Q&A: Jim Hickey, Tampa Bay Rays Pitching Coach

Tampa Bay Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey is looking forward to next year. He should be. Erstwhile “ace” – a term Hickey hates, BTW – David Price is no longer part of the equation, but an enviable array of pitchers are. Better still, all of next year’s projected starters are heading into their primes. The sextet of Chris Archer, Alex Cobb, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Jake Odorizzi and Drew Smyly will be between the ages of 25 and 27 on opening day.

The 2014 campaign offered a number of challenges. Moore’s season-ending elbow injury in April was the biggest blow, while Hellickson scuffled mightily after a mid-season return from an elbow injury of his own. Cobb missed six weeks with a strained oblique. Archer and Odorizzi had good years but suffered growing pains along the way. As for Smyly, he sparkled after coming over from Detroit in the trade-deadline deal for Price.

Hickey broke down the 2014 progress of his starting staff following the conclusion of the regular season.


Hickey on Odorizzi’s emergence: “I think the greatest example [of a Rays pitcher making adjustments] would be what happened with Odorizzi this year. He was fastball, curveball, slider, chanegeup, with not a very good changeup. He was very conventional. Then he started to experiment with the pitch Alex Cobb was throwing, which is kind of a hybrid changeup/split finger.

“It started in spring training with those two playing catch and kind of critiquing it. Coming into the season, it wasn’t a huge weapon for [Odorizzi] and he didn’t pitch particularly well for probably the first eight outings or so. Then, all of a sudden, he began to make some transformations. If you want to say he added that pitch, I guess you could say he added that pitch. It really started to come together for him.

“He also started tweaking his slider into a cutter when he wanted to, versus just a slider. So, we’re talking about two pretty big adjustments for a first-year guy who struggled at the beginning. At that point, most guys are just trying to keep their heads above water. He was experimenting and tnkering with new pitches.”

On Odorizzi having a 9.32 K/9: “That wasn’t his profile at all. It was surprising to people, and surprising to me as well. Actually, I think he only struck out 11 over his last four starts. At one point he had something like an 11.75 Ks-per-nine, and that was pretty deep into the year. It was a surprise and an example of how he not only added a pitch, he learned how to use it.

“His fastball is pretty pedestrian. It’s solid, but not overpowering by any means. He does have that little bit of ride to it – that little bit of rise, if you will – and he’d use that by design. He’d pitch up in the strike zone. Basically, it was the fastball up in the zone and his split-finger/changeup – whatever you want to call it – under the zone. That was the reason he was able to rack up that many strikeouts.”

On elevating fastballs: “I think you can [be effective up in the zone] because of what the hitters are trained to do. Hitter are constantly trained to hit the ball down, hit the ball down, because we always try to pitch the ball down, pitch the ball down. I don’t think hitters work that much on hitting elevated fastballs, pitches up in the zone.

“Certain pitchers have certain characteristics that will allow them to be more successful pitching up. Jake McGee has the big-time velocity and when he’s up in the strike zone he’s unhittable. When he’s down is about the only chance guys have – they basically drop the bat head to the ball. It’s more difficult to get the bat head through the zone up high.

“I remember when I first came over to the Rays and watched video. I remember Jason Varitek in particular. He was huge at calling for the ball up in the strike zone and giving the target in between the hitter’s belly button and the letters. That was seven or eight years ago, so we’re not talking about something new. But with the advent of video, maybe people copycat a little bit. They see somebody having success up in the zone and it kind of trends that way, at least until hitters start whacking it. Then it turns back the other way.”

On Hellickson and movement: “He probably has a little less finish, a little less carry through the zone. One of the reasons Hellickson had been so successful was his changeup. But he threw his fastball with that little bit of giddy-up on it, too. He was an extreme fly-ball pitcher. He’s turned into a more of a ground-ball pitcher now. It’s not by design. I’m not sure exactly why.

“I think there’s probably a little different action on his fastball now. There’s more of a fade to the ball – a little more run – versus that ride we were talking about. That’s gone away, but it’s probably recoverable if he stays behind the ball. That’s one of the things I’ll talk to him about – staying behind the ball and getting that backspin versus trying to manipulate the ball.

“He’s just now started trying to pitch up by design. He never did that before, but he was able to keep his fastball and his changeup right on that same plane. They were on the same path and looked like the same pitch, and the changeup was really good. That’s how he was able to be so effective. Now he’s going to have to make some kind of adjustment, because things haven’t been going very well for him the last year and a half.”

On Hellickson and attacking the zone: “He nitpicks a lot – he tries to stay perfect – and gets into a lot of deep counts. He gets in trouble when guys see five, six pitches, so he needs to become more aggressive in the strike zone. We’ve had this conversation for years. He’d go through several starts where he was beautiful, then he’d go through starts where it was hard to watch.

“We’d have this very conversation: ‘You need to stick the ball in the strike zone; you need to pitch to contact and make them hit the ball, not get to a point where you let them hit the ball. Your stuff isn’t above average to where you’re going to over-match guys, so once every five, six, maybe seven or eight outings, you’re going to end up getting hit pretty hard, just because you’re in the strike zone – but that’s the kind of pitcher you have to be.’

“His curveball is pretty good and he doesn’t utilize it enough on a regular basis. There are some games he uses it beautifully. But the main thing is, if he doesn’t walk anybody, he’s got three major-league-quality pitches, so he’ll be successful. Like I said, he gets deep into counts. Next thing you know, it’s five innings and 100 pitches, so we’re looking at the bullpen.

“[Not attacking the zone] is almost always mental, however in Hellickson’s case, prior to the end of the 2013 season he was hurting and didn’t let on that he was hurting. Of course, he had surgery almost immediately after the season. He had some elbow discomfort, so there was probably a physical effect with him. But 95 percent of the time it’s usually more of a mental thing than a physical thing.”

On Smyly and data: “How well [Smyly] pitched really stood out. We knew we were getting a pretty good pitcher, but he threw some ballgames there that were just impeccable. His ability to throw the breaking ball probably surprised me a little bit. He was able to throw it for a strike and backdoor it to right-handed hitters. It was a really effective pitch for him. He’s one of those guys that pitches effectively in the strike zone. He’s got that characteristic with his fastball as well.

“He’s not big on [scouting reports]. I have extensive information prior to games and I share as much as our pitchers want — and I give them what I think they need – and he’s extremely basic. He’s not interested in ‘There are nine guys in the lineup and this is how you do this guy and this is how you do that guy.’ He just does his thing. A lot of guys are like that and he’s not afraid to decline the information.

“Alex Cobb doesn’t need a lot of information. When his stuff is going, it works against anybody, so I don’t need to give him a whole bunch. Helly [Jeremy Hellickson], I try to give information to and he utilizes it. Chris Archer probably likes it the most. Matt Moore, when he was going, didn’t need it that much – he was throwing the high-octane fastball. If he’s throwing 91 mph when he comes back, he might want a little more information. Odorizzi likes the information. His stuff plays to it. Alex Cobb can do the same thing time and time again, because his stuff is so good, but Odorizzi has to kind of mix and match. He has to stay one step ahead of the jailer.”

On Archer’s growth: “He just finished what was really his first full year, so I wouldn’t say he’s established as a top guy just yet, but he has the capability of being one of the best. I tell him that all the time. If you look at what he did this year… it’s almost a disappointing year, yet he was fabulous at times. It was ridiculous how good he was at times. But just like with all young pitchers, he’d be cruising along and all of a sudden with two outs he’d give up a bloop hit and a walk, and suddenly it’s the bases loaded and he’s 30 pitches into the inning. He’s trying to grind through and maybe doesn’t make it through the inning.

“He’s on the verge of becoming one of the elite guys in the league, he just needs to clean up that command a little bit. He needs to consistently throw the fastball where he wants to, when he wants to. Once he can do that, he’s going to take off, just like David Price did.”

On Cobb’s emergence: He’s been damn good. [In 2013], when we were going through all those must-win ballgames, if you could pick one guy to pitch, you might have picked Cobb over David Price. It would certainly have been close.

“His stuff has always been good. Unfortunately, he got hurt early and missed about six weeks. When he came back it took a few starts to find his groove. Once he did, boy. He had something like 12 games in a row where he allowed two runs or less.

“It would be tough to argue Cobb wouldn’t be our No. 1 pitcher right now. That said, Chris Archer is certainly coming. Odorizzi has a year under his belt. Matt Moore is coming back. That makes me happy. It makes me smile.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Jason Collette
7 years ago

This was excellent. In 09, people were calling for his head, but this guy is one of the best.

Bradley Woodrummember
7 years ago
Reply to  Jason Collette

Yeah, I am impressed everytime Laurila or like ask him the bigger questions. Hickey knows his stuff, and everyone else’s too. I suspect he’ll be a manager someday soon.