Sanford’s hitting guru
by Devon Jeffreys, Herald Staff
09:52 AM, Saturday, April 03
Herald photo by Romeo Guzman: Washington Nationals hitting coach and Sanford resident Rick Eckstein prepares his hitters for the Major League Basesball season, which opens Sunday.
Herald photo by Romeo Guzman: Washington Nationals hitting coach and Sanford resident Rick Eckstein prepares his hitters for the Major League Basesball season, which opens Sunday.
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Rick Eckstein taps into the hitter’s mind

Washington Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein sits alone in a dark room, the only light that reflects off his face is the endless flicker of a computer screen.

The Sanford resident sits still – his eyes fixated on a batter swinging over and over. He's looking for anything and everything at the same time.

Eckstein is getting ready for his second season as a Major League hitting coach while also preparing his hitters for the challenges they'll face when the 2010 season begins on Monday.

Eckstein, 37, sits in the same room, with the same thoughtful stare for hours as he breaks down every Nationals hitter from Adam Kennedy to Ryan Zimmerman.

"I watch his body work," Eckstein said of his approach to watching the videos in absolute silence and darkness. "I try to get a gauge for his mentality and just let my mind kind of wander with thoughts of what's going on with him."

Eckstein said he looks at video at least a couple of hours per day, but the players say it seems he spends more time than that.

"Sometimes I wonder if he gets any sleep," Nationals utility man Willie Harris said. "That's all he does is watch us as hitters. You have to appreciate that, and for me he just shows me what I'm doing wrong every time. If I'm in a bad hitting situation, he'll say 'Willie, we have to get you out of that,' and we'll work until we get it fixed."

Eckstein began working with video in 1996 when he was coaching at the University of Florida. He developed the process with the help of Orangewood Christian Athletic Director Kenne Brown, who was a video production teacher at Oviedo High School at the time. Eckstein says the use of video took his coaching career to a different level.

The players that have worked with Eckstein and his videos agree that the technology is invaluable.

"He's able to see the small things that maybe you don't see or can't even really feel," left fielder Josh Willingham said. "He can point it out to you and get you back out on the right track."

Nationals manager Jim Riggleman describes Eckstein's process as "tireless."

"His work ethic is off the charts,” Riggleman said. "His passion and his desire to help every hitter is unparalleled. I don't know that I've ever seen anybody work harder than Rick does in this game."

Eckstein, a Seminole High grad, would have it no other way.

"I like watching a guy who hasn't reached his potential, and helping him cultivate himself and ultimately realize his potential," Eckstein said. "I get a lot of enjoyment out of watching somebody go up there, compete and ultimately achieve what they know they're capable of doing."

DESMOND'S DESTINY

Eckstein's prized cultivation product since his arrival for a second tour of duty with the Nationals organization in 2008 may be 24-year-old rookie shortstop Ian Desmond.

Desmond was drafted by the Nationals in the third round of the 2004 MLB draft. After his selection, Desmond toiled in the minors for five years, never reaching Triple-A. In those first five years, Desmond was shuttled back and forth between Single-A and Double-A, even making a brief stop at Rookie League ball in early 2008 because of a low batting average and on-base percentage.

But Desmond's fortunes changed when he went to the Arizona Fall League after the 2008 season. There he began working with Eckstein.

"When we first got together at the 2008 Arizona Fall League, it was a big time for him in his personal career, especially with his offensive approach," Eckstein said. "Right away we gelled. He allowed me to talk to him about certain hitting things and implement some things."

Desmond hit just .267 in the fall league, but got on base at a .364 clip, a career high. He showed even more progress when he began the 2009 season at Harrisburg, Pa. In 42 games, he hit .306, the highest average of his career and reached base at a .372 percentage, also a career high.

The success earned Desmond a promotion to Triple-A Syracuse, N.Y., for the first time in his career, and Desmond really took off. During the final 55 games of the Triple-A season, Desmond hit .354 with a .428 OBP.

He was called up to the Nationals on Sept. 10 and played in 21 games to end the season, hitting for a .280 average. Desmond has kept on track this spring, and last Sunday he was named the Nationals Opening Day shortstop. Desmond feels he owes a lot of his success to his mentor, Eckstein.

"He's one of the reasons why I'm here," Desmond said. "If it weren't for him, I don’t really know if I would be. You can't ever tell what happens down the road. But after the Fall League, I went with him in 2008 and my career has basically been turned around, for the better."

According to Desmond, Eckstein has worked with him on approaching the ball from his front side rather than his back side. The result has been solid hits up the middle.

"The thing with him is he really gets into your brain. He lets you say what you think and you feel. Then he twists it to make you understand what he's trying to say," Desmond said. "He shows you what you're doing right, so the whole time you're just putting quality thoughts into your head. Some hitting coaches will say, 'You're doing this wrong or this wrong.' But he says, 'This is what you're doing right. Let's build off that.' I think that's why he's successful."

Eckstein believes the credit belongs to Desmond for the time he has put in.

"He's taken hold of it and ran with it," Eckstein said. "It's been an awesome transition for him and he's been just a wonderful player to watch play. It's been a joy to work with him. Everything that he has coming to him, he's earned. He's worked hard for it and he deserves all the credit."

IMITATION IN THE CAGE

Nationals slugger Adam Dunn, an 8-year major league veteran, calls Eckstein's baseball acumen freakish.

"He's a freak because baseball is his life. That's all. He'll even tell you, on and off the field, that's what he does. There's nobody that cares more about how you do than he does," Dunn said before a spring training game in Viera.

The Nationals were about to play the Atlanta Braves in an exhibition game that counts only to get the players ready about a week before the regular season. But it's not meaningless to Eckstein. None of it is.

Just 15 minutes earlier, Dunn was on the field in the batting cage, and Eckstein crouched alongside, making a video of Dunn with a handheld camera. Dunn concedes he doesn't watch much video of himself, but Eckstein watches plenty of video on Dunn.

"He can mimic our swings better than we can actually do it in real life," Dunn said.

"It's every day, man. Every day is kind of a work in progress and he has a plan every single day. He's one of a kind. That's for sure."

Dunn's words aren't meant as a slight. He's as gracious for Eckstein's time as any of his teammates.

"It's hard to put it into words," Dunn said. "He's got everyone's trust because he's honest with you. He knows what he's talking about and he studies nonstop so he has serious credibility."

"I pride myself on my work ethic," Eckstein said as batting practice concluded and he headed into the locker room to talk with another player about his approach. Later it will be Eckstein who is in the cage working – not on his own swing, but, as always, the swings of his pupils.

"I'll put myself in their position. I hit every day," Eckstein said, showing the battle scars on his hands as proof. "I'll emulate their swings so I feel what they feel and then I turn it into what they need to feel from their position."

With this approach, Eckstein virtually puts himself in each player's shoes.

"I try to swing the bat like they do and feel what they're feeling," he said. "When they feel certain things, you also think certain things and I also try to get into their mindset and try to talk to them at a higher level.”

Eckstein said the most gratifying part of his job is that 'wow' moment when players make a breakthrough.

"Ultimately, every hitter wants to achieve their own personal goals and every hitter wants to go to the plate and feel like they can compete against anyone," he said. "When a hitter is able to go up there and do that, start competing in that way, it's great, because the confidence just boosts."

THE GAME HAS CHANGED

Since Eckstein's first days as a coach in 1995 – after an injury ended his playing career at UF – the game of baseball has changed drastically.

He has had college coaching stints at UF, the University of Georgia, Seminole Community College and pro jobs with the Tampa Bay Rays, Minnesota Twins, Montreal Expos, St. Louis Cardinals and now the Nationals. Eckstein said that steroid use, although only recently uncovered, changed the way players approached the game in the 90's. Looking back Eckstein can see the adverse affect performance enhancers had, even though he knew nothing about them back then.

"Everybody knows [by now] that 15 years ago, steroids were a big part of the game and it affected people's swings," Eckstein said. "I think now, with performance-enhancing things out of the game, it's gone back to trying to be shorter, more explosive."

That style is one of the things that has made Rick's brother David such a successful player. David is two years younger than Rick and will enter his tenth MLB season on Monday. Rick said the two still keep in touch almost every day.

"We feed off of each other," Rick said. "We talk, we learn. He's going through certain things in baseball and he's talking about it to me. I'm doing certain things with hitters and talking to him. It's just constant feedback. If it wasn't for David I wouldn't be a big league coach."

Since his arrival in D.C. as major league hitting coach last season, Rick Eckstein has changed the Nationals approach with improvements in nearly every hitting category across the board. When coach Manny Acta was fired during the 2009 season and Riggleman was named interim manager, Eckstein was one of only three coaches the Nats kept.

Eckstein has mastered the ever-changing game and implements plans to let the Nationals take full advantage of their team's versatility.

"The home runs have gone down. The stolen base, hit and run, the first to third, the drag [bunt] for a hit, and doing little things. The little things are starting to come back a little more, especially in the National League," Eckstein said. "At the big league level, it's about sinkers and cutters and hitting pitches that break really late. You see it straight and then in the last 10 feet it's breaking in a different direction. You have to have a short swing so you can wait to see that break and then initiate the swing. That's just getting the hitter to understand what 'short' really means."

One of Eckstein's most dynamic pupils, Ryan Zimmerman, has become a star in baseball's new generation. Eckstein began working with Zimmerman when the Nationals third baseman, already a budding star at the time, came to Triple-A Syracuse on a rehab assignment. Eckstein, the Syracuse hitting coach, showed Zimmerman his video methods and continued to work with him at the big league level in 2009 after being named hitting coach of the Nationals.

"I went back in his history and just determined him as a hitter and what he did, what were the keys to him. That's what we built off of going into last year," Eckstein said. "Obviously, he had a great year and did some special things. We're just going to continue that process with him and continue to build."

Under Eckstein last season, Zimmerman broke out with career highs in batting average (.292), home runs (33) and on-base percentage (.364).

"It was an accumulation of him and obviously me learning," Zimmerman said. "This game is so hard and it's so hard to be consistent and good for a long time. To have someone that's kind of helping you out every step of the way and you know that he's watching every move and you know that when something goes bad, he's not afraid to tell you, you have a great amount of respect for him."

Zimmerman is now a bonafide MVP candidate and with the 25-year old leading the charge, Eckstein believes the Nats are ready to make some noise this season in the loaded National League Eastern Division.

"We are headed in the right direction," Eckstein said. "The talent has definitely started to influx at the major league level and definitely our minor league level. We are growing as an organization and we are headed in the right direction. [General manager] Mike Rizzo and [team president] Stan Kasten have done magnificent jobs in making that happen. We're just trying to work as hard as we can work and develop that consistent winner. That's been exciting to be a part of."

The Washington Nationals open their 2010 MLB season Monday at home when they take on the National League champion Philadelphia Phillies.

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