From early May 2019 through the end of this past season’s 60-game campaign, Washington’s starters and relievers relied on Menhart Magic to help them with all those issues which pitchers run into during their outings, between appearances, and over the course of a season.
Paul Menhart took over for Derek Lilliquist early in 2019, helped the club win the World Series, and then helped guide them through a difficult and ultimately disappointing 2020 COVID campaign.
Nationals’ manager Davey Martinez, after signing a multi-year extension this past September, decided to change things up, however, bringing in his old friend, and a veteran pitching coach, Jim Hickey, to handle the 2021 roster’s pitchers.
Hickey told reporters in his introductory press conference in the nation’s capital that it is, obviously, important for a pitching coach to have a strong relationship with a manager, so they can make decisions together when it comes to their rotation and bullpen arms.
Hickey and Martinez were part of the same staff in Tampa Bay under Joe Maddon, when the current Nats’ skipper was the bench coach with the Rays, so it surprised no one when the manager’s choice for the Nationals’ new pitching coach was announced.
“That is one of the big advantages to just having a relationship with somebody, because in my biased opinion, I think the most important aspect of the game is just the management of the bullpen,” Hickey explained.
“So you have to have that close relationship,” he said, “and you have to be able to be on the same page and at least have the same thoughts, even a couple of innings in advance.”
Max Scherzer/Davey Martinez Mound Visit (abbreviated version). pic.twitter.com/O2SZq6kAxL— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) June 3, 2019
When he’s trying to help pitchers find their way out of any trouble that arises, does he rely on video, analytics, or how does he encourage and try to remind them that they’ve done this, and had success doing it before, and tell them to focus on just simply throwing strikes?
“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 somebody else sit in there with me and look for certain things,” he said of using video as a teaching tool, “... but 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 more of what you touched on,” he told the reporter who asked, “... just, ‘Hey, relax, you’ve done this before,’ type of thing. It’s such a confidence thing. It’s incredible, I’m sure you see it all the time.”
Success, he explained, breeds confidence.
“All of a sudden guys have a little bit of success and they’re 10-foot tall and bulletproof and then you’ve got guys who have had a lot of success and they hit a bad stretch and they become a little bit shaken, so just keeping that confidence level high, talking, reminding them what works, reminding them what worked in the past, and again, I was kind of joking, but a lot of times it comes down to strikes.
“Trying to just be too fine. Maybe you gave up a walk-off home run or a big home run a couple of nights earlier and now you become a little bit bat-shy, and the next thing you know it’s 2-0 and it’s 3-1, it’s 3-2.
“And they’re seeing 6-7 pitches a couple of hitters in a row and that makes all the difference in the world.”
What about on the mound, in games, in the moment, when he goes out for a visit?
How does it work, or how does Hickey approach the job in those situations?
How does he know when a guy is tired, spent, or searching for it that night, and how does he figure out if a pitcher is telling him the truth on the mound?
How does he determine if his pitcher is out of gas?
“I think that it’s pretty easy to tell when a guy’s done,” Hickey said. “It’s pretty easy to tell when he’s telling you he’s fine but he’s not or vice versa.
“Body language a lot. Just little things as you become more familiar with their actual deliveries. The little things that you see in there. Just a little elevation when it wasn’t intended.
“There’s all kinds of things that give it away. So it’s not all that difficult. And I always kind of — not always, but I always try to err on the side of a little bit of caution. You’d rather get a guy out of there one hitter too soon than one hitter too late and the starter might not like that, even the relief pitcher might not like that at some point, but it’s a lot easier to explain that away than explain the three-run home run that cost you the ballgame.”