Kevin Gorman: New hitting coach Rick Eckstein pushes Pirates to tap into power
When the Pittsburgh Pirates prioritized tapping into their potential for power, they turned to a man who is small in stature but has a reputation for being big with the bat.
New hitting coach Rick Eckstein, charged with changing the club’s philosophy in its preparation at the plate in an effort to increase extra-base hits, might be the most important addition of the offseason.
The interesting part is Eckstein and assistant Jacob Cruz are taking an individualized approach to improving the Pirates, starting by building relationships to create a culture where the focus is on finding what’s best for both the players and a team that ranked 25th in home runs last season.
“That’s where our head is, as far as taking this thing forward,” Eckstein said, “tapping into each guy to reach more of their potential and play as a unit where we’re all on the same page.”
The Pirates have gone to great lengths to avoid making former hitting coach Jeff Branson and assistant Jeff Livesey the scapegoats for the team’s struggles in hitting homers and driving in runs, saying the blame was widespread and a new approach was necessary.
Yet, it’s worth noting Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said Eckstein and Cruz represent “some different voices with maybe a little bit more of this generation’s mindset of what’s important in hitting, because it changes. There’s a lot of guys my age, you either adapt and figure it out or you don’t get the opportunity to do it.”
Eckstein is the older brother of 2006 World Series MVP David Eckstein, hired by the Pirates as a special assistant in baseball operations, and has served as a hitting coach for the Nationals and Angels, at the University of Kentucky and as the Minnesota Twins minor-league hitting coordinator. Cruz, a 1994 first-round pick of the San Francisco Giants who played for five teams, has coached mostly in the minor leagues.
Not only do they present a new point of view philosophically, but the Pirates are adjusting to hitting batting practice off both a right-hander (Eckstein) and a lefty (Cruz). That’s not the only new perspective, as Eckstein is familiarizing them with his favorite phrase: There’s a time to feel good, and there’s a time to hit good.
“So, there’s a challenge piece in there,” Eckstein said. “What we’re trying to understand is what you challenge you need to get good, so it’s overwhelmingly positive.”
While the Pirates want Eckstein to tap in to everyone from Jung Ho Kang and Colin Moran at third base to Gregory Polanco and Corey Dickerson in the outfield corners, the biggest challenge is directed at first baseman Josh Bell.
Bell slipped from 26 home runs and 90 RBIs in 2017 to 12 homers and 62 RBIs last season.
The Pirates know their best bet for power has to come internally, so they are counting on a bounce-back year from Bell.
That’s why Eckstein met with Bell in California, taking him to dinner and watching him hit to start the process of getting onto the same page. Bell also worked in the cage with Cruz on the Pirates Caravan.
“There’s a lot of talent that he knows exists inside of him, and there’s potential there to tap into,” Eckstein said of Bell. “That’s ultimately what we’re trying to discover inside of him. The work ethic that he’s brought to the table, the mindset in which he’s working, the challenge in which he’s accepting has been tremendous. So far, it’s been really exciting to start that process with him.”
If Bell looked lost at times, it’s because he got away from his approach of hitting to the opposite field. He admitted that he worked away from it last year, even when practicing off the tee, by trying to pull fastballs with late movement. That led to soft contact and ground balls for outs.
Bell talked with Eckstein about how pitchers attack players with everything from similar stature and swing paths to success rates in certain counts.
“It’s cool,” Bell said, “that we’re going to dive deeper into it.”
The Pirates plan to customize their plan instead of taking a general, team-wide approach, so that Bell and Gregory Polanco are treated differently than Corey Dickerson and Adam Frazier.
Truth is, the Pirates are unlikely to sign a free agent who will hit 30 or more home runs, so they know they need to cultivate power with Polanco and Bell. And it’s up to Eckstein to find a way for them to generate it without hurting their on-base percentage.
“We all know that Josh has power. So with saying that, how do you put him in a position where the power plays but it’s more building the hitter into a position that allows the power to play?” Eckstein said.
“He has a chance to be the best at both worlds, a really good eye at the plate, a really good hitter when the ball is within the hitting area and, within that same umbrella, the ball jumps off his bat. He hits the ball really hard and, at times, it goes really far. It’s just blending that package and not really trying to formulate anything other than how important timing is with him.”
The importance of Eckstein’s message to the Pirates begins Monday, their first full-squad practice of spring training at Pirate City. That’s when the time to feel good ends and the time to hit good begins.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .