Hickey works on arms by getting in their heads

Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey's major-league career began before Scott Kazmir was born. He has been coaching longer than Casey Fossum has been shaving.

Published March 24, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey's major-league career began before Scott Kazmir was born. He has been coaching longer than Casey Fossum has been shaving.

Hickey is not that old.

The Rays pitchers are that young.

Hickey, 45, takes over tutelage of the young staff this season with a proven knack for developing young talent. The team's seventh pitching coach in its 10-year history, Hickey believes he and the 20-something Rays are a perfect fit.

"I've always felt my strength was my ability to make the younger pitchers better," said Hickey, who spent the past 16 seasons in the Astros organization, the past two as the major-league club's pitching coach. "I got the most out of each pitcher no matter who it was, Roy Oswalt or the 11th pitcher on your 11-man staff. I really think my strong point is working with the younger guys."

Good thing. Among the 17 pitchers still in camp less than 10 days before the season opener, only Shawn Camp 31 and Dan Miceli (36) have celebrated their 30th birthdays.

The likely starters are Kazmir (23), Jae Seo (29), James Shields (25), Casey Fossum (29) and either J.P. Howell (23) or Edwin Jackson (23).

"If you look at our spring training performance - I know a lot of our guys are a year down the road - but maybe the brightest spot of the spring has been the pitching," manager Joe Maddon said. "I think Hick's had a very positive influence already.

"He's got the kind of personality and knowledge and way about him that he goes with the young or older guys. The younger guys, he's able to point out things mechanically speaking and still move them into the information age. He's got it all. He's very articulate. He studies it well. He's well thought out. I'm very pleased with him."

Hickey refused to tinker with anyone's mechanics until he got familiar with a player's pitching style, so for the first half of spring training he worked primarily on mental approach. His first lesson: attack the strike zone and throw strikes.

It is a theory some young pitchers find uncomfortable, but one that will pay dividends in the AL East, where veteran hitters take pitchers deep into counts.

"I think probably the young pitchers would be a little more tentative overall, try to pitch away from contact or try to continually make the perfect pitch for fear of getting hit," Hickey said. "I think younger pitchers have a tendency to give the hitters too much credit.

"Certainly, there are very good hitters, but even the very best make an out seven times out of 10. And with a little expertise on our part, they make more than seven outs out of 10."

So far, the Rays have responded.

Entering Friday's games, the Rays' 4.34 team ERA ranked seventh in the American League despite the team's 6-16 record. The Yankees were first at 3.11.

"It's more the mental approach and what we're trying to do mentally and why we're trying to do something," Howell said. "That's where I need more help, in how you go about it. He's helped get my mind in attack mode."

Hickey reached the 2005 World Series with the Astros and had the National League's ERA leader the past two seasons, Roger Clemens in 2005 and Oswalt in 2006. Back to working with youngsters, he is careful not to do too much at once. Patience is critical in the maturing process.

"I've been in a situation where I find myself throwing two or three or four things at somebody and I have to back off because it's hard enough to get one thing to stick," Hickey said.

"Players are different. One guy can handle more than another. One is a listening learner and one is a visual learner. That's really the biggest challenge I have is the process of finding out what makes each and every guy tick."

One 20-year-old at a time.