The hire of Jim Hickey as Cubs pitching coach had been predicted for several days before word got out late Thursday that he had been hired. It’s yet to be confirmed by the team, and likely now won’t until at least the next World Series off day on Monday.
But it was apparently the bullpen failure of the postseason, along with some issues in the starting rotation the first half, that led the Cubs to think that a new approach was needed and to the dismissal of Chris Bosio. And that appears to be all this is: a new message for Cubs pitchers. Sometimes that’s necessary, and Hickey was let go by the Rays October 3, before the Cubs even played one postseason game this year.
The fact that Maddon and Hickey worked together for many years in Tampa makes this a logical pairing again; there were rumors this might happen when Maddon was first hired before the 2015 season, but Bosio had three good years with the Cubs staff before that, especially in helping to remake Jake Arrieta.
There’s another thing perhaps at work here. With Hickey having done good work in Tampa, it might be a way to help lure Rays free agent Alex Cobb or former Rays pitcher Jake McGee to the North Side. This Jon Heyman article, written before the hire of Hickey became news Thursday, suggests the Cobb connection, at least, might work in the Cubs’ favor:
Of even greater interest, whichever team signs Hickey could have an enhanced chance at free agent pitcher Alex Cobb, the best of the under-30 pitchers. Cobb and Hickey have a very tight relationship.
Cobb makes a lot of sense for the Cubs; they’re looking for a starting pitcher as Arrieta and the likely retirement of John Lackey create openings on the staff, and Cobb has had several solid years as a starter for the Rays, including four seasons when Maddon was the manager there.
I could have done a lot of research on Jim Hickey and presented it to you here, but fortunately for me — and you — that was already done by Ian Malinowski of our SB Nation Rays site DRays Bay. Shortly after Hickey was let go by the Rays earlier this month, Malinowski posted this long, well-researched article on Hickey, his years with the Rays, and his approach to pitching.
He separated his article into five main areas regarding the way Hickey works with pitchers. I’ll recommend that you read the entire article, but the five areas are:
- If you have a good changeup, throw it to both sides of the plate, against both same-handed and opposite-handed batters.
- Don’t be shy about throwing your best pitch early in the count to get ahead, rather than saving it exclusively for two-strike counts.
- If you have a four-seam fastball with good rise, throw it high in the zone, or just above. That’s a strikeout pitch.
- These are nice rules. Don’t fall in love with them. If you’re a square peg, let’s find you a square hole.
- Pitch with confidence.
Most important, I think, are the last two. You can’t have a one-size-fits-all philosophy with pitchers. The Cubs have Kyle Hendricks, who can’t break 90 miles per hour most times. But he has a changeup that can be devastating even when hitters know it’s coming. Then there are guys like Carl Edwards Jr., who can throw 95-plus with regularity. You can’t coach everyone on the staff with the same ideas.
I’m definitely on board with “throwing your best pitch early in the count to get ahead, rather than saving it exclusively for two-strike counts.” Or even when you are ahead; too many times I’ve seen pitchers get ahead of hitters 0-2, then nibble away in an effort to get hitters to swing at pitches outside of the zone. Unless you’re someone like Hendricks who is excellent at locating, doing things like this is soon going to make the count 3-2. Only seven teams in baseball this year issued more walks than the Cubs staff did; that was far worse than they did in 2016, when they ranked 17th in fewest walks (and that’s still not great).
There’s more on Hickey in this tampabay.com article. Three pitchers who worked under him — Cobb, Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi all share their thoughts on Hickey, and those are universally positive. From Archer:
"Hickey is one of the most intellectual people I know. He's also one of the best people persons I know. The combination of his ability to analyze and apply information, as well as communicate to his players is what causes him to enhance pitchers careers, young and old. From him helping me prepare prior to every major league start I've made to our wide-ranging chats after practice, on the plane, over a meal, I'm going to miss many, many things about Hickey and his influence on our organization.''
None of this is to say that Chris Bosio didn’t do a good job. In general, we’ll likely look back at the six years he spent as Cubs pitching coach and say that he did well by his pitchers.
But Jim Hickey did the same in his 11 years in Tampa, and before that, a decade in the Astros organization, where he worked with pitchers like Roy Oswalt and Brad Lidge both in the Houston minor-league system and with the big-league club from 2004-06. It’s been said, by Theo Epstein and others, that a decade or so in the same job in baseball might be enough, that baseball folks need to move on to new challenges after that length of time, and that teams, too, need to switch focus at that point. That’s likely one of the reasons the Yankees moved on from Joe Girardi, for example.
And in much the same fashion, Jim Hickey thus comes to the Cubs. Hickey, who turned 56 a couple of weeks ago, never pitched in the big leagues. A 13th-round pick of the White Sox in 1983, Hickey’s minor-league career peaked at Double-A (with a handful of Triple-A games). Not playing in the big leagues has never stopped qualified men from being successful at coaching or managing in the majors — Joe Maddon, for example. This contrasts with Bosio’s 11-year major-league career, during which he posted a couple of 5+ bWAR seasons and threw a no-hitter against the Red Sox in 1993. (Incidentally, go look at who Boston’s DH was in that game.)
The lack of major-league experience as a player for Hickey doesn’t make him better or worse than Bosio as a coach, just different. And that, along with the shuffle in other coaching positions for the Cubs, is apparently what Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Joe Maddon wanted. It’s explained further in this Paul Sullivan article in Friday’s Tribune:
"There was no deliberate intent to turn over a significant portion of the coaching staff," Epstein said. "It evolved this way based on two special coaches being available, and then we made a decision to make one change (Bosio) after the year."
Maddon told reporters the dismissals were "not unilateral" and that it was a group decision with him, Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer.
On Thursday, Maddon admitted he purposely left a false impression with the media on his coaches to avoid a distraction in the clubhouse.
"I was asked a really awkward question when we're at a tough time in the playoffs," Maddon told reporters. "I thought that was the only way I could respond because I did not want to negatively impact the room. That's it. There's no other way to describe it."
Maddon said he didn't want to give his coaches the impression they would be replaced, though the moves were already in the works.
"It's a tough situation to be in," Maddon said, adding it would be "really difficult to have your coaches read something" like the fact they were about to be canned during a postseason series.
I think that’s fair, and while it’s never good for any coach to lose his job, I’d think the Cubs coaches who were replaced won’t be out of work long, not with their World Series resumes. Bosio, for example, looks like he’s headed to the Tigers.
So, let’s all welcome Jim Hickey, as well as the other new additions to the Cubs coaching staff: Chili Davis, Brian Butterfield and Andy Haines. Management is doing what it thinks is necessary to get the Cubs back to the World Series. I think, given the drought-busting win in 2016, that they deserve the benefit of the doubt.