As the team’s hitting coach, Rick Eckstein arguably has the most important job on the Washington Nationals staff. The Nats are in first place in the National League East largely because of their pitching, and they probably need to score more runs to stay there. Only three teams have crossed the plate fewer time than Eckstein’s charges. It isn’t for lack of effort or direction. The 39-year-old Eckstein is well-respected and known as a hard worker, but injuries and a lack of proven veterans are large obstacles to overcome.
Eckstein shared his thoughts on hitting, and several of his hitters, when the Nationals visited Fenway Park earlier this month.
Eckstein on the Nationals hitting philosophy: “From a physical standpoint in the box, we want to be as direct to the ball as possible. We want to be able to recognize the pitch and be in a strong hitting position. The shorter the swing, the longer you can wait to recognize the pitch and ultimately deliver more of a gap-to-gap line-drive swing.
“We preach trying to swing at about 80 percent. Typically, what happens when you over-swing is that you screw up your timing. Your swing gets longer and you miss pitches. What I tell our hitters is to stay at 80 percent and your timing will stay at 100 percent. We try to get the guys to understand that when your timing is good, you’re not missing your pitch. When you try to hit the ball hard enough to get a double, you see the ball and it will still carry out of the park.
“We like to be more gap-to-gap oriented and hit the ball where it’s pitched. If the ball is in, you pull it. If the ball is away, you go with it. We try to have balance in our approach that way.”
On plate discipline: “Everybody is an individual when it comes to that. Sometimes you want to go out and be a little more aggressive. Say the pitcher’s secondary is plus, where the deeper you get into counts the more you have to hit a tough split or a hard breaking ball. Sometimes your discipline is to be better earlier in the count, on fastballs. Other times, you’ll have a guy who pitches off his breaking-ball stuff, so you’re more disciplined to wait for something you can handle.
“If you have a bunch of guys who go out there and see a ton of pitches, typically your walk rate is going to be higher. If you have a bunch of guys who go out there and attack the strike zone, you’re going to see fewer walks. On a given night, you have to understand who you’re facing. Do they try to nibble in the zone or do they challenge you — do they come after you? That plays into whether you’re going to have high pitch counts and maybe more walks, or if you’re going to put more balls in play in earlier counts.
“The tendency is for guys to have a plan that consists of the middle of the plate, away, which is a type of zone hitting. You either zone it middle in, or middle away. In the big leagues, pitchers are typically trying to pound the ball down in the zone, around the knees, so you’re constantly trying to get the ball up a little bit.
“Stay aggressive. Batting averages are no secret. Early in the count, 0-0, 1-0, 2-0, 2-1 are all a lot healthier than 0-1, 0-2, 1-2. You need to be ready to go up there and hit. Have a patient-yet-aggressive, mentality where you‘re going to swing at strikes. Overall, I think that discipline comes from getting into a good consistent hitting position so that you can recognize strikes.”
On video and communication: “Video plays a big role. We watch the opposing pitchers and see their tendencies, which helps us formulate our game plan. We also use video to help understand ourselves — each person individually, with their swings, tendencies and habits. We look at how they’re getting into their hitting position.
“Typically, when you start to see a guy missing some pitches — or he’s late on the fastball, or early on the off-speed — sometimes you go back and dissect a mental plan, but you also dissect the physical plan. Is he getting into position in time? Is he doing the things he needs to do physically to put himself into a position to have success?
“We have a scouting meeting before every first game of a series, where we go through the opposing pitching staff. After that — after I watch all of the pitchers — I’ll individualize it to each guy. I’ll take two or three minutes to talk to each guy personally about what he’s thinking about and what I think. I want to make sure that we have a good plan and are on the same page. I want to understand their perspective.
“Some players want a little more information and some players want a little less — they don’t want to put too much thought into the process. We’re dealing with guys who are extremely talented, and hitting is reactionary. You have to react to what you see, so iit’s not really a thought process. Once the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand, it’s all reaction and you don’t want to clutter that up with a lot of thought.”
On Bryce Harper: “Bryce is very inquisitive. He asks a lot of questions. Every series we play, it’s somebody new for him, so he’s asking questions and asking questions. As we go through the league and he sees more and more teams, a lot of those questions will already have been answered and he’ll want less information. Right now, he’s very inquisitive and loves to talk about things that he’s thinking about. We talk about his approach, his plan, what he saw, what guys are trying to do to him. We have good conversations based on that.
“He has a program, pre-game, in the cage. It consists of a little bit of side toss, a little bit of front flip, a little bit of BP. He works on positioning and direction with his swing. There’s a feel he wants to take into batting practice.”
On Ian Desmond: “With Desmond, it’s just a matter of him understanding who he is and trusting in his abilities. It’s him understanding how to bring his abilities to the park every day. My communication with Desi is more based on, ‘What parts of the zones are you looking in?’ versus ’He’s got this pitch, this pitch and this pitch.’ It’s more about him knowing himself and knowing where he’s going to be best served in his thought process and his plan.
“Davey, our manager, has been such a positive influence on Desmond, with his at bats and his thought process — understanding how to put more of a line-drive swing on that ball. Desi has continued to really understand himself, which has allowed him to go out and show his talents more often on a regular basis.”
On Adam LaRoche: ‘He’s a consummate pro. Yesterday, during the game, he felt like he missed a pitch he should have hit, and he came back and said something to me. I said, ‘Okay, let’s take a look.’ In between innings, I took a look and we had a nice conversation about what I thought was happening. He goes, “Absolutely.” It was point on. Usually it’s little things with him.”
On Danny Espinosa: “With Espinosa, it’s more about him creating a competition between him and the pitcher. Sometimes he wants to over-think the process. It’s, ‘Do this with my hands and this with my feet.’ We want him facing the pitcher in a competitive mentality of just seeing a good strike. Put the barrel to a good strike and don’t over-think the process. When he does that, he does phenomenal.”
On Ryan Zimmerman: “With Zim, it’s him getting into the position he feels is his best hitting position. When he’s there, he’s incredible. The last several games, he’s like, ‘I’m there Eck, I’m there.’ It’s just working every day when we go to the cage, feeling his hitting position. If he feels that good solid position, then he knows where the barrel is and can get it to any part of the strike zone.
“It’s not a pitch recognition thing [when he’s not hitting well]. It’s a feel that when he’s in the right position, he really drives the ball. He can hit a double or hit the ball out of the park as easily as anybody in the league. When he’s not there, he can still find a way to hit, but he doesn’t have that feeling of being in position so that when pitches show up he can do more with them. Every day he works on being nice and easy, and comfortable, in the box to do that.”
On Xavier Nady: “A lot of hitters like to hang their pinky off the end of the bat, and we’re trying to get Xavier off the end a little bit, to get a little more control of the barrel. We think that can do some nice things for him. Once he captures that feel, maybe he can go back to hanging that pinky, but that little bit of choking up has given him a bit more bat control.”
On Mike Morse: “Mike is a tremendous hitter. He’s strong. There are things that I deem important, as far as getting into a hitting position and how to trigger, so that you can be more direct to the baseball. Those are the things we continue to work on, and are the things that have really allowed Mike to feel good in the box. They allow him to express his talent in the box.”
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