As the St. Louis Cardinals continue to look at candidates to fill their vacancy at pitching coach, one of the hottest names on the market is Jim Hickey, formerly the pitching coach at Tampa the last 12 seasons.
One reliever who’s pitched under Hickey and also in St. Louis is Randy Choate, who fully endorses his former coach.
“He was my favorite pitching coach that I ever had in the big leagues,” said Choate. “That wasn’t any disrespect to anybody else, it was just he’s got a great attitude, he knows what he’s talking about, he can really relate to players, he’s really in touch with the changes that are being made.”
Back when he joined the Rays in 2009, Choate had been bouncing back and forth between the minors and stints in the big leagues. He credits Hickey with instilling the confidence that he could stay in the Majors.
“It’s funny because he can be so random in his comments that it almost helps you because a lot of times, guys put too much pressure on themselves and are thinking too much,” explained Choate. “Hick has a way of going out there and he’ll just say the most random thing and you kind of laugh, it gives you a break and then he’ll be like ‘okay, now that I’ve got you, let’s do this’ and when you’re struggling, he gets you out of that bad mind frame and kind of breaks it up and gets you into the right one.”
Choate made 146 appearances in his two seasons at Tampa and three years later began his stretch with St. Louis that saw him make 196 appearances with the Cardinals under Mike Matheny and Derek Lilliquist.
“Lilly may not have done anything wrong,” said Choate. “It’s just his time. He did his job while he was there, I thought he did it really well. I loved playing for him but now it’s kind of time for a fresh change and they want to go that way. Trying to find somebody like a Jim Hickey, who’s really good at what he does and could fit in any situation that would be awesome for him and the Cardinals, I think because he could do a really good job there.”
The analytics have continued to change, both in their availability and usage since Choate pitched in Tampa, but the left-hander remembers that it was Joe Maddon and General Manager Andrew Friedman were very active in the movement.
“They’re the ones who kind of really first started doing the shift, started doing all that stuff,” points out Choate. “I can’t speak to that’s how Hickey liked to do it but he was able to adjust to it if not. I think he just has enough knowledge and he has a good enough attitude that he can kind of go with the flow. More importantly, it’s what he does with you in a bullpen, in Spring Training, those kinds of things. The in-game stuff, I’m sure he can handle, it’s going more and more like that. But it’s more of the attitude that he has, being able to relate to guys, being able to really connect and make it where you’re comfortable at that level that he’s so good at.”
At the end of season press conference when it was announced Lilliquist would not be retained, President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak outlined that “when you’re looking at pitch strategy and the modernization of the tools that we have available to us, we need somebody that understands it, has interest in it, can communicate it, and can teach it.”
“That’s the way the game’s going,” agreed Choate. “Everybody overuses the word ‘old-school’ but I think that’s partially what Mike is. He goes a lot with his gut. He’ll leave the starter in in the 6th or the 7th with two outs with this person up, where the analytics may say you’re supposed to bring so-in-so in. You’re supposed to bring Randy Choate in to get that lefty out, that’s the way the game is today as much as when Mike played and when I pitched, you left that starter in. You try and let him get out of the inning even if you’re down 3-2 and get the win because that guy’s earned the right to do that. That’s a little bit more old-school whereas starters wins don’t necessarily mean what they used to. Those guys are going to get paid as long as they’re putting in the innings, it doesn’t matter the wins and losses so much.”
This season, four pitchers tied with 18 wins as the most in MLB. Fifteen pitchers threw at least 200 innings, the same number as last year but down from the 28 to do so in 2015.
“Today more and more, it’s becoming about numbers and all that,” said Choate. “It’s hard personally as a player of that generation because you want to see it done like that, but the numbers start taking over. That’s just the way the game’s going. So people have to adjust accordingly–I know Hickey can adjust to pretty much anything because that’s just who he is. I don’t know if he were to land there or not, but he’s a great fit anywhere. I think he’s just a really good pitching coach and somebody who can really relate to the game whether it’s old school or new school.”
But while the understanding and communication of analytics is a priority, there is also the nuts and bolts of mechanics. Being able to help a pitcher who is dropping their elbow or needs more load on the backside in a delivery.
“He does know the mechanics side,” said Choate. “He knows all those kinds of things, but what he does do well is he can relate to you whether you’re Randy Choate or whether you’re Trevor Rosenthal, who are two totally different people. That’s the most important thing, being able to relate to everyone of your guys that you have on your staff.”
photo credit: Billy Hurst, Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports; Brian Stull-STLBaseballWeekly.com