clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Dropping the Ball

New, comments

As reported by R.J. below, the Rays have let pitching coach Mike Butcher head to Anaheim, and have replaced him with former Astros pitching coach Jim Hickey. R.J. was on this from when the story was merely a rumor early in the day, to when it was confirmed a few hours ago.

Now, I don't think you will find too many people shedding a tear over the loss of Butcher, he wasn't a bad pitching coach (or at least didn't stand out as one), but he did not stand out as anything special. Losing him was a disappointment to probably no one, sans manager Joe Maddon. Besides, I'm sure that he doesn't mind returning to Anaheim, where he was originally before coming over with manager Joe Maddon.

The problem with this move comes with Butcher's replacement. Personally, I have nothing against Jim Hickey. I don't really know too much about his personal side, but his track record with pitchers in Houston seems pretty good. He seems like a fine choice for pitching coach for most teams. This column is not about how he was a bad choice. This column is about how not hiring Montgomery pitching coach Xavier Hernandez was a bad choice.

First of all, while you will not see me degrading Hickey as a coach in this piece, as that is not my opinion, nor is it the focal point of my argument. Still, perhaps is there something we are missing in our quick glance evaluation of him. There has to be a reason that Houston so easily gave him the boot this year, has there not? Consider that during his 1.5 year tenure, he had made tremendous strides in developing Astros pitchers like (former Ray) Brandon Backe in the minor leagues. And while pitching coach, Houston won the NL pennant and went to their first World Series in franchise history. They nearly unseated the World Champion Cardinals this year in the NL Central, and their staff ERA was 4.08, good for fifth best in the major leagues and second in the National League. That was not the reason Houston did not make the playoffs. So why then was Hickey dismissed? I am not going to engage in frivolous speculation, but the circumstances are a bit curious.

However, the overall point I am trying to make is that while Jim Hickey is not a bad choice as the new pitching coach (in fact he is a very good choice), the team dropped the ball in not appointing the obvious and even better candidate.

First of all, let us be up front. Hernandez is an excellent, excellent pitching coach. As the man behind the pitching staff in Montgomery for the last two years, as well as the three prior years in Bakersfield and Charleston, Hernandez did great work with the young prospects who have come through under his instruction. Juan Salas, Mitch Talbot, and Jeff Ridgway elevated their prospect status greatly under Hernandez this year, and it was his work with lesser prospects Tony Peguero, Jean Machi, and Jason Cromer that helped put the Biscuits on top this year in winning the SL title. Meanwhile, top pitching prospects Jeff Niemann and Andy Sonnanstine continued their progression with excellent years in Montgomery under Hernandez. Let there be no debate, he did an excellent job as pitching coach there this year. Based on these merits alone, Hernandez should have been the odds-on favorite for the major league job.

Still, there are some who feel that making the jump from AA to the majors is a big one for a pitching coach. I, however, would argue that there is just as much difficulty in jumping from AAA to the majors. You're going to have to do it eventually to reach the majors, and a lot of people have successfully, including one Jim Hickey. It is not that unlikely that Jeff Niemann, as well as some other top prospects, could just plain skip Triple A and head straight to the majors. Scott Kazmir did. The fact is, while the stadiums may be larger and the overall talent may be better in Triple A, developmentally, the difference is inconsequential. I just don't consider the jump from AAA to the bigs to be that big.

Lastly, take a look at our pitching staff for next season. Possible members include Jason Hammel, Ruddy Lugo, Seth McClung, Jeff Niemann, Chad Orvella, Jeff Ridgway, Juan Salas, Jamie Shields, Brian Stokes, and Jon Switzer, all of whom have worked with Hernandez directly under Hernandez at one stop or another in their minor league career. And that does not include other players with whom Hernandez worked with indirectly. With his acumen already proven, the best choice would have been Hernandez because familiarity begets comfort. For a lot of those players, they do not have much major league experience, and in helping to guide them to the next level, there could be no better choice than a coach that they know, they had success under before, and that they like. Xavier Hernandez is that coach.

Houston used the same philosophy in hiring Hickey, as he had been a coach at the minor league level before being hired, and the familiarity with the players he worked with in the minors without doubt helped play a role in Houston's success in the major leagues. Based on his own merits, Jim Hickey is a good coach, but Hernandez is a good coach that is homegrown. We know him, the players know him. And he was the best choice.

The constant trading routes between Anaheim and Houston need to stop. I know Joe Maddon and Gerry Hunsicker might have liked the players that they are familiar with having served in those areas, but personal bias should not impact future decisions. Dan Miceli? Josh Paul? Scott Dunn? Mike Butcher? Where would these people have found their way into the organization if not for the presence of those two gentlemen? Now add Hickey to the list. The pipeline needs to end. Familiarity breeds bias, and that has become clear. The overall success of the front office had not been impacted too much by the reliance on these moves, but that doesn't mean that this is an area where the front office does not need improvement. The baseball operations staff needs to look at all players objectively and it needs to make conclusions based not on personal experiences, but performance. That has been lacking from this front office in that regard, although it is a very minor issue. Nonetheless, it needs to end.

Other-On a completely unrelated note, birthday wishes go out to a key member of the 2006 bullpen and one coach who did not depart on Saturday. Reliever Shawn Camp turned 31 today, and hitting coach Steve Henderson turned 54. Happy Birthday!

[editor's note, by Patrick Kennedy]: Due to the writing and space resources devoted today to the abrupt news about the pitching coach change, the scheduled installment of the SBN postseason awards, to highlight the Cy Young winners, has been postponed until tomorrow (err, today as of this writing). This will not extend the series a day, it will just push the DRB awards back to Monday. The SBN MVP award installment is still scheduled for Tuesday.