Ventura, California —— There’s a point in a baseball game, after a team’s starting pitcher departs and before the closer enters, when things get sort of hazy for a while. It depends on the night and league, of course, but generally speaking there aren’t a lot of impressive arms emerging from the ‘pen for a middle relief gig.
If the game is close in the sixth or seventh, maybe you’ll see a setup-type: a decent arm, but inconsistent, with some fatal flaw. If the game’s not close, come the seventh inning stretch you’ll find yourself mired at the bottom rung of a team’s bullpen depth chart, slogging through those final few frames as each club’s pitchers fall behind batter after batter after batter, causing you to silently curse Rob Manfred’s pace of play initiatives miscast towards pitch-free intentional walks.
But every so often, the seventh inning rolls around and you get knocked on your metaphorical ass by a team’s unexpected relief ace: not the closer, and maybe still a little unpolished, but damn if he doesn’t have the makings of something special—and he’s flying completely under the radar.
Enter: Jackson Hickert.
Go to a Ventura College baseball game and regardless of where you sit, you’ll hear Jackson Hickert before you see him. For the first five or six innings of every game, the freshman right-handed pitcher is hanging on to the Pirates’ dugout fence, yelling, laughing, and leading the cheerleading charge for his teammates right up until it’s time for him to sprint down to the bullpen and warm up.
At one point during a March game against Cuesta College, I set up a video camera on the first base side to capture clips of each team’s hitters. In the background was the Pirates’ dugout; upon inspecting of the footage after the game, Hickert was the star of the show. Yelling, clapping, high fiving teammates, and reacting to every ball the Pirates put in play, he was locked into every pitch of the game and leading a notably high-energy dugout culture for the club.
“That’s Jackson. You really have to keep him toned down,” Ventura’s top assistant Steven Hardesty told me, laughing, when I commented on the Pirates’ high-energy dugout culture. “You talk about dugout chatter, he’s the biggest talker in that dugout. Sometimes you really have to tone it down with him, and get him to relax. But then you watch him pitch, and you see that’s just who he is. He’s a very, very high-energy guy.”
Ventura College isn’t exactly hurting for pitching this year. Big, strong right-handed pitcher Austin Rubick is on his way to the University of Hawaii in the fall—if he makes it past the lure of professional baseball this summer. Thoughtful, meticulous righty Justin Friedman is himself fast becoming a draft prospect, too, and he’s ticketed for the University of San Diego in August. Undersized closer Taylor Campos is afraid of absolutely no one late in games, even recently entering in the ninth and throwing seven frames in a 16-inning marathon at Allan Hancock College.
Add all that up and there aren’t many high-leverage places a newcomer can make an impact. So, Jackson Hickert gets the seventh inning. But unlike your typical middle reliever, Hickert is armed with filthy stuff: a mid- to upper-80s hard-running, sinking fastball, a beautiful low-70s slurve of which he already shows above-average feel, and a devastating fade-away changeup that falls off the table and is, in his mind, the righty’s best pitch.
In a middle relief role that usually lulls so many writers, scouts and evaluators to sleep during the long slog of those middle innings, you’d be a fool to zone out when Hickert enters the game.
Come for the dugout chatter, maybe, but stay for the nasty stuff.
“He reminds me of a kid who was here when I first got to Ventura [in 2007] named Zack Thornton,” Hardesty said when I asked about the Pirates’ current middle relief ace, likening Hickert to the longtime pro who just finished pitching for Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic. “Both are big, physical kids, and Thornton had the same good two-seam, that same slider, and a good change. And just like Hickert, Thornton didn’t throw extremely hard as a freshman [in 2007], but he was in the bullpen and he led the team in appearances, he had something like 32 appearances in 44 games that year.”
Those similarities are evident in Hickert, who entering Tuesday had already made 18 appearances for the Pirates, pitching to a 1-2 record with a 2.18 ERA, two saves, and 23 strikeouts in 20.2 innings. The stuff is similar to Thornton: everything moves. The velocity was similar to Thornton, too, with Hickert working 84-87 mph when I saw him last, but touching low 90s in the fall. And just like Thornton, who’s a healthy 6’3” and 215 lbs., the physicality is there in Hickert, too. Add it all up and it’s tempting to imagine the Pirates’ current relief ace seeing a career trajectory similar to the 2007-08 version.
“When Zack came back his second year [in 2008], we moved him into a starter’s role, and in the fall when we extended him out, his arm got a little bit stronger,” Hardesty recalled of the pitcher preceding Hickert in role and stuff. “All of a sudden Zack started popping 94 [mph] with movement. [The University of] Oregon signed him, and from there, he just blew up. He was 11-1 as a sophomore, he was conference pitcher of the year and runner-up for state pitcher of the year, and he got drafted by the San Francisco Giants. He ended up going to Oregon for two years, and he went 10-0 as a senior there.”
“Jackson reminds me a lot of Zack,” Hardesty continued, heaping high praise on Hickert considering Thornton has now enjoyed a seven-year professional career with the Oakland Athletics, Pittsburgh Pirates, and New York Mets. “There are a lot of similarities between those two. We’ll probably move Jackson into the rotation next year to lengthen him out, and see if we can’t get him that same kind of development that we got in Zack a decade ago.”
Of course, let’s not anoint Jackson Hickert as the second coming quite yet.
There’s a lot of work yet to do for the strong, young righty. Read our scouting report on the pitcher and you’ll see inconsistent command in close-game situations, not quite enough velocity yet to breathe easy at the next level, and a few-too many fastballs left up and flattened out in the hittable part of the zone. It’s all fixable, of course; when he’s at his best, Hickert is lights out, and he’s been at his best more often than not this spring for Ventura. And really, every pitcher at this level is seeking short-term consistency in process, hoping they’ll one day be lucky enough to find long-term consistency in results. Hickert is miles from that, but talk to the self-aware pitcher a time or two and you can see the wheels turning in his head about how to get there.
Step one: see if Hickert understands that, while he will build velocity as he ages, the value of his two-seam fastball isn’t tied to the radar gun alone.
“I hit 91 [mph] in the fall, I was consistently getting up there,” Hickert told me about the development of his fastball after arriving on campus. “It was still moving well, and it came from new mechanics, so it was fresh. But it’s nice to have movement, because you can go into an outing knowing you don’t need to rely exclusively on velocity, and you can move the ball around a bit, too. With good movement, you really can play anything off that. Just let them hit it. Put it in their court. And it’s nice when you have a pitch going in [arm-side], because then you can turn around and show a different pitch that goes out [glove-side], because it’s hard to pick up.”
Step one: check.
Which brings us to step two: see if it’s clicked yet for Hickert that he ought to throw the hell out of his breaking ball—both to avoid tipping the pitch, and to get enough late break to miss bats when he needs a strikeout in a close game.
“I’ve been doing a lot of work with [Ventura pitching coach Jimmy] Walker, and he always talks about fastball hand speed with the curve,” Hickert said. “So I try to really focus on getting my hand out in front and throw it how I’d throw the fastball, and let the grip and the spin take care of the rest. It’s nice when you can do that. You don’t have to think about much, just bring it as hard as you can.”
I’ve spoken at length to Major League relievers who have said that exact thing, so it’s probably safe to check step two off the checklist here, too. Besides, the “grip it and rip it” attitude figures to work perfectly for an intense, high-energy kid who—I can now confirm—quite literally bounces around the dugout during games because he’s so excited to pitch.
So where’s this all headed?
Maybe there’s a lesson here for writers, and evaluators, and scouts: pay a little attention to those middle relievers, because every now and then you run across a guy like Jackson Hickert. He’s raw, and the development process has only scratched the surface on what lies beneath, but look closely and you can see his road map forward. Maybe it’ll continue to be similar to Zack Thornton, as Hardesty believes. It’ll take a lot of work for that, and a lot more good luck, but the foundation is being built brick by brick every time Hickert is asked to stop bouncing around the dugout so he can go warm up in bullpen.
“There’s no ‘woe is me’ in him,” Hardesty marveled about Hickert at the end of our conversation. “He took a tough luck loss early in the season, and after the game, you wouldn’t have been able to tell if he had just gone out there and struck out the side, or if he had just taken a loss. He’s the same kid. You hear how closers need a short memory, and he’s got it. It’s like, ‘I had a bad outing, so what? Give me the ball again next game so I can dominate.’ And yeah, he’s still young enough where he gets in these self-created jams, but he’s calm enough that he knows he can pitch his way out of those jams.”
Sure sounds like Jackson Hickert is more than an anonymous middle reliever.
Now, just imagine what another few years of development could bring.
In this Jackson Hickert feature:
Western State Conference | Ventura College | Cuesta College | Jackson Hickert
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