ahold of the ball, he took it to the on-site authenticator so he could log it and add a holographic sticker. Maybe it’ll be worth something.

Or maybe next time out, Hicks will throw 105.2. Or 105.3. Or 106. At this point, it’s impossible to know how hard he can throw, and the Cardinals are not inclined to figure that out, fearful that Hicks could focus too much on the radar gun. As possible as it may be that this was some sort of freak outlier — none of his other pitches Sunday exceeded 102.5 mph — warmer weather tends to bring out higher velocity. Perhaps, too, it will bring out something more in Chapman.

Before Sunday, he had thrown the hardest pitch of the season — a 103.3-mph taser to Jackie Bradley Jr.’s elbow guard. Of the 50 fastest this season, only 19 belong to him. Hicks now has 30. (Congratulations, Tayron Guerrero of the Miami Marlins, for cracking a group that seemed destined to be binary with a 101.8-mph fastball.)

For the first time in his career, Chapman has not just a legitimate challenger to his title of hardest-throwing-man in history but perhaps a vanquisher. Jordan Hicks, 21 years old, now owner of the hardest strike ever thrown, is coming for the record, ligaments and muscles and tendons and bones willing.

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