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A Few Questions for........Joshua Raisen, Crawfish Boxes

Recently here at DRaysBay, we have been having a debate about the recent hire of new pitching coach Jim Hickey following the departure of Mike Butcher to Anaheim. The debate has not really centered around Hickey's ability as a pitching coach, but rather whether Double A Montgomery pitching coach Xavier Hernandez would have been a better choice. This debate has been talked out on message boards, and of course here, with R.J. and Jake taking the side of Hickey, while I was in favor of Hernandez. Judging by the poll on the right sidebar, you seem to overwhelmingly agree with my two compatriots.

Still, while the debate has not centered around Hickey specifically, we really do not have much knowledge of Hickey and what he brings to the table. Sure, we can read the press releases and the canned bios, but we don't really have any real experience with Hickey. To help develop an understanding of Hickey a little more, for all of us, as well as to help those of you still on the fence about the Hickey decision, I contacted my colleague Joshua Raisen of Crawfish Boxes, the Houston Astros blog on the SBN network, for a shameless cross-promotion easy to do fluff piece little more info on Hickey based on his experiences as an Astros blogger. He was kind enough to take a few of my questions and answer them with great detail. I found the interview to be very informative, and I believe you will to. Publicly I would like to acknowledge Joshua's great cooperation, prompt and insightful replies, and his general friendliness, and thank him for it. He is truly a DRaysBay Friend™. Read what he had to say about Jim Hickey after the jump.

Patrick Kennedy (DRaysBay): What were your impressions of Hickey from his work in the Houston organization prior to being named pitching coach?

Joshua Raisen (Crawfish Boxes): Hickey spent 13-1/2 years in the organization as a minor league pitching coach before getting promoted from AAA New Orleans at the All Star break 2004.

From here, I'll quote myself, having already said it about as well as I'm going to in this article:

"...Certainly, minor league pitching coaches don't get fired the way their major league cohorts do, but even so, a tenure like that is remarkable:  the Astros trusted his ability to work with young arms, for many years.  

He got results, too:  the staffs he coached  were first or second in their league in ERA six times.  

1994 GCL Astros # 2
1995 Quad City # 1
1996 Jackson # 2
2001 New Orleans # 2
2002 New Orleans # 1
2003 New Orleans # 1

In 2002, the club named Hickey their Organizational Man of the Year, "rewarding him for his efforts in developing some of the Astros top pitchers."

I'd say that along with Charley Taylor and Jack Billingham, Jim Hickey has been one of the most distinguished pitching coaches in the history of the team's farm system..."

PK: How much do you think his presence had an impact on the well-being of Houston's pitching staff? Was his perceived success driven more by the fact that he had arms such as Roger Clemens, Brad Lidge, Roy Oswalt, and Roger Clemens to work with, or was he successful independent of those players?

JR: If you remove the numbers generated by Roger Clemens, Andy Pettite and Roy Oswalt from the team's pitching numbers you get the following:

47 - 53, 4.57 ERA, 2.37 k/bb, 1.38 WHIP.

That staff--with Wandy Rodriguez as de facto ace--would have finished fourth in the league in WHIP, and would have finished ahead of four teams in ERA.  It's really impossible to make the case that the Astros' staff apart from the Big Three haven't been almost equally successful under Hickey.  And besides, who's to say that even the great pitchers can't benefit from the advice of a good pitching coach? Roy Oswalt (who first met Hickey when Hickey coached at New Orleans in 2001) especially is said to have developed a good rapport with Hickey as Astros pitching coach.

Lidge, on the other hand, may be the reason more than anything that he WAS fired, your question three notwithstanding.  When the team brought utility infielder Joe McEwing up from Round Rock, he immediately told the coaching staff that Lidge was tipping his pitches.  Shouldn't the pitching coach have figured that out?  But beyond that, as time has passed I have come more and more to think that Hickey was fired because he was unable to get Lidge straightened out.

PK: I have heard that Hickey was dismissed for the lack of success he had culled from Houston's young pitchers. Is this the case, first of all, and do you really fault him for this?

JR: We all wonder about this.  I've heard that there are players who don't understand why Hickey was axed, so my guess would be just that, a guess.  The facts are that Wandy Rodriguez, a moderately talented lefthander, had a great April then dropped off the table, and was back in AAA by July.  Rookie Taylor Buchholz, who has a nasty curveball and a good fastball was about as inconsistent as can be, alternating 80 and 90-Game Score efforts with affairs in which he gave up runs as if he were pitching batting practice.

There was also something of a disparity results vs. stuff with Fernando Nieve, a talented rookie with a good slider who like Buchholz had a weakness for the gopher ball.  Nieve did, however, finish with an ERA below the league average.

I think there's SOMETHING to the idea that Hickey didn't get the most out of the younger pitchers in 2006. But his track record in the minors sort of advises you not to take that as something that has been--or would be--a recurring theme.

And if you're gonna dock him for Buchholz in 2006, you have to give him credit for Wheeler in 2005.  Wheeler has evolved from a generic middle innings righty into a closer-in-waiting, and he did so just as Jim Hickey became his pitching coach. I don't think that's a coincidence.

PK: What was the general feeling of Houston fans towards the dismissal of Hickey, and what person(s) influenced this move? Was this Phil Garner's doing, or did the front office have a hand in this?

JR: Most fans I've heard from are rather cynical about it, suggesting that he was fired because his pitchers didn't throw enough shutouts; i.e. with Houston's anemic offense, that's the only way to win.  I have no idea if Phil Garner was involved, but certainly Gar had never made any statements that might be interpreted as if he had a problem with Hickey.  The possibility of course exists that there was some kind of a personality clash somewhere.  If so, I wish I knew about it!

PK: Overall, how would you rate Jim Hickey as a pitching coach, and how do you think he will do in Tampa Bay?

JR: I think that Hickey is going to prove an asset to the Devil Rays organization.  He's proven he can develop talent, and work with highly paid primadonnas, while extracting results.