JUPITER, Fla. — At 10:36 a.m. Thursday, Jack Flaherty arrived to Cardinals camp and pulled his car up to the curb. He was greeted by both Ryan Helsley and Jordan Hicks. As I watched this interaction, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the car, surely embarrassed by its inferior horsepower. It soon drove off, its tailpipe seemingly between its legs.
In Major League Baseball last season, 33 pitches were thrown 103 mph or faster. Nine of those were thrown by Helsley, nine more were thrown by Hicks.
Helsley, who in person does appear as if he’s human, threw one four-seamer 104.2 mph, baseball’s fastest pitch in 2022 (it was grounded out by Milwaukee’s Rowdy Tellez). Helsley also threw the fastest pitch that counted as a strike (a 104.0 mph foul). Asked Thursday if he could hit 105, Helsley laughed and said: “I don’t know, it would be pretty crazy. I’ll probably have to see, as we get into the thick of the season, how my body’s feeling. But I feel great, so it’ll be exciting to see what happens.”
The Cardinals’ relievers are leading the way in the “revolution revolution.” Baseballs are spinning and speeding unlike ever before. Per MLB Statcast, 3,356 pitches were thrown last year at 100 mph or faster. The year before, only 1,829. Helsley’s average four-seam fastball was 99.6 mph. Hicks’ average sinker was 99.4. As for Helsley’s average four-seamer spin rate (2,643), that ranked fourth-best in baseball (incidentally, Cardinals teammate Chris Stratton’s was seventh-best at 2,631).
Both Helsley and Hicks threw right around 25% of their pitches at 100 mph or greater.
So, yeah, if Hicks remains healthy and is back to being Hicks — and Helsley is back to being an All-Star — opponents might find that Cardinals games only go seven innings. Yes, Hicks struggled overall in his first year back from Tommy John, especially as a starter, but here’s some optimism from this keyboard in Florida. And some numbers to go with it — in his final nine appearances last year (12 2/3 innings), Hicks had a 2.13 ERA. And he was sterling in the postseason.
As for Helsley, the postseason was another story — one he has relived by both watching the tape and in his head. But in the 2022 regular season, when his finger wasn’t busted, he saved 19 games in 23 tries and tallied a 1.25 ERA. He’s Dr. Octane.
“It is sort of crazy to think about, like, how hard those guys throw,” said John Mozeliak, the Cardinals president of baseball operations, on Thursday to the Post-Dispatch. “Now, the bigger question, I think for all of us, is — is it sustainable over the long-term? Because we don’t have a lot of data points. I mean, maybe you look at (Aroldis) Chapman as an example of that, but you could argue that might be a one off, who knows. But how (Helsley and Hicks) prepare — and their diligence — is really going to be critical to long-term success. …
“When you think about velocity at that level, it tends to be a little bit of how you think about a sprinter. It’s not just one place you’re strong — you’re strong head to toe. And so, you look at Helsley’s development, it’s understanding that core strength matters. You got to have a strong base, but you also have to have that upper body strength — and I think both those guys have been able to accumulate that as they ascended through the minor leagues and now into the big leagues.”
Helsley could only laugh when asked about how his arm and body, of all the arms and bodies, threw a baseball the hardest in 2022.
“It’s crazy, man!” he said. “I don’t feel like I can throw that hard, but it just comes out that way. In my head I’m not thinking ‘Oh, I’m about to throw 103.’ I’m just pitching and competing. …
“If I had the algorithm to (prepare an arm to throw 103 mph), I’d patent it and sell it and make some more money. I have no idea (how it happens). It’s just what God’s blessed me with and what I’ve learned — and grown into — over the last few years of my career. I’ve gained some strength and gotten better as a pitcher overall.”
Now, the Cardinals aren’t the only team that has triple-digit flamethrowers in the bullpen. These days, most teams have one — and definitely the best teams do. The 2022 World Series featured flinging Phillies and nasty Astros hitting 100 mph on the radar — it was like the games were being played upon the Autobahn.
But the Cardinals have a duo — these two who frequently dial it up to radio station frequencies (104.1 K-HEL? 103.7 K-HIX?).
Really, with the Cardinals’ pitching tutelage and ever-evolving strength-and-conditioning programs, the club has developed numerous homegrown members of the “Century Club.”
“I think when you think about like velocity-type pitchers, probably the most recent years you think Jason Motte and Trevor Rosenthal,” Mozeliak said. “They started to show glimpses of that like in A-ball and then Double A and, ultimately, when they got to the big leagues. Then I think of Carlos Martinez. But all of a sudden, you kind of had this rarefied air with Hicks and Helsley.”
The question is — how long will they have it? Here’s thinking at least through 2023.
@hochman on Twitter