Jim Hickey, who was introduced as the Washington Nationals’ new pitching coach Monday, left the same job with the Chicago Cubs in 2018 for undisclosed personal reasons, and the recently-turned 59-year-old, one-time minor league pitcher spent two seasons as a special assistant for player development with the Los Angeles Dodgers (2019-2020) before Davey Martinez and the Nats brought him back to the big leagues.
Hickey worked with Martinez in Tampa Bay during the Nats’ skipper’s time as bench coach (2008-14) under Joe Maddon, and Hickey also served as pitching coach in Houston (2004-2006), with a total of 15 seasons as a big league pitching coach on his resume overall and 37 total seasons in professional baseball.
“I absolutely, positively missed it,” Hickey said on a Zoom call with reporters on Monday.
“I almost immediately missed it. So this is what I would have chosen, was to finish out my career as a major league coach, or at least to have a chance to do that, versus being in the player development thing, although that was extremely gratifying and it’s something that those guys do a great job at as well. But I absolutely missed it, and I am glad to be back.”
The conversations with Martinez and Co. in D.C. began “about ten days ago or so” Hickey explained, not long after the Nationals decided to part ways with Paul Menhart, who was promoted from his role as minor league pitching coordinator for the organization back in May of 2019 and helped lead the club to a World Series win later that season.
To say that Hickey was excited to get another opportunity to work alongside Martinez in the nation’s capital would be an understatement.
“You have no idea. I don’t even think that I can explain,” he said.
“These last couple of seasons, well, actually there was no minor league season this year, but the last couple of seasons here as I was a player development special assistant with the Dodgers was really, really eye-opening and it was very, very gratifying. But you always just have that major league tug, you want to get back to that, so this is very, very exciting for me, absolutely, positively, and especially with a team that has a chance to win right now.”
The staff he’s inheriting, is top-heavy, he said, with some serious talent that Hickey said he is excited to get to know.
“The talent. It’s really, really top-heavy when you look at that rotation,” Hickey said, with Max Scherzer, a hopefully-healthy Stephen Strasburg (who had surgery for carpal tunnel neuritis in his right hand this summer), and Patrick Corbin all coming back.
“I know that this past season, things didn’t go quite as planned,” Hickey added, “... but when you look at that rotation — and if you can get those guys to being back healthy, and back to where they were even just a calendar year ago — that’s really, really exciting.
“I started to do a lot of homework as this was becoming a possibility and digging into some of the numbers.
“There’s so much there in terms of upside, absolutely, positively, so that’s really exciting.”
The first step, or next step since he already started doing his homework on the arms he’ll be inheriting, is getting more familiar with the pitchers in the organization, before he begins to reaches out to them to get to know them personally.
“Talk to Davey, talk to the other staff members, absolutely, positively, a lot of video, talking to the players themselves. This is too early in my opinion, not too early, but the season just ended and these guys like to go ahead and need to decompress.
“I don’t think I need to be picking up the phone tonight and trying to introduce myself,” he said.
“Probably let that wait a little while unless somebody tells me differently, but a lot of video and I’d also — I would assume there’s a number of these guys that probably work out in the same area, be it Florida or be it Phoenix or be it Las Vegas or whatever.
“So if I’m able to do that I’d like to get out there maybe for three or four days and just go ahead and see some of the offseason things that they do.
“The way that they condition and the way that they get ready, just to become a little bit more familiar with them.”
Once the pitchers get more familiar with him, Hickey said, they’ll learn that he has a simple and overarching philosophy when it comes to pitching.
“I have a philosophy — and it’s kind of a joke,” he explained on Monday.
“If you were to talk to any pitcher who had pitched under me as I was a coach he would probably be able to tell you.
“We joke about it, but it’s throw strikes, work quick, and change speeds. That’s kind of the joke, but a joke is only funny if it’s based in truth, correct? And this is based in truth.”
“And that’s something that I would like to see,” Hickey continued. “Obviously you have to throw strikes, obviously you have to change speeds, I would like to see guys work quick, I don’t mandate that guys work quick, I mean I had a couple of the slowest working pitchers in the game in Tampa Bay, and they had great success as well, but overall, all joking aside, that is kind of my hard — my bedrock core philosophy.
“Throw strikes, work quick, change speeds, and I’m a huge believer in the changeup. I don’t force anybody to throw changeups, but if I see something, a lot of guys don’t like the changeup because it’s not a sexy pitch — it’s not a huge swing and a miss pitch for a lot of guys, but there’s a lot of outs in there and there’s a lot of efficiency in there and at the end of the year, there’s a lot more innings in there as well if you can do that, so ...”
Why the changeup in particular?
“It’s a lot easier to throw for a strike, so it’s a non-fastball that you can throw in the strike zone,” Hickey said.
“Believe me I have no problem with the big 12-6 curveball either, I hope we have a whole bunch of those. But you all of a sudden get yourself into a 2-0 count in a tight spot and it’s pretty difficult to just think that you’re going to be able to go ahead and drop this breaking pitch in the zone for a called strike, whereas a changeup it’s a lot easier, and also I just like it because obviously it looks like a fastball. It comes right off of that same plane as the fastball and hopefully has a little bit less velocity and a little more movement and I love it just because when you can record those quick outs, it really starts giving you confidence and certainly — I guarantee you the industry probably doesn’t value 200-inning type guys like they used to, but I would guarantee you that every pitcher who starts the season as a starting pitcher, that’s a goal in the back of his mind, to work often, to work deep into ballgames and to crack that 200 inning barrier, and a changeup helps that by the way.”