Pirates want new hitting coaches to ‘recalibrate’ offensive philosophy
The Pittsburgh Pirates exceeded most expectations in 2018, but within 24 hours of the season’s completion they fired both of their hitting coaches.
The result of an offense that ranked 20th in the majors in runs, 25th in home runs and in the bottom half of MLB in slugging percentage, on-base percentage and OPS?
Or was it more of a desire to modernize their culture or approach, a different voice and set of eyes?
“It can be maybe a little bit of all of that,” manager Clint Hurdle said last week at PIratesFest, “because Jeff Livesey and Jeff Branson were good hitting coaches, and they had some success with the guys who were here.”
Branson had been the Pirates hitting coach for six seasons, with Livesey as his assistant since 2014. By all indications, each was respected by Hurdle and his players. As outfielder Starling Marte said: “Branson was a very good hitting coach who helped me a lot, but that decision was not mine, so we will see.”
Hurdle explained that although the Pirates as an organization felt they were staying ahead of the curve when it comes to pitching in an evolving industry, they didn’t want to get left behind on the hitting side of things.
“Offensively, for some reason, we weren’t able to keep up,” Hurdle said, “whether it was player selection, whether it was player development, whether it was the coaching here, the combination of skills. So we felt that it was time to just try to recalibrate our offensive philosophy and program.”
Enter Rick Eckstein as hitting coach and Jacob Cruz as assistant hitting coach. They were hired late last fall.
Eckstein, 45, was the Washington Nationals hitting coach for five seasons after he was on the staff for Team USA at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. During both of those stints he worked for Davey Johnson, who was Hurdle’s final manager as a player in the 1980s for the New York Mets.
Hurdle said he tried to hire Eckstein in 2009 for his final staff as manager of the Colorado Rockies but Johnson was loath to lose him. Johnson and another baseball lifer and Hurdle associate, Marcel Lachemann, “raved” about Eckstein when Hurdle needed an addition to his staff this time around.
“Davey said it was one of the hardest days of managerial career the day he fired Rick Eckstein (in 2013),” Hurdle said. “I said, ‘What, more than sending me down (as a player)? Three times?’ (Johnson said), “Yeah, that was nothing, that was easy.’ ”
Hurdle’s history with Cruz goes back to 2001 in Colorado, where Cruz was a reserve outfielder and Hurdle the hitting coach. Another part-time outfielder on that Rockies team was current Pirates first-base coach Kimera Bartee.
Hurdle mentioned the bilingual Cruz could be an advantage in relating to the Pirates’ Latin players, and he admires the adjustments Cruz made over a major-league career that spanned almost a decade.
“We tried to systematically go get some skillsets that made sense, to get some sharp advanced guys technologically,” Hurdle said.
In speaking to the team’s official website, general manager Neal Huntington stressed cutting-edge philosophies in their new hitting coaches and what they will implement to guide the Pirates offensively.
Huntington called Eckstein “a student of the modern philosophy of hitting.” He said Cruz was “well-versed in modern hitting mechanics and philosophy.”
The Pirates aren’t going so far as to call Branson and Livesey old-fashioned. But they certainly aren’t afraid to tout the two as “new-school” and modern.
“We just felt like these were two good men at the right time and the right skillsets to get in and really kind of recalibrate our program,” Hurdle said.
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at email@example.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .