The Nationals pitching staff enters today’s season finale sporting a 4.79 ERA, seventh-worst in the majors. And that number has only gotten worse as the season has played out. Since the All-Star break, the Nats’ ERA is a gaudy 5.60, third-worst in the majors.
So as they prepare to evaluate what went wrong this year, and what changes could be necessary to try to prevent it from happening again, the Nationals would be expected to at least consider whether pitching coach Jim Hickey deserves any share of the blame for his staff’s performance.
Manager Davey Martinez made it crystal clear Saturday he doesn’t believe Hickey deserves to be blamed.
“I think Hickey’s been great,” Martinez said in his Zoom session with reporters prior to a 5-3 loss to the Red Sox. “Hickey’s voice has been heard. He does a great job of communicating with pitchers day in and day out.”
Martinez went on to praise his first-year pitching coach and spell out various ways he’s earned the right to return for another season. And then, once asked directly if it’s indeed safe to say Hickey will be back in 2022, the skipper left little room for ambiguity.
“Yeah, Hickey will be back,” he said.
Given the Nationals’ history of coaching staff turnover, it’s understandable why Martinez wouldn’t want to go through this yet again. Since 2015, they’ve had five pitching coaches: Steve McCatty, Mike Maddux, Derek Lilliquist, Paul Menhart and now Hickey, who was hired last winter after Menhart was somewhat surprisingly let go 12 months after winning a World Series ring.
And Martinez has a longstanding connection with Hickey, from their time together with the Rays. The 59-year-old Hickey has 16 seasons of big league coaching experience with the Astros, Rays, Cubs and Nats.
But the performance of this year’s pitching staff can’t be glossed over. A team that was supposed to be built on the broad shoulders of an elite rotation and a deeper bullpen than in previous seasons proved to be nothing of the sort.
It certainly didn’t help when general manager Mike Rizzo traded away Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, Brad Hand and Daniel Hudson in late July. Nor when Stephen Strasburg, Joe Ross and Will Harris suffered season-ending injuries.
But beyond any of that, Martinez made his case for Hickey’s job performance no matter who’s on his staff.
“I’ve known him for a lot of years,” the manager said. “He works hard. He spends hours and hours assessing hitters. ... He’s been great. I can’t wait for him to get with them for another year and continue to work with them. His job’s never over. We’ve already been talking about this winter, what he needs to do this winter. The communication’s still going to be there. He wants to Zoom. He wants to have guys video wherever they’re throwing, and watch them to make sure they’re not doing something they’re not supposed to be doing, and try to help them do what they need to be doing to get them ready for next spring.”
After giving his full-throated support for Hickey, Martinez was asked if his entire coaching staff would be returning intact in 2022. He was less definitive in his response.
“We’re going to sit down,” he said. “(General manager Mike Rizzo) and I are going to sit down and talk about all these things Monday. We’ve got meetings going on this week, so we’re going to hone in on everything.”
The Nationals’ 2021 coaching staff has consisted of bench coach Tim Bogar, first base coach Randy Knorr, third base coach Bob Henley, hitting coach Kevin Long, assistant hitting coach Pat Roessler and bullpen coach Henry Blanco (who has moved to the dugout in recent weeks to assist while Martinez recovers from ankle surgery).