It’s no secret the Mariners love a crafty lefty. Whether talking about Marco Gonzales or Justus Sheffield... Nick Margevicius, Wade LeBlanc or Tommy Milone. The team has not been shy to roll out a southpaw that can, ahem, sizzle a radar gun.
Kansas State’s Jordan Wicks figures to be one of the first college lefties off the board next July, and he’s certainly the archetype Seattle has coveted under Jerry Dipoto.
First, let’s zoom out and examine how advanced college lefties tend to fare after being selected. The stigma of college lefties is that of a pretty polished product that can move quickly. Let’s take a look at the first college lefty off the board over the past 20 years...
So, yeah, the last half-decade has been rough. Tyler Jay certainly hasn’t panned out and A.J. Puk has found himself injured for much of his career. It’s still awfully early for Ryan Rolison and Nick Lodolo. Asa Lacy was the fourth overall pick in 2020, and looks the part of a dynamic big league starter.
Before the turbulence of 2015 and beyond, drafting the first college lefty of a class has seemingly been a reasonably safe pick. Carlos Rodon, Marco Gonzales and Andrew Heaney figure to cross the 10.0 fWAR career threshold in the coming years. Assuming they do, that’ll put eight of the twelve lefties drafted at the top of their respective classes from 2003 to 2014 at double-digit fWAR. Not bad. Are these guys stars? For the most part, no. But James Paxton posted 13.9 fWAR over six seasons with the Mariners. I’m sure most would gladly take another Paxton with the twelfth pick in just about any draft.
So why are you to believe in Wicks? Well, before we jump into his specific pitches, let’s talk track record.
As a freshman in 2019, Wicks started 15 contests. He posted 84.2 innings, struck out 86 and walked a very stingy 26 batters. His ERA, a healthy 3.61. That amounted to a 23-percent K-rate and 7-percent walk rate.
This year, a truncated sophomore campaign, Wicks dialed it up a level.
Wicks started four games, logging 26 innings (almost seven innings per outing). He struck out 29 and issued just four free passes. His ERA, an absolutely suffocating 0.35. A measly one earned run all season. Those figures, good for a 27-percent K-rate and a diminutive 4-percent walk rate. Music to Dipoto’s ears.
It didn’t stop there as Wicks would go on to log more innings in the Northwoods League, one of the few summer wood bat leagues that played ball this summer. He’d pitch 20 more innings, striking out 29 more and issuing five more walks. One more earned run. A 0.45 ERA.
Wicks was the best pitcher in college baseball this year and I’m not sure it was entirely close.
A couple weeks back, Wicks sat down with me to discuss his pitch arsenal, his growth as an arm, and where he hopes to go in 2021. He’s a well-spoken kid, and he understands the art of pitching, as well as the accompanying data that big league clubs covet these days. Here’s that interview.
Mechanically, there’s a lot to like. Wicks’ operation is extremely repeatable and easy. He showcases good positive disconnection and elbow spiraling, both of which should allow for future consistency in his command, as well as allow for future health. Wicks’ lead leg block has improved since his freshman year, thus the marginal velocity gains.
In essence, it’s a super-easy delivery lacking much effort at all. It’s not something that should be a project for a player development program.
Wicks is 6-3, 220 pounds. He’s got a strong, durable frame. Essentially, he’s built like Erik Swanson. It’s a fairly prototypical starter’s build that looks as though it can hold up over extended innings.
Enough about the track record and the nitty-gritty though. You’re probably wondering how he gets batters out. Well let’s dive into his pitch mix and why he finds so much success.
Tools (Future Value)
It starts with the fastball, and while it’s effective, the heater isn’t Wicks bread and butter. It’s certainly a table-setter, but likely won’t be his ‘out’ pitch at the big league level.
Wicks’ fastball averaged 91 mph in 2020, topping out at 92.6. Wicks himself said he’s never been a guy who’s seen a massive uptick in his stuff, bumping the radar gun by just a tick or so every year. The goal in 2021 would be to sit 92-93 consistently.
Wicks throws two fastballs -- a two-seamer and a four-seamer. The latter features 10.1 inches of vMov (roughly 17 inches of induced vertical break). These figures are a touch above average with a little bit of ride. His four-seamer features about 6.5 inches of run, again, a fairly average figure. This pitch could absolutely eat at the top of the zone, but at 91 mph and without exceptional ride, the margin for error is much thinner than someone like Josh Hader who features a similar movement profile, but throws from a lower slot and boasts 95+ on the radar gun.
The two-seam/sinker has been a more successful offering over the course of Wicks’ career and was his go-to heater as a freshman. This pitch was used less in 2020, but still features usable shape that could come into play at the next level. That offering, a high-spin 2400 RPM sinker, dropped roughly three more inches than his four-seamer. He’s still got both in his back pocket.
Fall bullpens were very promising as well. Wicks touched a career-best 94.7 in October, averaging 92.4 over the course of the fall. He was getting another inch of ride on the four-seamer as well. Those are obviously abbreviated looks, but at the very least it does show what he’s capable of.
We may be looking at a 70-grade cambio here. By definition, that would put Wicks changeup in the top 98th percentile of changeups in the league. Is that too generous? Maybe. But based on the film I’ve evaluated and the scouts I’ve talked to, this pitch is a separator. What Wicks can do to a baseball when throwing his changeup is pretty outlandish.
Let’s just start with the crude numbers. In 2020, Wicks’ changeup averaged barely a tick over 1500 RPMs. First off, that’s double-plus stuff. 200 guys threw at least 50 changeups in 2020. Only 19 of them killed more spin on the baseball than Wicks does -- 90th percentile. Good start, right?
But spin rate really isn’t the be-all and end-all when it comes to a good off-speed pitch. It has to have several factors to really perform.
Arm-speed or “conviction” is a huge one. Pitchers can’t telegraph their changeups if it’s going to feature the deception and separation they’re looking for. For my money, Wicks has one of the best arm actions I’ve seen in an off-speed pitch. I really can’t find any warts in it. The arm speed is there. The release point is there. The conviction is there.
Second is spin orientation, and if you read the Sam Bachman scouting report, you’ll now know there’s several ways to throw a changeup. Wicks throws a conventional circle-change, but he really chokes the baseball with his pointer finger. In essence, the ‘circle’ that most guy have in their grip, Wicks makes that circle as small as he can within his fingers. He gently supinates the ball off his middle-finger at release, creating that 10:00 dead-ball saucer rotation orientation you’re seeing in the gif below. That supination actually results in a bit of cut on the baseball instead of the conventional fading action most changeups exhibit. This spin patterns has very little seam resistance, or Magnus effect, thus literally just falling out of the sky as it approaches home plate. It’s a dying quail, if you will.
The effect is unique, consistent, two-plane break.
For the record, what makes this changeup different than Bachman’s is Bachman employs a grip and release that induces a seam-shifted wake effect. Bachman uses friction against the seam to spin the ball into the ground at a rate greater than gravity. Wicks does not. Bachman’s changeup spins more like Stephen Strasburg’s changeup. Wicks’ changeup is closer to Kyle Hendricks’.
The difference in overall grade, however, is Wicks has elite feel and command for his changeup, spotting it where he wants with far greater regularity. The biggest key in throwing the changeup, a pitch that ultimately lives or dies based on the separation it has from the fastball, is feel. Wicks has that and then some. It’s a special pitch.
One final key? The seam orientation of Wicks’ changeup mirrors that of his 2-seam fastball. Out of the hand, it’s a nightmare of hitters trying to differentiate between the two as it looks similar out of the hand.
Both of Wicks’ breaking balls lag behind the effectiveness of his fastball and changeup, though he’ll certainly need one of them (if not both) at the next level to see extended success.
The slider is fringy right now, though it has seen success this Fall. In 2020, Wicks slider featured 4.1 inches of vMOV and 1.9 inches of sweep. It’s pretty gyro-heavy, though Wicks struggles to kill lift on the pitch. It’s more cutter-esque right now, which actually allows the vertical separation to play off the depth of his impressive changeup.
One thing to watch for is velo. A stiff slider that differs from the changeup velocity will be important. It was 81-83 in 2020, though he’s averaged 86 mph on it this Fall. He can spin it too, coming in around 2400 RPM. The movement profile really didn’t improve too much over these colder months (and especially given the added velo), but Wicks said it has been a point of emphasis in his growth.
The curveball is more of a get-more-over offering right now and less of an out-pitch. It’s below average for the time being, but Wicks has said developing his bender has been a priority.
For now, the curve is pretty slurvy and loopy most of the time. It lacks command, and as previously mentioned, is generally only of use early in counts. Wicks has shown that he can spin a baseball, and the curve is no different. It comes into the plate at close to 2500 RPMs, so there’s blocks to build on. He was getting about 3 more inches of depth on the pitch this Fall, so there’s reason to believe it’s taken a step in the right direction.
That remains to be seen as we’ll have to re-evaluate the pitch in the Spring. Even an average curveball, especially one with 12-6 rotation to play off his newfound four-seam adoration, would be enormous.
Jordan Wicks is a very polished pitcher with an entire assortment of offerings, including a carrying out-pitch. The entire profile is a pretty solid lock to go in the first round, if not the first forty picks. As noted above, the latest the first college lefty has come off the board in a draft in the last 20 years has been at pick 22. Wicks looks to be the best southpaw in the class, and should go in that range as well. There are other lefties in the class like Seth Lonsway, Christian MacLeod, Evan Shawver, Ryan Webb and Steve Hajjar that should figure into the conversation, but those guys possess far more question marks than guarantees right now.
The arrow is pointing up in a big way for Wicks. Knowing Seattle and their affinity for risk-averse arms at the top, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see this Wildcat off the board at no. 12.