Hickey excited for opportunity with Nationals

October 19th, 2020

New additions to the Nationals' coaching staff for the 2021 season began to take shape when the team announced the hiring of pitching coach Jim Hickey on Monday.

Hickey brings an instant familiarity to the staff, as he worked with manager Dave Martinez from 2008-14 when Martinez was a bench coach for the Rays. Earlier this month, the Nationals parted ways with pitching coach Paul Menhart.

“I am very excited to add Jim to our coaching staff and organization as a whole,” Martinez said in a statement. “He brings a wealth of knowledge, experience and passion to the job. He’s led a lot of really good pitching staffs over the years and has been a part of many successful clubs along the way. He’s helped countless pitchers improve, achieve their full potential and become All-Stars. … I am really looking forward to working with him again.”

Hickey, 59, began his 15 years of big league pitching coach experience with the Astros (2004-06) before holding the position with the Rays ('07-17) and Cubs ('18). He comes to the Nationals after serving as the Dodgers' special assistant for player development for two season. Hickey has been on coaching staffs for seven postseason appearances.

“You always have that Major League tug,” Hickey said on a Zoom call. “You wanted 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.”

Hickey will work with a Nationals pitching staff anchored by , and . He has experience coaching high-caliber pitchers, including 12 All-Stars in , , , , , , , , , , and .

“It’s getting them to trust me,” Hickey said of established pitchers. “Building relationships, getting to know guys, I think that’s the most important thing. If I have an idea, I’ll certainly share it and kind of find that common ground and bring that up. But most of these guys have a pretty good idea -- especially the veteran guys, obviously -- of what it is that makes them tick and what they need to have me watch out for, at least be aware of. I’m looking forward to that. That’s one of the funnest parts of the job, actually.”

The Nationals also have young arms working their way toward to Majors. Nineteen of their Top 30 prospects, per MLB Pipeline, are pitchers, and only five have made their big league debuts.

“It’s a fun mix when it’s like that,” Hickey said. “I really enjoy having the guys that are just up-and-coming and the ability to look at a Scherzer or a Strasburg or a Patrick Corbin. That’s kind of my approach -- starting in Spring Training … watch and encourage the young guys to come when there’s a bullpen [session] being thrown, especially when it’s by one of the more veteran guys.”

This season, an injury-stricken Nationals pitching staff ranked 26th with a 5.09 ERA, and the bullpen converted just 12 of 22 save opportunities. The team expects Strasburg (carpal tunnel neuritis, right hand) to be healthy for next season, and it has to make decisions on (team option) and the No. 5 spot, which was filled this year by .

“The talent [intrigues me the most]. It’s really, really top-heavy when you look at that rotation,” Hickey said. “I know that this past season, things didn’t go quite as planned. But when you look at that rotation -- and if you can get those guys back to being healthy and back to where they were even to 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.”

Hickey’s approach to pitching is “throw strikes, work quick and change speeds,” and he’s an advocate of the changeup for its efficiency and ability to yield outs. He is considering making offseason trips to cities where groups of Nationals pitchers are training to begin getting to know the team.

“I have definitely evolved,” Hickey said. “It’s become more data-driven, but at the end of the day, it’s the same game, and the best pitch in the game is strike one. I think I’ve got the best of both worlds -- a little bit of old school and a lot of the newer-age stuff as well.”