Jim Hickey spent the last two years as a special assistant in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization. In 2019, when there was a minor-league season, he moved from field to field, pitcher to pitcher, while his old friend Davey Martinez helped drag the Nationals to a World Series title.
Hickey was not retained as Chicago’s pitching coach following the 2018 season. The Dodgers hired him in a roving capacity to work across their minor-league system. He missed the major leagues and wondered, at 58 years old, if he was going to receive another chance to wrap his career at the major-league level.
“I absolutely, positively missed it,” Hickey said on a Zoom call Monday. “Almost immediately missed it.”
Then Davey Martinez called about 10 days ago. He and Hickey began working through the steps to become the Nationals new pitching coach. The job would enable him to both work again with Martinez and walk into a front-loaded starting staff. He’ll impart a three-piece baseline to Max Scherzer and Tanner Rainey alike while doing so: Throw strikes, work quick, change speeds.
Analytics were frequently mentioned when Martinez was hired. Dusty Baker did not appear involved in them enough. Martinez was coming from Tampa Bay, then Chicago, where the math coursed through every decision made. Tampa’s payroll left no other choice. It had to maximize every inch. Chicago wanted to merge high-end spending with all the little advantages.
Hickey was in Tampa Bay with Martinez in 2007 when the process began to percolate. They started together when the Rays spent $24,123,500 on their team, last in the league. Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg will exceed that number in personal salary next year by more than $10 million each. So, Hickey has handled the lack of resources and bountiful provisions.
To Hickey, managing the bullpen is the toughest thing. It’s a volatile place. Deciding when to bring someone in, as well as take someone out, is always a tricky prospect. He will advise Martinez to err on the side of too soon as opposed to too late. Which can lead to irritated pitchers, but, he thinks, better outcomes.
And overall, managing bullpen brains is as paramount as managing mechanics.
“I think video is the last option for me normally, especially when you’re sitting there with that particular player,” Hickey said. “I might do it on my own or I might have someone else sit in there with me and look for certain things. You just hate to clutter a guy’s mind with too much, especially if it’s a little bit of a struggle down there. I think it’s more just relax, hey, you’ve done this before.
“It’s such a confidence thing, it’s incredible. All of a sudden, guys have a little bit of success, they’re 10-foot tall and bulletproof. Then you’ve got guys that have had a lot of success, they hit a bad stretch and they become a little bit shaken.”
In the end, pitching is pitching. Strike one remains the gold standard. And, relationships matter: with the players, with the other coaches, and certainly with the manager. The latter is the best way back to the major leagues.