The hoss whisperer

This summer, like every summer, Rays pitchers have dominated opposing hitters

Originally Published: August 11, 2013
By Eddie Matz | ESPN The Magazine

Chris ArcherJoy R. Absalon/USA TODAY SportsPitching coach Jim Hickey likes to give space to young stars like ROY candidate Chris Archer.

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CHRIS ARCHER HAD spent July making grown men look like Little Leaguers, but now, against the Giants on the first Friday in August, the Rays' rookie phenom looks like, well, any other rookie. The trouble begins in the seventh, when Archer allows a cheapie infield single to Hunter Pence that travels all of 70 feet. Four pitches later, Brandon Belt lashes an RBI triple to deep center. On the very next pitch, Brandon Crawford crushes a two-run homer to right. Just like that, it's 4-1 Giants. It's the kind of blitzkrieg that typically results in a mound visit, especially with a rookie toeing the rubber. Heck, most pitching coaches would've trotted out there earlier. But Jim Hickey is not your typical pitching coach. Following the triple, he stays put in the dugout. After the home run, he doesn't move. Only when Archer gives up an infield single to Joaquin Arias, the fourth straight two-out hit, does Hickey make his way to the mound. The visit lasts 11 seconds, ends with a pat on the butt and is followed soon after by Archer's strikeout of Marco Scutaro to end the inning.

By now, the secret to Tampa Bay's small-market success is no secret at all: The Rays can pitch. Despite a payroll that annually ranks among the league's lowest, the team's .568 winning percentage since the beginning of 2008 is second only to the Yankees' .581 (through Aug. 8). Not coincidentally, in four of the past five seasons, the Rays finished first or second in the American League in ERA. This season the team won 21 of 26 July games and overtook Boston for first place in the always difficult American League East, thanks to a staff that posted a scintillating 2.54 ERA (more than half a run better than the next closest AL team) and got seven complete games (most in one month since the '99 Phillies) from a baby-faced homegrown rotation that will earn a combined $15.5 million this year, or almost $8 million less than the Yanks' CC Sabathia. Make no mistake: With a middling offense that ranks sixth in the AL in runs scored and a slumping slugger -- Evan Longoria's .635 OPS in July was the lowest of any month in his career -- it's the Rays arms shouldering the load. The man behind the mound men? Hickey, the unheralded less-is-more coach who knows that by letting his young hurlers lose a battle, like Archer lost that Friday in August, he's helping the Rays win the war.

Ask Tampa's hurlers what makes Hickey so good at his job and you'll hear the same words over and over again. Communication. Trust. Patience. It's as if they're reading from a script for a neighborhood bank commercial. "Honestly," says David Price, the 2012 Cy Young winner, "what's special about Hick is his ability to communicate." That's right: On a club run by three former Wall Street analysts -- owner Stuart Sternberg, GM Andrew Friedman and president Matthew Silverman -- and renowned for its innovative, statistically minded analysis, Tampa's secret sauce is a pitcher who barely made it past Double-A who's really good at ... human interaction.

Knowing how (and when) to talk to people might not matter on a club that's laden with veteran pitchers. But in a market like Tampa, where the Rays rely on promoting affordable young talent in order to keep pace in the AL East arms race, it's an indispensable gift. "At this level, it's all mental," says 25-year-old starter Alex Cobb, now in his third season with the Rays. "Hick just has a way of settling you down when things get sticky."

"There are three kinds of pitching coaches," says 1988 NL Cy Young winner and current ESPN analyst Orel Hershiser, who served as the Rangers pitching coach from 2002 through 2005. "The least-common-denominator coach tells you what you're doing wrong. The second-level coach tells you what you need to do differently but only addresses the symptom. Then there's the master, who watches you and understands you and gives you one tweak that fixes five things."

Which class is Hickey? Well, take the first time he laid eyes on Archer, in February 2011. Hickey saw a kid who delivered 98 mph cheese and a filthy slider. He also saw someone whose relatively short stride made for an inconsistent release point. Even though Hickey knew he wanted Archer to lengthen his stride, he held his tongue. He held his tongue through Archer's stop at Double-A Montgomery and Triple-A Durham. He held his tongue when Archer appeared at spring training. He even held his tongue after Archer's call-up in June, watching the kid labor through his first four 2013 starts, when he walked 14 hitters in 19 innings, making it past the fifth inning only once and losing three of four games. At last, Hickey intervened.

"Do you wanna be the four-inning, 100-pitch guy," the coach asked his righthander during batting practice at Yankee Stadium, "or do you wanna be the dominant elite guy?" Moments later, Archer stood atop the bullpen mound in the Bronx with Hickey by his side, the two of them working on adding an extra two or three inches to the starter's stride. "It was a minor thing," says Hickey, whose rule of thumb is to give his pitchers six starts before offering any kind of adjustments, "but I thought it would help Archie out." Three days after the intervention, Archer beat the Yankees, and he went undefeated in his next seven outings, in which he threw two shutouts, averaged nearly seven innings per start and walked a grand total of 11 batters.

"That," Hershiser says upon hearing the story, "is master-class coaching."


THE ABILITY TO get through to his team is hardly surprising given Hickey's upbringing. Growing up on Chicago's South Side, James J. Hickey IV learned early how to relate to people. He was the fourth of six children. His mother was a special-needs teacher. His father was a Korean War vet and former prizefighter (he once battled Joe Louis) who could sell anything and did, driving door-to-door all over the Midwest convincing folks that they really and truly needed all-natural sausage casing made of pig intestines.

A Cubs fan by birth, Hickey told his parents at 5 that he would be a major league baseball player. At Texas-Pan American, he threw 16 complete games his senior season. The success didn't translate to the pros, though. "I was an average minor league pitcher at best," says the 1983 13th-round draft pick. In 1989, after seven years toiling in the depths of the White Sox, Dodgers and Astros farm systems, Hickey decided it was time to swap cleats for commissions and follow his old man into the sales world. "I never had any intention of coaching," he says. Then Fred Gladding, the former big league hurler who'd been Hickey's pitching coach at Double-A Columbus, told Hickey he had the smarts and, more important, people skills to excel at it.

In 1991 Hickey got his first job as a pitching coach, working for the Astros' Class-A affiliate in Burlington, Iowa. Combining the listening skills of a salesman and the patience of a teacher, he was a natural. Nevertheless, 13 years later, he was still stuck in the minors, still working two jobs in the offseason. (To feed his wife and three kids, he drove a UPS truck; to feed his passion, he was a substitute teacher.) Despite sending the big club a steady stream of overachieving arms who'd outperformed their draft status -- guys like Roy Oswalt (23rd round) and Carlos Hernandez (undrafted) -- he couldn't break through the glass ceiling installed by Gerry Hunsicker, the old-school Astros GM who believed that to be a big league pitching coach, you needed big league experience. But in 2004, after firing coach Burt Hooton as part of a midseason housecleaning, Hunsicker broke his rule and gave Hickey a try. The following season, Hickey helped Houston's hurlers post a 3.51 ERA, second best in MLB, and lead the Astros to the first World Series appearance in franchise history.

Nearly a decade later, the Rays' young staff couldn't care less that Hickey is one of seven current pitching coaches who never played in the majors. Instead, they see a meticulous game planner who spends up to six hours prepping for a series by watching video and compiling stats on opposing hitters. They see an everyman who speaks fluent Spanish and frequently catches his starters' bullpen sessions, traits so rare that reliever Jamey Wright, who has played for 10 teams, can't recall ever having a pitching coach who did either. Most important, they see an open-minded teacher who gives them space to find themselves. "The X-factor with Hick," Wright says, "is that he didn't pitch 15 years in the bigs, so he's not set in his ways." Adds Alex Cobb: "He lets us learn from our mistakes." Maybe that's because he's learned from his own.

On Sept. 30, 2007, Hickey was arrested on DUI charges, the same day he finished his first season with Tampa Bay, one in which the Rays posted an MLB-worst 5.53 ERA. Given his résumé at the time, it would've been easy for the Rays to ax Hickey, who admits he was "prepared to be dismissed." Instead, the club re-signed him to another one-year deal. "I'm a big believer that you don't abandon someone just because they made a mistake," manager Joe Maddon says. "We saw a lotof talent in Hick."

Today, it's hard not to draw a parallel between the Rays' success -- they've won at least 90 games four of the past five years and are on pace to win 90 again this season -- and Hickey. But the coach is quick to downplay his role. "Not too much credit, not too much blame," he says.

Adds the grizzled vet Wright: "Could they bring somebody else in here to do what Hick's done? Maybe. "But you'd sure have a lot of pissed-off pitchers."

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