Get To Know: Twins Minor League Hitting Coordinator Rick Eckstein
Image courtesy of Seth Stohs, Twins DailyAnd last August, he became the Twins minor league hitting coordinator. So, the obvious first question to Eckstein was, what was it about the Twins minor league hitting coordinator job that appealed to you.
According to the 44-year-old, “When the job was presented to me, it was the opportunity to bring my beliefs and thoughts about hitting, and bring it to the organization.”
Eckstein sees the big picture. Having now worked in the organization through the Instructional League, a full offseason and now big league and minor league spring training camps, he sounds glad to be with the Twins. “What I’ve come to find out, working with the staff here, there’s a lot of good people. There are a lot of good things happening. To be a piece to that puzzle was something that I look forward to and have enjoyed so far.”
But what is his job? What is a minor league hitting coordinator? In his own words, Eckstein said, “As the minor league coordinator, my job - as it was described to me - is to bring a sound philosophy into the organization that mirrors what they were looking for.”
Eckstein interviewed for the Twins minor league leaders. He said, “Through the interview process, I talked about what I believe in. The things I believe in and how I teach and how to get the desired results that you’re looking for within the confines of the organization, Brad Steil, Joel Lepel, the guys in the organization that are over the minor leagues look for.”
Tanner English listening to instruction from Eckstein.
Eckstein has been a part of the organization’s new hitting philosophy. He was part of the Twins “hitting summit” in January where hitting coordinators and hitting coaches all met together to discuss their hitting goals, philosophies, terminology and more. Eckstein and Twins hitting coach James Rowson have to be on the same page and communicate despite different roles.
“James (Rowson) is our major league hitting coach, and he has his sound principals too, so being part of major league camp and listen to him work and work with the guys was great. But his job is to tend to 12 to15 hitters and make sure that they’re performing at the major league level.”
Things are a little bit different in the minor leagues. Sure, each affiliate has its own hitting coach who tends to the 12 to 15 hitters on its roster at any given time. But minor league development comes with its own challenges.
Eckstein described the challenge. “On the development side, it’s a little bit different. The challenge is different. You’re putting in a philosophy with really young kids who don’t have the experience that the major leaguers have, obviously. So now your philosophy has to be really grounded and really catered toward what we feel is important about hitting. Dealing with a major leaguer, you’re constantly just trying to fine-tune things to keep them tuned up, so to speak, with things he has already developed and worked on throughout his career. So I love the challenge of working with the kids that don’t necessarily have the experience yet, and putting in their heads what we feel is very important when it comes to hitting.”
When I was in Ft. Myers, late one morning most of the four full-season work groups were at lunch, maybe an hour or so before a spring game. The ewxtended spring training work group’s hitters, some of the youngest and least experienced in the organization, were on Bill Smith Field taking a round of batting practice. I observed.
Eckstein instructing between batting practice pitches.
Eckstein watched the first couple of rounds, and then he threw a couple of rounds. He was vocal and energetic. He was consistently teaching. He was challenging the young hitters to think.
“Attack the ball out front.”
“I don’t care where you hit it, get the bat head out and hit it hard.”
“Don’t try to do too much. Do you.”
Truth be told, as I watched batting practice and listened to the words and lessons from Eckstein, I was pumped up. I wanted to get out there and take a round of cuts (though I would have needed the Twins training staff after it). You can see why he’s been described as passionate and full of energy. He truly enjoys what he does.
So how does an organization or a minor league coordinator develop a hitting philosophy while not wanting to create a cookie-cutter hitter (something that had been an accusation of Twins minor league hitters in the past).
Eckstein responded, “Obviously I believe in technique, but really, what we’re trying to do is create the concepts that allow us to understand what’s important about hitting, and then we can use our uniqueness and our athleticism to get us in those positions the way we want to. So whether it’s a higher leg kick, or more of a knee lift, or a very simple load, you can vary in our system. You have the freedom to be who you are and express your talent. Then over time, we’re going to teach you how you do it, how to make you more efficient at doing it, and the things that encompass being ready to hit.”
During that session, he brought the hitters together and used (and explained) BABIP (batting average on balls in play). He told them that if they’re aggressive, and if they attack, but at the same time minimize strikeouts, BABIP tells them they’re likelihood of getting a hit or doing something to help the team.
Asked about his thoughts on the analytics of the game today, Eckstein said he loves them. “I love understanding the numbers. I love understanding how the analytics have really pushed us into an area of knowing the game to a level at such detail, if you will.”
But how much of that information can or should be explained to hitters. Some like it. Others don’t. For some, hearing more might make them think too much. But when you’re trying to explain concepts, sometimes those numbers can help.
Eckstein explained the discussion with the hitters.
“The players don’t need to know a lot of that information. When I referenced batting average on balls in play, it was simply because we were working on our two-strike approach, and I wanted the young men to understand the value of understanding how to be in a good position to where you can better put balls in play with two strikes and how to go about that, and when you do across the board, the batting average says you’re going to hit closer to that .300 average if you eliminate the strikeout. So, it was more of a reference point to say, Men, if we can have a process that allows us to compete better, and allows us to get the barrel in and to the front side of the zone and stay through it. Where the ball goes is irrelevant compared to having a process that allows us to put it in play and hopefully put it in play harder. In effect, if we can eliminate the strikeout, which technically isn’t going to happen across the board, but if you have a process that allows you to understand your barrel and understand the importance of what contact says, you give yourself a better chance to do the things you want to do as a hitter.
Eckstein chatting with minor leaguers Jorge Munoz and Andre Jernigan
As we know, the pitchers go into each game with a plan, and as you get closer to the big leagues, opponents’ pitchers and catchers have very detailed individual game plans for each hitter. Oh, and their pitches tend to be better, more crisp, sharp. There has to be a short term and a long-term plan to combat that.
“There’s a point where contact made too deep is not good. So there is a hitting area. Where is your hitting area? You’ve got to know that. What is a pitcher trying to do to you? He’s trying to throw off your rhythm and timing. He’s trying to make contact much deeper, if not non-existent, that’s what a pitcher is trying to do. So, we’re trying to combat that with our philosophy. We’re trying to combat that and get players to understand that there’s a difference between getting a hit and hitting. There are a lot of players in this game that can eventually find a hit and get a hit. Does that mean they were a good hitter? So there’s a difference there.”
It’s all about process. We talk about that on our site a lot. We talk about it in our daily lives. Not everything you do is going to provide great results, but we have to think about developing a sound process and think long term. It’s really the same with hitting, especially in the development stages.
“There’s a difference between being able to hit, and getting a hit. We’re trying to define that for the players and make them understand that there’s a mind set and a process, and we’re trying to cultivate that. We’ve kind of gotten off to a good start in that direction and we’ve still got work to do.”
The Twins big league lineup has five regulars that are 25 and under, but player development’s job is to keep pushing players to the big leagues who are ready to compete. Rick Eckstein and his philosophies, along with the minor league hitting coaches, will have a big role in that.
I also caught up with Twins minor league pitching coordinator Eric Rasmussen. The 65-year-old pitched eight seasons in the big leagues for St. Louis, San Diego and Kansas City. In 1991, he joined the Twins minor league coaching staff, starting in the GCL. He held pitching coach duties for Ft. Myers (12 years) and New Britain (one year). This is his ninth season in his current position.
Asked what his job as minor league pitching coordinator entails, Rasmussen said, “We set objectives for each pitcher through the year, what they need to accomplish and how they’re going to get better and move level-to-level, and get ready for the big leagues. Once that’s established, and we talk this over with each coach because they know the players very well, between me and Brad Steil and each pitching coach. And it’s up to the coaches to carry out the plan. It’s my job to oversee the whole thing and make sure that things are getting done and keep good communication going.”
Eckstein and Rasmussen will likely do some traveling throughout the minor league season. They are likely to visit each affiliate a couple of times each and continue to work with the players and the coaches.
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