Is Jim Hickey the Answer to the Nationals’ Pitching Coach Dilemma?

Jim Hickey (left) and Dave Martinez (right) during their time as understudies to Joe Maddon in Tampa Bay. (Photo: Nationals Communications)

If it seems like every year or two, the Nationals are looking for a new pitching coach, that’s because they are. They blow through managers too, but the search for a pitching coach seems equally – if not more – tiresome.

The Rise and Fall of the Nats’ Staff

Steve McCatty handled Washington’s pitchers for seven years (2009-15). The staff’s ERA dropped from 5.00 when he took over to 3.33 (second-best in baseball) in 2012, improving every year during that span. The unit checked in at a remarkable 3.03 in 2014, and never registered an ERA above 3.62 or worse than eighth in the majors in McCatty’s final five seasons.

The team as a whole spiraled under Matt Williams during 2015, and the contracts of most of the staff – including McCatty – weren’t renewed during that offseason.

The Nats let him get away, not knowing the misfortune and disfunction that could strike a pitching staff that based on talent alone was dominant.

Since McCatty left, the pitching coach position has been a revolving door. First there was Mike Maddux (two years under Dusty Baker), then Derek Lilliquist (just over a year) and most recently Paul Menhart (almost two years, although his final season was a shortened one).

Results slightly improved under Maddux in 2016 – although still short of McCatty’s high points – but Washington’s ERA has risen every season since, ballooning all the way to 5.09 in 2020. Clearly, something had to change once again.

The Next Contestant

Thankfully, that puzzling regression – and the struggle to find a coach to effectively guide the players through it – appears to have come to an end.

To be clear, part of this precipitous fall has to do with on-field talent. The Nationals once had a starting rotation that could go toe-to-toe with any across the league. Then again, they still have three pitchers that are essentially aces, and the fact that younger pitchers with upside as prospects haven’t emerged is somewhat an indictment on coaching and institutional development. And I haven’t even mentioned the bullpen yet.

So what makes me think newly-hired Jim Hickey can turn things around?

The Chemistry Factor

One point of contention since Dave Martinez was named the team’s manager is that he didn’t receive total authority in hiring his assistants. He had some prior connection to some – if not most – of them, but it was clear that they weren’t his top choices and that the organization had some input.

Hickey is one of his guys. They were each assistants under Joe Maddon in Tampa Bay from 2007-14, and the cohesion among that staff was spectacular. Hickey stayed with the Rays for three more years, but was poached again by Maddon in 2018, before taking on a player development role with the Dodgers in 2019 under Dave Roberts – whom Martinez has shown particular respect for.

This connectedness may seem minor, but remember the World Series run in 2019? Much of the team’s success was driven by culture and guys getting along and having fun together. Paul Menhart wasn’t a bad person, but the longstanding relationship between Martinez and Hickey holds a lot of weight.

An Elite Resume

At the end of the day, production is what really matters, and Hickey has been a part of plenty of that.

He was named the Houston Astros’ interim pitching coach in July 2004, inheriting a staff that included Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt and Brad Lidge. That team advanced to the NLCS, and they went all the way to the World Series the following year. Clemens and Andy Pettitte recorded the top two ERAs in the National League in 2005, Oswalt finished seventh, and Houston’s team ERA was second-best in the NL.

Hickey’s staffs had similar success in Tampa and Chicago. The Rays had the worst ERA in the league in his first season (2007) on their staff, but he helped them jump all the way to third in that category in 2008. They finished in the top half of the league for the rest of his tenure, and led the league in 2012. The Cubs finished third in the majors in ERA in Hickey’s lone season there, and didn’t finished better than seventh in either season since his departure.

He’s been the pitching coach for seven playoff teams – which isn’t an easy feat in a small market and extremely low-budget environment like Tampa, which never pays for talented pitchers – and had 12 different players earn All Star accolades.

  • Roger Clemens (2005)
  • Brad Lidge (2005)
  • Roy Oswalt (2005-06)
  • Scott Kazmir (2008)
  • Rafael Soriano (2010)
  • James Shields (2011)
  • Fernando Rodney (2012)
  • Matt Moore (2013)
  • David Price (2010-12, ’14)
  • Chris Archer (2015)
  • Brad Boxberger (2015)
  • Alex Colome (2016)

It’s tough to argue that Hickey isn’t the most qualified pitching coach the Nationals have ever hired. The accomplishments of his pitchers – some of whom were seldom heard from before and/or after their time as his pupils – speak for themselves. He helped develop some future aces, and guided other veterans who were struggling – Clemens, Cole Hamels and Jon Lester, to name a few – back to their old selves.

It’s clear that Martinez’s hope is that he can do the same for his players – from young arms like Austin Voth and Erick Fedde, to grizzled vets like Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin.

Cleaning House

As a reminder, Menhart was far from the only assistant Martinez has cut ties with this offseason. Chip Hale (third base coach) and Kevin Long (hitting coach) were both relieved of their duties, and Pat Roessler (assistant hitting coach and long-time understudy of Long) is likely also gone.

In all likelihood, Martinez will replace this trio with assistants he has more familiarity with, much like Hickey.

The fate of Tim Bogar (bench coach), Bob Henley (first base coach) and Henry Blanco (bullpen coach) is unknown, although Blanco – who was Martinez’s staff mate with the Cubs for three years – is likely safe.

Regardless, the manager-pitching coach duo is extremely important, and Washington’s tandem should presumably see eye-to-eye. Combine that with Hickey’s exceptional credentials, and it’s more than fair to expect a bounce-back season for the Nationals’ pitching staff in 2021.

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