Following the 2013 MLB Season, a key Tampa Bay Ray is set to hit free agency. He’s entering his seventh and final season under team control, and if they don’t extend him or otherwise re-sign him, he could be a hot commodity on the free agent market. He’s been a key part of all the success the Rays have, and if they let him depart, it could be crushing loss. Who are we talking about? None other than Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey. He may not be a player, but his contributions to make the Rays’ pitching staff one of the best in baseball season after season can’t be understated.
How have the Rays built up a level of pitching depth that is the envy of all of baseball? The obvious answer is player evaluation. The Rays have done an excellent job finding high-upside pitchers in the draft, beginning with David Price at 1st overall in 2007, but extending far beyond the first round of the draft. Just in the Rays’ current rotation, Jeremy Hellickson was 4th round pick, as was Alex Cobb, and Matt Moore was selected way down in Round 8. The Rays have also gotten contributions from international signings, with pitchers like Enny Romero, Alex Colome, and Felipe Rivero ranking among their top prospects with more talented arms also making their way up the ranks. But it isn’t just the Rays’ ability to draft well and make good international signings that lets them churn out quality pitcher after quality pitcher like clockwork- just as important has been their ability to use the assets they have to acquire pitchers in trades. Matt Garza was an excellent example when they acquired him back in 2007, and then three offseasons later, they traded him for a big package of prospects including top pitching prospect this offseason. And then this offseason, the Rays did the same thing, trading James Shields and Wade Davis and receiving not only top outfield prospect Wil Myers but also pitching prospects Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery. The Rays have made their starting rotation their number one priority and have placed a premium on acquiring as much top-end talent as they possibly can. But where does Jim Hickey fit into all of this?
The Rays have done an excellent job assembling a tantalizing group of pitching prospects over the years. However, their development isn’t complete once they arrive in the major leagues- then the Rays place them in the care of Jim Hickey to make the last adjustments they need to achieve sustained success. It was Hickey who helped David Price work through his tough rookie year in 2009 to finish second in the AL Cy Youngin 2010 and then win it in 2012, and Hickey looks to do the same for Matt Moore this season. It was Hickey who helped James Shields get back on track after he collapsed in 2010 on his way to a huge 2011 and a strong finish in a Rays uniform this past season. How has he done it? The key has been his ability to get pitchers to trust him. Talking to Marc Topkin, multiple Rays raved about Hickey’s ability to not just instruct pitchers but connect with them. Hickey has been able to create an environment of trust and mutual respect where pitchers believe in the advice he gives them and are able to internalize it. Instead of forcing pitchers out of their comfort zone by forcing them to make tweaks to their mechanics, to their arsenals, and so many other things, he works hard to keep them comfortable, to help them understand the changes they need to make and how it well help them, and get the best possible results. David Price summed up his relationship with Hickey like this.
"“He’s personable, he’s easy to talk to about anything. I talk to him all the time, even in the offseason, at least once a week I’ll call him or text him. … He’s quick-witted, he’s fun to talk to, he’s open. He’s one of my favorite people to talk to. He’s someone I want to be around.”"
Unlike many pitching coaches, Jim Hickey never appeared in the major leagues, making just 7 appearances even at Triple-A. Hickey admitted to Topkin “I wasn’t good enough, period.” And while Hickey obviously would have loved to make the major leagues, the grounded attitude not making the majors gave him has suited him extremely well. He doesn’t superciliously instruct players thinking everything he says is right and telling them “my way or the highway.” He recognizes the reality of him being on a lower level than the pitchers he coaches and tries to connect with them on an even playing field, becoming their friend and making them understand that he has their best intentions at heart. He has related to just about every pitcher the Rays have brought into the fold, and through his ability to get pitchers to trust him, he has generated unbelievable progress in so many different Rays pitchers. And Hickey’s contributions have not only been to the prospects.
The Rays have become renowned throughout baseball not just for their ability to develop young pitching, but also for their talent finding apparently washed-up relievers on the market and turning their careers completely around. Not mentioned as often has been Hickey’s role in that whole process, making the slight changes to mechanics and even mound placement that we have heard so much about that have made pitchers like Fernando Rodney, Kyle Farnsworth, and Joaquin Benoit go from struggling to get a job to among the most dominant relievers in baseball. We hear that the Rays turn those relievers around quite often, but we have to give credit where it’s due and Hickey has played a major role in making all of that happen.
We can’t be entirely sure just how big of an impact Jim Hickey has made in making the Rays’ pitching staff right up there among the best in baseball. But Hickey and the Rays have something great going, and why should they possibly stop that? Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe suggested that Hickey could become one of the highest-paid pitching coaches in baseball if he hits the open market. Even if keeping Hickey would require the Rays to substantially raise his salary, though, keeping him is a move that the Rays have to make and the relationships he has established and the results he has received from so many of the Rays’ pitchers will make him worth every penny.