For a prospect with as safe a profile as Jordan Wicks, the lefthander presents significant disagreement amongst evaluators. Just look at the most recent prospect rankings from the following publications.
Prospects Live (5th in Cubs org): “Wicks is a very polished southpaw with a devastating changeup and solid command that drives his floor as a future rotation piece. He doesn’t show up with premium velocity, but he fills up the zone and creates deception on both his changeup and fastball. The breaking balls will be assets too, especially the slider. He is primed to move fairly quickly through the minors because he is so advanced. That is what made him a first rounder. His floor and ceiling aren’t too far apart. He is likely a back end rotation arm, maybe a middle of the rotation guy if the breaking balls advance more than expected.”
Baseball America (11th in Cubs org): “The Future: Wicks projects to settle in as a reliable, back-end starter. He has a chance to make his major league debut in 2023.”
ESPN (51st overall prospect in baseball, 3rd in Cubs org): “Wicks might be big league-ready by midseason and is looking like a midrotation starter with the risk being that the velo bump regresses and he ends up more of a steady backend type.”
MLB Pipeline (5th in Cubs org): While Wicks can’t overpower hitters, he compensates by repeating his low-effort delivery so easily that he can locate his pitches where he wants. He’s creative and competitive on the mound, and his enhanced slider will help him miss more bats against more advanced competition. He has a high floor as at least a mid-rotation starter and could arrive at Wrigley Field before he reaches 200 innings in the Minors.
North Side Bound (8th): “The 4-seam fastball, slider, changeup, and cutter are particularly compelling. Wicks has the profile of a pitcher that starts a playoff game and you feel great about your chances.”
Assessing Jordan Wicks right now
Wicks successfully deployed a new slider, curveball, and cutter along with his improved 4s FB while reaching AA in 2022. He is still rolling with a deep arsenal (five-six pitches) this season and having the same, if not better, success repeating AA to begin the season. Jordan Wicks avoids walks (3.08 BB/9, 8.4% BB-rate), gets strikeouts (11.28 K/9, 30.8% K-rate), and limits hits (.186 BAA). His BB%-K% of 22.4% is very good and a positive predictor that he will succeed. When evaluating prospects, some publications give extra value to those with pedigree. Wicks has that as a former first-round pick. So we’re taking about a player who combines pedigree, production at an advanced and age-appropriate level, and a deep arsenal from a safe demographic as a college lefthander. All those factors should provide Wicks with a prospect evaluation that falls in line within the Top 100 prospects in the game. Yet we see ESPN is the only publication rank him among that caliber of prospects.
Where is the disconnect with Wicks?
It’s the slider. While Stuff+-type models love the pitch, some evaluators note that the shape doesn’t meet the eye test. There could be many reasons for this, but Marquee’s own Lance Brozdowski articulates this point wonderfully. According to Brozdowski, “My guess is that this has something to do with how the pitch sits in the context of his repertoire or maybe something more nuanced like how it breaks off his arm angle. A recent piece by Prospects Live points out that the horizontal separation between a slider and fastball can create some issues if it gets too large. Hitters may have a better ability to pick up the difference between these pitches earlier in ball flight (the Mariners pitcher Matt Brash has a slider which you could argue is the best “stuff” pitch in baseball and yet he posted an ERA north of 4.40 last year).”
Is there something wrong with the slider then? I’d argue “no” in isolation. Like Lance pointed out in the above passage, the slider is a good pitch and it is generating swing and miss, however just at an average rate in AA. Let’s explore whether the slider and the fastball’s movement diverge so much that hitters are able to distinguish them quickly enough to stop from chasing out of the zone. We’ll be incorporating the article, that Lance Brozdowski mentioned earlier, the Society for American Baseball Research Contemporary Analysis award nominee, The Mystic Art of Pitch Tunneling.
What is pitch tunneling?
Pitch tunneling is a concept where pitches are thrown in a way that the movement of the pitches appear to travel in a similar way (a tunnel) before diverging. Many attribute these tunnels to start at the same release points, but the authors discussed why that is less critical. For most fans, this is commonly shown with video overlays, but the author’s took a different path to quantify tunneling. They describe the following: “The goal of tunneling is to generate swings at unhittable pitches. Pitchers endeavor to trick the batter into swinging at a slider in the dirt by making them think it’s a fastball. Thus, we believe chase rate is the best way to measure how often the pitcher deceives the batter.”
We’re evaluating swing and miss out of the zone
Pitch Movement plot
In unique situations, I can use minor league data from baseball sources. Out of respect for the individuals and teams that provided that information, I will refrain from posting specific pitching metric figures. I have generalized the following data so that I do not share a specific figure.
SW: sweeper slider; FF: 4-seam fastball; CH: changeup; SI: sinker; CU: curveball
Let’s examine the specific pitch movement for Jordan Wicks based on data provided and put that within the context of Lance’s discussion on pitch separation. Bringing back the piece at Prospects Live, the authors found that fastballs and sliders pair best when the two pitches fall within certain ranges of movement and velocity. The best combinations fulfill at least two of these three criteria:
- 6-14” Horizontal Separation
- 8-16” IVB Separation
- 6-11 MPH Separation
What is “IVB”?
Quick note that IVB stands for induced vertical break. IVB is the vertical distance a pitch traveled compared to one that is thrown in a straight line with gravity acting on it. With fastballs we describe a pitch with high IVB as one with “ride” or “carry” to it. On other pitches, we might describe IVB based on whether the pitch had “lift” to it. You don’t need to understand these terms in depth to understand what we’ll do next.
Let’s compare just Wicks’ 4s FB and his slider. The goal is to fulfill two of the three criteria to tunnel off each other. Without listing specific numbers we see the following criteria from before:
6-14” Horizontal Separation (~ 17″)
8-16” IVB Separation (~17″)
6-11 MPH Separation (~10 mph)
It’s close, but Wicks only meets one of the three criteria and the one furthest off (difference horizontally between the fastball and slider) thankfully has a a solution.
The “Miracle Pitch” for Jordan Wicks
If you’ve previously read the Prospects Live piece referenced above, you might have an idea where we’re next going to go to project Jordan Wicks. The authors describe one pitch type – “the miracle pitch” – that helps make the fastball and the sweeper slider work together. It’s a cutter, which Wicks began throwing late last season. It helps to bridge the movement between the two pitches so that multiple pitches can tunnel off of each other. Cutters also serve as valuable pitches to limit damage and miss barrels. They often are split-neutral meaning they can be thrown to either right or left-handed hitters and expect similar results.
I modeled the following based on pitchers with similar release points and other metrics to find an approximate shape of what Wicks’ cutter may be. From sources I do have his 2023 data on the pitch and it is similar to what’s below, but the 2023 baseball used in the Southern league is a significant variable. Regardless, the cutter serves as a bridge across the movement plot.
SW: sweeper slider; FF: 4-seam fastball; CH: changeup; SI: sinker; CU: curveball; CT: cutter
According to Wicks, the cutter is sitting in the 88-91 mph range. Alongside our anticipated horizontal and vertical movement, the cutter would tunnel off both pitches. Jordan Wicks learned the cutter from one of the dominant cutter pitchers of the last 15 years, former ace Cliff Lee. This doesn’t mean that we should expect to see the type of plus cutter that Lee employed over parts of thirteen seasons in the big leagues, however it feels like a strong addition to an already strong arsenal. The cutter’s effect also helps due to the fact that it’s being thrown by a cerebral pitcher and one who has blown the Cubs away even prior to being drafted for how thoughtful he is with pitch sequencing.
“We were blown away by how thoughtful he was about his repertoire, his intent, his work ethic, his routine and his game plan when he goes out there,” Kantrovitz said. “He could talk about when he wanted to use his two-seamer and four-seamer, when he wanted to manipulate the shape on his slider, when he wanted to double up and triple up on his changeup. To talk to an amateur pitcher that could articulate his intent the way that he could was really impressive.”Dan Kantrovitz via The Athletic ($)
Next steps for Jordan Wicks
The Cubs top lefthanded starting pitching prospect is already pushing for a promotion to Iowa. He possess a deep repertoire and an even deeper mental process to handle the rigors of a big-league lineup. Similar to pitcher who taught him the cutter, Cliff Lee, Jordan Wicks won’t blow you away with velocity, but he has stuff and the ability to make batters look silly at the plate. We won’t know until down the line which, if any, publication nailed the assessment on Wicks, but it feels evident that the cutter adds a dynamic that will be critical to watch as Wicks makes his way to Chicago, hopefully for a very long tenure at Wrigley Field.