While not a series, per se, several “Talks Hitting” interviews have run here at FanGraphs in recent months. All have been with players. Sharing their thoughts on the subject have been Nolan Arenado, Matt Chapman, Drew Ferguson, Mitch Haniger, Michael Lorenzen, Daniel Murphy, and Jesse Winker. Approaches varying as they do — those aren’t robots in the batter’s box — the septet’s takes have ranged from nuts-and-bolts simplicity to bio-mechanical nerdiness.
Today we hear from a coach who leans toward the latter. Rick Eckstein studied exercise science at the University of Florida, and he uses that knowledge — as well as what he learned from the his golf-fanatic father, and from Barry Bonds — to tutor big-league batters. Now in his 16th season at the professional level, Eckstein was hired as the hitting coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates last November.
David Laurila: We first talked hitting in June 2012 when you were with the Washington Nationals. How much have your thoughts on the subject changed since that time?
Rick Eckstein: “The process with which I evaluate hitters is much the same. The technology that we’re able to use to quantify, and measure things, is different. I call it a checks-and-balances system. You’re still coaching human beings. How they put themselves in position to hit is one thing, and then there’s the data, which is a measurement of the outcome. How do you marry the two?
“My background is biomechanics, kinesiology; how the body works. That’s what I studied in school, and then it was starting the strength-and-conditioning program in the minor leagues, for the Minnesota Twins, 20 years ago. I’ve always looked at hitting through a movement-based process. How are you putting your body in a position to create leverage into the hitting area?”
Laurila: How has technology impacted your process?
Eckstein: “It’s still the same round bat, and the same round ball, from sixty feet, six inches. That part hasn’t changed. What has changed is … Rapsodo. As you’re making adjustments, you can see the quality of contact you’re making, and also the spin of the ball coming off your bat — how that relates to your physical positioning in the box; how you put your body in a launch position to create the movement patterns of hitting a baseball.
“How you put your body in position … you can adjust that. The outcome of how the bat and the ball meet creates the spin efficiencies and the exit velocities. Again, I watch hitting from a movement-based process. Working with lot of the great hitters of our era, that’s what we’ve talked about: positioning, and rhythm and timing.”
Laurila: Can you elaborate on how data plays into maximizing your body positioning?
Eckstein: “There’s the strike zone, and then there’s the hitting area. Covering the entire strike zone is something the history of the game tells you doesn’t happen. There’s an area of the strike zone that you want to own. If a hitter can position himself to own that area, so when balls do come into that area, what does his performance look like? What does the ball profile look like? How can he put myself in a position to maximize the relationship between performance? How is he attacking the hitting area?
“It’s not out of the realm to cut the plate in half, look in certain halves. If the pitcher throws the ball into the area where I’m not as good… that’s what the game dictates. But he still has to execute. We’re trying to execute. It’s a constant battle between the hitter and the pitcher, executing what you do best.”
Laurila: The term “launch angle” has become prevalent in baseball vernacular.
Eckstein: “Launch angle is a measurement; it’s not a philosophy. There are a multitude of things that you can do with a hitter to try to get him to understand how to put the ball in the air correctly. To say there’s just one way to do it would be inaccurate. But by and large, contact point affects launch angle. If I’m hitting the ball really deep, I’m inviting more off-angles. If I’m hitting the ball a little more out front, I’m inviting more … every hitter has a negative side of their swing, and every hitter has a positive side to their swing. If I’m hitting the ball deep, and I’m still on the downward plane of my swing, I’m either going to hit it into the ground, or cut it and flare it. Conversely, if I’m hitting the ball through the upward path of my swing, that’s going to create more of what people deem as ‘launch angle.’ So it’s really about contact point.”
Laurila: Are there hitters for whom letting the ball travel is better?
Eckstein: “Absolutely. It’s the type of hitter you are; it’s the type of swing you possess. How deep is too deep? How far out front is too far out front? Where is your hitting area? We try to define that with the hitters.”
Laurila: J.D. Martinez can let the ball get deep and still drive it with authority.
Eckstein: “I’ve never worked with J.D. — obviously, what he’s done is tremendous — but again, every hitter is unique. Every hitter’s mind works differently. And not everybody’s body is the same. To create one generic script that says, ‘Do this’ … that’s been proven to not work. You need to get to know the individual hitter — his movement patterns, how he sees the ball, how he relates to where his swings plays in the hitting area.”
Laurila: How do you go about determining an individual hitter’s optimal swing?
Eckstein: “You look at everything you can. You’re using your coaching acumen, and all of the information, to formulate the best plan possible. You’re discussing it with the hitter, and working together within that process. That’s a huge part of coaching.”
Laurila: What happens once it’s determined that a change is needed? A lot of hitters will have had essentially the same swing for 20 years.
Eckstein: “Sometimes it’s just a small adjustment. It’s not a change. When you’re changing angles in your body position, that’s going to alter the way the bat goes through the zone. You’re not changing your swing, you’re actually changing other aspects of your positioning that affects the swing. Does that make sense?
“We’re talking about angle, and the positioning of your body. For instance, how does your pelvis want to work? If it works efficiently, it’s going to create certain action in your lower half. That kinematic sequence is going to roll through your body.”
Laurila: A handful of the hitters I’ve talked to have referred to the kinetic chain.
Eckstein: “I think of it a domino effect. You want your body sequencing in a way that when you tip the first domino over, they all fall. When you’re missing some of those important pieces, that doesn’t happen. You tip over the first one, and the kinetic sequence doesn’t happen efficiently enough for you to respond in the fractions of a second that you have to respond.”
Laurila: Pitchers have key check points in their deliveries. Do hitters have them in their loads?
Eckstein: “There are commonalities. Absolutely. Some guys who have smaller loads can start later. Some guys who have bigger loads have to start sooner. Bigger movement patterns have to start earlier, because you have to get all that movement out of the way, so you can get to your launch position at the appropriate time.
“It’s all about rhythm and timing. I talk about, ‘rhythm, timing, stroke; rhythm, timing, stroke’ — how rhythm and timing affect your stroke. If your rhythm and timing is off, your swing isn’t going to be there. With good timing, it will. And again, hitters are unique.
“The move that Barry Bonds made to get in position was way different than the move my brother [David Eckstein] made to get in position. Barry and I were in Japan together during an All-Star series, and I learned a lot from him. I’ve been affected by a lot of people. To cookie-cut and say there’s only one way to do it … I don’t believe that. It’s how your body works, and how it naturally puts itself into position for rhythm and timing is a big factor in that.”
Laurila: Can you say a little more about Bonds?
Eckstein: “Barry’s mind worked at such a different level. Doing a certain drill with him, and how he wanted to catch the ball a certain way … it went against what everybody is teaching. The way they’re teaching the swing, he did it the exact opposite in his training set.
“He wanted to be shorter to the baseball. I talked to him in Japan about how he did a certain thing with his swing. He grabbed my shirt. Rudy Jaramillo was right there. I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s what you do; that’s the way I see it.’ Barry grabbed my shirt and goes, ‘I’ve never heard it said that way.’ I said, ‘This is what I’m trying to get my brother to understand, that when he’s good, this is what he does.’ Barry was a fascinating man to talk to about hitting.”
Laurila: Any final thoughts?
Eckstein: “Hitting is a very difficult skill. As a coach, you’re trying to maximize each player’s strengths, and from that standpoint you’re constantly trying to cultivate and grow your hitters. Like I said at the outset, I think about hitting the same way I always have; there’s just more technology and information at my disposal.
“The K-vest uses sensors to measure your kinetic sequence. Are you using the ground to deliver force up the body? I’ve always thought about that. My dad had me golfing at three years old. He was teaching me how my legs generated the power for my club-head speed. He had me working on angles on the hosel of the club, on the ground. I was sliding credit cards under my dad’s … at five years old, he would angle his clubs. We would be at home, and we would create optimal angles with credit cards, to see how the angle of the club hitting the ground would make flush contact with the ball.
“He would talk about how to make the ball spin, so that you could make a right-to-left shot versus a left-to-right shot. How to keep the ball low, beneath the wind, or how to get the wind to help you. I was doing that at three, four, five, six, seven years old. So I’ve always been fascinated by things like that. How can you affect the ball? How do you move a ball up in your stance? How do you move a ball back in your stance? How do you play a low fade, versus a high draw? All of those things. The golf background that I have is how I’ve always looked at baseball hitters.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.