Jim Hickey’s ability to keep the mood light and to drive his pitchers to get better without driving them mad is what earned him a job on Joe Maddon’s staff in Chicago. The Cubs are counting on that impact as they look to avoid the same issues that popped up in the bullpen last season, whether it was the 8th Inning of Death or just onboarding new relievers to the team in general.
Patrick Mooney has more on why Hickey is the right pitching coach at the right time, and I recommend you check that out (you may need to subscribe to The Athletic if you haven’t already). We’ll get to a little more on the fit here shortly, but not before we take a look at the anecdote Hickey shared about an interaction with former Rays and Cubs pitcher Matt Garza.
“He was always chirping about how easy it would be to be a closer,” Hickey said. “He’s got that nasally voice and you know he’s kind of annoying at times: ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’
“So there came a time — and I don’t remember the exact circumstance — but [Garza] was available to pitch out of the bullpen. And lo and behold, we used him, and we used him in the ninth inning. I think he had a two-run lead, but I’m not positive on that part of it. He goes walk, walk, so there’s two batters on base.
“I call timeout and make my trip to the mound. I said, ‘So, you wanted to be a closer, right?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah!’ I said, ‘Well, there you go’ and I just walked off and that was it.
“Here you go. Start closing.”
The game Hickey is talking about was a 6-4 Rays win over the Red Sox on July 7, 2010. David Price had gone 7 2/3 innings before giving way to Grant Balfour, who finished the inning and then came back out to end the game. But Balfour allowed a triple to Daniel Nava and sac fly to Mike Cameron to open the 9th, after which Randy Choate took over. A J.D. Drew single chased Choate and forced Maddon to turn to Garza.
The emergency closer induced a Marco Scutaro fly out, but then gave up a double to Darnell McDonald (who’s now a mental skills coordinator for the Cubs) and walked David Ortiz. With a two-run lead and two men on, Garza got Kevin Youkilis to fly out to center for the final out. Greek god of walks, my left foot.
Even though Hickey didn’t have it exactly right, the overall situation worked out to pretty much the same thing. And while doing the research resulted in some additional Cubs connections, there is a more important takeaway here. The brief story above gives us a peek into how the pitching coach interacts with his charges, even in an unusual situation fraught with tension.
Though it’s impossible to say whether that’s better, worse, or not at all different from Chris Bosio ambling out to the mound and telling his guy to throw some f—ing strikes, a change in tone and delivery may be a very good thing. And that could be especially true for a relief corps that, while inherently fickle by the very nature of their respective roles, struggled mightily last year when it came to throwing strikes.
And that’s where Hickey’s demeanor and coaching philosophy will really come into play. In addition to being able to release the pressure in the moment, he’s big on having pitchers go out and pound the zone. That could really be valuable for a guy like Carl Edwards Jr. who has the type of stuff to flat-out beat hitters with strikes rather than getting cute and working the fringes.
It also dovetails nicely with what Brandon Morrow brings over from the Dodgers, a team that was able to get over on the Cubs and others by locating fastballs high in the zone and changing eye level with breaking stuff. Such knowledge should help his fellow pitchers just as much as it will the hitters who need to handle that strategy in the future.
Hickey not only embodies the Cubs’ stated desire to add more strike-throwers to the ‘pen, he seems like the right person to facilitate a reworked staff that includes new faces and a few pitchers looking to improve from last season. Add in his familiarity with Maddon and his willingness to think outside the box after a decade in Tampa, and Hickey starts to look like a perfect fit.