A closer look at Jim Hickey's coaching philosophy

New Nationals pitching coach Jim Hickey brings to the table a ton of experience, from the minor leagues to the majors.

The last two seasons, he worked in the Dodgers organization as a special assistant for player development, working with their top prospects. Earlier, Hickey had worked 11 seasons as pitching coach with the Rays, where he spent a significant amount of time alongside Nats manager Davey Martinez. In 2018, he was the pitching coach for the Cubs.

So being a pitching coach for a big league team with outstanding starting pitching already in house is something the 59-year-old is used to. Can Hickey work with the likes of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin and make them better?

Hickey is no stranger to coaching elite starters. He has worked with Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Matt Garza, James Shields, Blake Snell, David Price and others. So he knows big personalities and great pitchers. But those pitchers also knew him, and trusted him. Hickey said that trust is critical.

The-Ballpark-of-Palm-Beaches-curly-W-sidebar.jpg"You used the word trust and I think that's extremely important," Hickey said. "But I think that it's kind of the opposite way. It's getting them to trust me. It's all about relationships as far as that goes. Learning what works for Max Scherzer might not work for Austin Voth. Building relationships, getting to know guys and not pushing ...

"If I have an idea, I will certainly share it. Kind of find that common ground and bring that up. Most of these guys have a pretty good idea. Especially the veteran guys. 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."

A basic mantra to good hitting is to barrel up the ball, work the middle of the field - things that Nats manager Davey Martinez always preaches. Hickey's pitching philosophy seems obvious as well, and you hear it all the time.

"I have a philosophy and it's kind of a joke," Hickey said. "If you were to talk any pitcher who had pitched under me as I was a coach, he would probably be able to tell you: Throw strikes, work quick and change speeds. That's kind of the joke, but a joke is only funny if it's based in truth. This is based in truth and that's something that I would like to see."

It's true, if he doesn't throw strikes, a pitcher cannot survive for long in the big leagues. But it's not going to be the same pitch in the strike zone, either.

"Obviously, you have to throw strikes," he continued. "Obviously, you have to change speeds. I would like to see guys work quick. I don't mandate that guys work quick. I had a couple of the slowest working pitchers in the game in Tampa Bay and they had great success. All joking aside, that is kind of my bedrock, core philosophy."

So what other pitch besides the fastball do you have the best chance of finding the strike zone with on a consistent basis? Hickey loves pitchers that can incorporate the changeup to keep the hitter from keying on the fastball.

"I'm a huge believer in the changeup," Hickey said. "I don't force anyone to throw changeups. A lot of guys don't like the changeup because it's not a sexy pitch. It's not a huge swing-and-miss pitch for a lot of guys. But there's a lot of outs in there and there's a lot of efficiency in there, and at the end of the year, there's a lot more innings in there as well."

Hickey says the reason he loves a pitcher that can work in the changeup is it is an easier pitch to throw for a strike when you have to have a strike and you don't want the hitter anticipating the heater.

"It's a non-fastball that you can throw in the strike zone," Hickey said. "Believe me, I have no problem with a big 12-6 curveball either. We got a whole bunch of those. But you all of a sudden get yourself into a 2-0 count in a tight spot and it's pretty difficult to think you are going to be able to go ahead and drop this big, breaking pitch in the strike zone for a called strike. Whereas a changeup, it's a lot easier.

"Also, I like it because it obviously looks like a fastball. It comes right off of that same plane as the fastball and hopefully has a little bit less velocity and a little bit more movement, and I love it because when you can record those quick outs, it really starts giving you confidence. The industry probably doesn't value 200-inning type guys like they used to, but I would guarantee you that every pitcher who starts the season as a starting pitcher, that's a goal in the back of his mind to work deep into ball games and crack that 200-inning barrier. And a changeup helps that."

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