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The Jim Hickey Era

The pitching coach that helped define The Rays Way.

Minnesota Twins v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

We fans don’t really know what a pitching coach does. All we get to see is him walking out to the mound when his pitcher is struggling, putting his hand over his mouth to hide his lips, and chatting for a bit. Then the pitcher either pitches better or doesn’t.

We also get to see the pitchers work, and to study their process. We assume that the pitching coach has something to do with that, so we attribute an amount of a pitcher’s success or failure to his coach.

But we don’t know.

So understand that there are probably lots of other people who deserve credit for what we will call “The Jim Hickey Era,” but still, that’s what we’ll call it, because Hickey was the face of Rays pitching for the past eleven years, and it was a very good run.

During his time in Tampa Bay, not only did the Rays pitch well, they did so with an identity. They pitched in ways other teams didn’t. They innovated, and by doing so they changed the league.

These are the precepts that defined The Jim Hickey Era. There is such a thing as “The Rays Way,” and this pitching philosophy was more than half of it.

1. If you have a good changeup, throw it to both sides of the plate, against both same-handed and opposite-handed batters.

Traditionally, a changeup was thrown down and away to opposite-handed batters. Hide it on the outer corner, moving down and away from the batter, and maybe they won’t be able to pull it. It’s a way to minimize the opponent’s advantage; an attempt to not lose too hard.

It’s traditional for a reason—it works. But the thing about major league hitters is that once they know what pitch to expect and where to expect it, they will hit it hard. And the thing that Jim Hickey and the Rays knew is that not all changeups are created equal. Some can do much more.

No Rays pitcher embodied The Rays Way more than James Shields. He pitched under Hickey from 2007 through 2012. During that time, he threw a changeup to left-handed batters 29% of the time, per Brooks Baseball.

The biggest concentration is down and away, but he also located down and middle, and down and in.

And against righties, he threw a changeup 24% of the time.

The locations for same-handed hitters were almost the same as for those against opposite-handed hitters.

That was not traditional.

2. Don’t be shy about throwing your best pitch early in the count to get ahead, rather than saving it exclusively for two-strike counts.

If James Shields exemplifies the way Jim Hickey shaped The Rays Way, Fernando Rodney is the most extreme example of Hickey using his talents to make a pitcher better.

In 2011, Rodney was a mess. He walked 19% of the batters that he faced, he had a 4.50 ERA, and that was better than his peripherals. When the Rays acquired him, most fans (yes, you, almost all of you) panned the signing. But there were a couple things going for Rodney: he threw hard, and he had a GREAT changeup. The Rays, under Hickey, knew what to do with that changeup.

Simple answer: throw it.

Only slightly-less simple-sounding answer, but really quite an idea: throw it early in the count.

Using data from Baseball Savant, here’s what pitches Rodney threw in 2011 and in 2012, in all counts.

Fernando Rodney in All Counts

2011 25% 18% 45% 11%
2012 37% 9% 52% 0%

There you have the big picture. More changeups overall.

And now here’s the breakdown for 1-1 counts.

Fernando Rodney in 1-1 Counts

2011 21% 12% 58% 9%
2012 41% 6% 52% 1%

And there you see where the emphasis is. Yes, the Rays had Fernando Rodney throw his changeup more, but they especially had him throw it more early in the count.

That runs counter to some traditional wisdom, in which pitchers save their best swing-and-miss pitch for a strikeout situation.

Here’s the rational:

  • There’s a big swing in value between a 2-1 count and an 1-2 count, and getting ahead changes how a pitcher can attack a hitter.
  • There are a lot of 1-1 counts (and a lot of 0-1 counts, 1-0 counts, and 0-0 counts). There are more “early” counts than there are “late” counts.
  • Maybe showing the putaway pitch early makes a hitter less apt to strike out on it, but never throwing that best pitch, getting behind in the count, having to throw predictable fastballs, and sometimes walking the hitter makes that hitter far less likely to strike out.

So get ahead. Take the ace out of the hole.

Truly great seasons, like Fernando Rodney’s 2012, don’t happen for only one reason. They’re a confluence of successes. Hickey and the Rays famously moved him to the other side of the rubber, and miraculously got him to throw strikes. That walk rate dropped from 19% to 5%. Mechanics, particular to Rodney, were a part of it, but don’t ignore the sequencing. That sequencing is The Rays Way.

3. If you have a four-seam fastball with good rise, throw it high in the zone, or just above. That’s a strikeout pitch.

If the changeup was early-era Hickey, the late era was about the high fastball.

Consider this list, from FanGraphs. It’s pitchers who completed at least 60 innings in 2015, ranked by the rise on their fastball (MLBAM classifications, caveats apply). The Rays check in at #3 (Steve Gelz), #4 (Drew Smyly), #17 (Nathan Karns), #21 (Jake Odorizzi), and #25 (Alex Colome). No other team has more than two players on the list.

There’s been a lot written about the high fastball and the Rays. My favorite was Travis Sawchik’s piece, which focused on Odorizzi and Smyly. Now you might be thinking, “Those aren’t great pitchers,” and you’d be right. Neither of those guys became David Price, or James Shields, or peak Alex Cobb. But they were pretty good pitchers, and a healthy Smyly might have been more than he became, and really, this gets back to the question of what does a pitching coach do.

In part, he takes the pitchers he’s given and tries to help them reach their fullest potential. Without a doubt, the emphasis on the high fastball as a strikeout pitch was something that made Smyly and Odorizzi (and Geltz) better, rather than something that made them worse.

Kevin Antonevich noted that for some Rays, the results were mixed. That brings us to the next tenet.

4. These are nice rules. Don’t fall in love with them. If you’re a square peg, let’s find you a square hole.

Not every story is a success. In 2010, Matt Garza’s last season with the Rays, he struck out 17.5% of the batters he faced en route to a 3.91 ERA and a 4.42 FIP. The following season with the Cubs, he struck out 23.5% of the batters he faced, posting a 3.32 ERA and a 2.95 FIP.

What was different? Most obviously, he threw his slider more often upping the usage from 14% to 23% (Brooks Baseball).

A similar, if less pronounced, story played out with Edwin Jackson, who left the Rays, threw his slider more, and performed better.

Did Hickey make a mistake to de-emphasize a quality pitch for these two players? (Was it even Hickey’s call?) Maybe. Out of these episodes, and also from David Price’s early development came the idea that “The Rays don’t like sliders,” or maybe that “The Rays think throwing sliders hurts elbows.”

But then there’s this.

Chris Archer is a unique pitcher. His slider, which is truly 80-grade, is better than Garza’s or Jackson’s ever was, and we don’t know what the Rays would have done with him had he come along in 2008. But we can note that he was allowed to be unique.

The best pitcher on the Rays staff hardly throws a changeup and his four-seam fastball lacks exceptional rise. Is he even a Ray? In the Late-Hickey Era, yes he is.

5. Pitch with confidence.

The first four tenets are about pitching philosophy, and Jim Hickey was just the public face for what is a many-headed front office and coaching team. But number five really was about Hickey.

As that figurehead, it was Hickey’s job to make that plan a reality—to communicate with the pitchers, to get them ready to execute the plan, to believe in the plan, and, just as importantly, to believe in themselves.

Erasmo Ramirez was Shields-lite. He had the plus changeup that he threw to batters of both handedness. He threw his changeup in early counts. He even worked up in the zone, with some success (above average popup rate in both 2015 and 2016), despite not having much of a fastball.

But the story of Ramirez in Tampa Bay is about acquiring a pitcher who had lost his confidence and helping him find it again.

Tony Blengino, who worked for the Seattle Mariners when Ramirez was coming up with the team wrote about how the young pitcher was handled:

Another factor that may have held him back from receiving more national acclaim was the glass-half-empty view that some in the organization had adopted toward Ramirez. His sunny disposition was at times misinterpreted as a lack of seriousness, and his present shortcomings, rather than his gifts, were often emphasized. Every player is different, and there is no ideal motivational tool; while you might need to “go to the whip” to get certain players to perform, this was not necessary with Ramirez. There wasn’t a single spring-training mistake in the zone made by Ramirez that wasn’t noted sternly and publicly, and over time, he began to pitch scared. That’s a recipe for disaster at the major-league level, even if you’re pitching in Safeco Field.

We all know what happened with Ramirez here. His first two appearances in Tampa Bay were disastrous. He could not command his pitches, and wasn’t fooling anyone. He could barely get an out. He seemed broken, and not worth wasting time on.

But the Rays believed it was worth their time, and somehow, despite the awful results, Hickey was able to get Ramirez to believe as well. The Rays got an average starting pitcher who was happy to fill whatever role the Rays needed. Blengino summed it up:

Kudos to the Rays for focusing on the many things he does well, allowing him to again feel good about himself and make the targeted adjustments that have allowed him to tap into his potential.

Is it the end of the era?

We don’t know. The Rays promoted from within, elevating Triple-A pitching coach Kyle Snyder, and much of the front office team that helped define the Jim Hickey Era remains in place. Maybe it was never all about Hickey, so the set of pitching ideas that will bear his name may outlast him in Tampa Bay.

On the other hand, if the Jim Hickey Era was about the Rays being pitching innovators, that only gets harder with every year. Perhaps in that sense it was already over. Neil Allen, the former Durham Bulls pitching coach, now fills that roll for the Minnesota Twins, and the league is strewn with former Rays front-office personnel and pitchers. What you do is largely out in the open. Teams can’t copyright sequencing, and it’s harder to be “the clever ones” than it was in 2007.

Five years from now, we’ll have a different perspective. If the Rays’ approach changes under Snyder in an outward, visible way, we will notice. We will try to answer whether the changes are for the better or for the worse. We will debate the Jim Hickey Era vs. the Kyle Snyder Era, despite the fact that maybe we should be calling it all the Josh Kalk Era.

But right now, while acknowledging the question of whether it ever really existed, we can say this about the Jim Hickey Era: “It was good.”