Twins hitting coach James Rowson has earned a lot of praise for his work as the Twins hitting coach over the past few seasons. In particular, he led the 2019 Twins offense which set the all-time single-season home run record.
The assumption as the season went on is that the Twins organization, specifically Rocco's Baldelli's coaching staff, could lose several key members during the offseson, and Rowson's name was often mentioned.
Early on Thursday evening, Jeff Passan tweeted the news: He followed with a tweet to attempt to explain the role of "Offense Coordinator."
So while the title is different, it is a role that he is quite familiar with. It certainly is a promotion for Rowson, but he was hired by the Twins in large part due to his work as a hitting coordinator with the Yankees and Cubs organizations.
It is certainly a big loss for the Twins organization. He will not be easy to replace, but this front office has found lesser known names (like Rowson when he was hired) for several jobs already.
One option may be assistant hitting coach Rudy Hernandez who has been in the organization nearly two decades and has a great working rapport with many of the Spanish-speaking hitters in the organization .
Earlier this week, it was announced that Twins minor league hitting coordinator Peter Fatse had been named the assistant hitting coach of the Boston Red Sox. Fatse joined the Twins organization last offseason. He had replaced Rick Eckstein who became the hitting coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
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Will Minnesota Get Raided This Offseason?
The Making of Max Power
Let's Talk About Byron Buxton's Swing
- Oct 25 2019 02:39 PM
- by Seth Stohs
Boston shocked a lot of the baseball world on Sunday as they fired General Manager Dave Dombrowski less than a calendar year after he delivered the team a title. The Red Sox are entering a tumultuous time in their organization and the ownership didn’t feel Dombrowski was the right man for the job. He was hired to do what he did, win the World Series, but it could be time for the franchise to rebuild and he might not fit that mold.
Besides the Red Sox, there will be plenty of other organizations searching for upgrades in the front office and to their coaching staffs. Every team is looking to gain a step up on other organizations. Here are three names that could be with different organizations this offseason.
Current Role: Director, Baseball Operations
Adler took a unique route to his current position with the Twins organization. His professional experience started as an intern in the MLB’s Labor Relations Department where he worked on the CBA including baseball’s compensation system. He spent a couple of years in the private sector before joining the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars. With Jacksonville, he headed up a brand-new Football Research and Development Department.
Baseball organizations are finding some of the best minds in unique ways. Plenty of the game’s operating leadership have degrees from Ivy League universities. Adler holds a Harvard law and business degree. He has spent time in multiple fields and has a way of changing an organization’s system.
“Finding things yet to be identified is important,” said Adler, “but being able to utilize the things you already know is more important.”
Current Role: Director, Minor League Operations
Zoll has been on the fast track throughout his professional career as he is the youngest person in his role among all 30 MLB teams. He is in his second year in the Twins organization after he came to the club from the Dodgers organization. With Los Angeles, he served as their Assistant Director of Player Development for multiple seasons. He worked to develop player plans and assisted the Research and Development department.
"His reputation, even at a less experienced, younger age, of galvanizing staffs and creatively (instituting) development programs for players, really got our attention," said Thad Levine. "He's got the ability to communicate very clearly to the 16-year-old Venezuelan kid or the college senior.”
"There's a presence about him that probably belies age. But I think the backbone of it really was he had such rave reviews from the senior staffers that he worked with in the past."
Current Role: Hitting Coach
It’s hard to argue with what Rowson has done during his tenure in Minnesota. During his first year on the job, the Twins scored 815 runs and cracked 206 home runs. Both totals were in the franchise’s top four best season before the 2019 campaign and the introduction of the Bomba Squad. It would be hard to list out everything this offense has done this year and Rowson is a key cog in the Twins hitting machine.
“I think the environment that we’ve created here as an organization allows everybody to feel comfortable in their own skin,” Rowson said. “Each guy is just worried about having the best at-bat they can and there’s nothing holding them down mentally. They’re clear-minded, and that creates good at-bats, and that gets contagious.
Will all three of these names be back with the Twins next year? Who else do you think could be raided from the Twins this winter? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion.
- Sep 10 2019 08:36 PM
- by Cody Christie
Sano’s low point involved a frustrating pitch selection and inexplicable inability to make contact with fastballs. He would swing through low 90s center-cut fastballs or flail at a breaking ball that bounced in the left-handed batter’s box.
To repair, the Twins and Sano focused on his hand path, starting with eliminating the extra movement before getting to his launch point. As innocuous as it may seem, with the added bat tip forward Sano would put himself in the position of having to cheat to catch up to fastballs while getting burnt on breaking and offspeed pitches. Refraining from tipping the barrel toward the pitcher (as seen on the left) provided him with the ability to read pitches better.
Since reducing the slack, Sano is swinging less, chasing pitches out of the zone less and swinging through fewer pitches.
“The goal is to put his hands in a position to handle balls out over the plate to get to that ball up a little bit better and to be able to stay through the ball so that he can get on top of the ball consistently or to be able to drive through it more consistently,” Twins’ hitting coach James Rowson told The Athletic’s Dan Hayes.
That ball up, as Rowson noted, was Sano’s kryptonite. Pitchers who threw even the softest of gas could tie him in knots when elevating in the upper third. Before the correction, Sano swung through 66% of fastballs up in the zone and had just one hit. After Rowson and Rudy Hernandez performed their magic — working on drills that reduced hand movement from his start to his launch point — Sano improved his swing-and-miss rate on fastballs up from 66% to 28% and has three home runs on fastballs in that area of the zone.
Before the adjustment, Sano’s swing was powerful but one-dimensional. He mashed fastballs in one spot in the zone (outer-third, waist high) yet, because of his delayed swing process, his barrel would struggle to find anything middle-in. As long as opponents stayed away from that zone with their fastball, Sano’s power was muted. Again, speeding up his timing mechanism paid dividends. Over those first 30 games, Sano hit just .120/.267/.280 on fastballs middle-in but has since hit .395/.469/.907 with 7 home runs.
And that has been the key to Sano’s turnaround: hammering the heat.
Former player and manager Matt Williams used to say that the best way to hit a curveball was to not miss the fastball. In Sano’s case he would miss the fastball and would be reduced to rubble on various breaking balls. Even with the new approach, Sano has not handled non-fastballs well when swinging. However, he has greatly reduced the number of hacks at them.
Sano also points to another factor in his offensive uptick. He told Fox Sports North that Rowson had recommended adjusting his grip on the bat, aligning his middle knuckles rather than having his top hand bottom (proximal) knuckles aligning with his bottom hand bottom (proximal) knuckles. This is a similar effect to how Axe Bat-type handles naturally align knuckles, a feature that some hitters have raved about, which the Cubs’ Kris Bryant credited with turning his 2019 season around. It stands to reason that once he was able to decipher good from bad pitches, he would be able to drive them better with a new grip and more efficient hand path.
His load adjustment provided him with the ability to separate pitch types earlier while his grip allows him to drive through the ball. Needless to say, Sano’s in-season turnaround is a testament to the Twins’ coaching process as well as his ability to implement changes on the fly.
- Aug 19 2019 06:26 AM
- by Parker Hageman
By his own admission, Kepler’s ultimate goal was never to hit ground balls. He wanted a level swing. One, he said, that imparted backspin on the ball to help it carry.
While batted balls can certainly travel with different variations of spin (back, top, side) more recent research has found that concepts like chopping or cutting a ball to create that spin is a fool’s errand. In fact, physics show that more spin can even suppress the distance, regardless of spin direction. The end goal, as Twins hitting coach James Rowson so eloquently put it in his instructional video, should be to hit the ball square.
In 2018 Kepler would post the highest launch angle average of his career (15.2 degrees) but also learned the lesson that if you hit too many balls into the vast wasteland of the middle of the ballpark, many of those can be tracked down. Target Field was especially unforgiving for him when he wasn’t pulling the ball.
“Last year I tried to work on my swing mechanically, and that’s the result I got, popping up a lot of balls,” Kepler said. “One of the lowest batting averages on balls in play, someone brought that up.”
He hit .203 on fly balls well below the league’s .283 average on fly balls, so you can see how that can grind. You find the money part of the barrel only to watch another well-struck ball land in a welcoming center fielder’s glove. Kepler acknowledged it was frustrating but resigned himself to concentrate on the process, not the results.
The thing the Minnesota Twins evaluators enjoyed about Kepler’s 2018 season was his ability to make consistent solid contact. He finished the year just behind Joe Mauer and Miguel Sano in terms of average exit velocity. They figured it wouldn’t take much to tweak that into improved production.
The Twins worked with him on his bat path into the zone (trying not to be as steep into the swing zone), his posture including straightening up in his stance, and had him close his front side up a bit.
[attachment=12884:Kepler Stance Difference.png]
All the moves have aided in his increased power production but one element has been more of a catalyst for the home run totals. Removing the wider front leg starting point helps keep from cutting himself off and frees him up to pull the ball more. Watch his front leg travel inward a longer distance in 2018:
With momentum carrying toward home plate, this limited his ability to turn and open up on a pitch effectively. This is why he hit more of his hard hit balls to center instead of pulling them. You might also notice is occasional toe tap he implements in 2019 as well. With the shortened stance, this helps him stay back instead of aggressively attacking the pitch and pulling it foul.
Even with a vow of returning to his previous methods and avoid getting caught in a launch angle-centric trap, Kepler entered 2019 hitting the ball in a very similar manner that he did the year before -- in the air. The difference was that rather than sending the balls with premium contact into the big part of the field, with adjusting his set-up, Kepler started to pull the ball:
[attachment=12882:Max Kepler 95 Spray Chart.png]
After pulling all balls in play 48% of the time last year, he’s yanking 64% of balls in play this season. That shift in approach has led to more power and the added home runs has inflated in that average on fly balls to .342.
Now, after hitting a career-best 28th home run of the season, Kepler has increased his home run percentage to 6.4 percent -- one of the top 15 home run rates in baseball. It must be far more satisfying watching those balls disappear over the fence instead of into an outfielder's glove.
- Jul 28 2019 07:29 PM
- by Parker Hageman
It's clear that Minnesota's front office is placing an emphatic priority on optimizing this unit.
"In my opinion, a staff is not just a manager and a bunch of guys," GM Thad Levine told The Athletic. "We hope to put together the best staff we possibly can."
The Twins reportedly vetted up to two dozen candidates in their managerial search, so there's no question they'll turn over every stone in surrounding him with the right pieces. Let's get up to speed on what the coaching staff currently looks like, and who to keep an eye on for the open spots.
Last Thursday, the Minnesota Twins formally introduced Rocco Baldelli as the franchise's 14th manager. He brings with him many likable traits and attributes, but not a lick of experience. At 37, Baldelli is the youngest man in MLB to hold the job, and he has never managed at any pro level. (His titles with the Rays after retiring from playing: roving minor-league instructor/special assistant to baseball operations, first base coach, major league field coordinator.)
As such, it makes sense to offset this deficiency, so we'll presumably see the Twins bring in seasoned perspective with at least some of their coming hires – especially at bench coach, where the front office is envisioning a highly collaborative, almost symbiotic relationship.
Incumbent Derek Shelton was a finalist for the manager nod before falling short of Baldelli, who must have blown away Falvey and Levine because the two top execs raved about Shelton's performance while interviewing.
Shelton now appears to be one of the top choices for Texas' managerial opening, but if he misses out, Falvey and Levine are clearly hoping he'll return to his previous gig. And while the 48-year-old may not be jazzed about returning to bench coach duties after coming so close to the top job. twice, the Twins are trying to make it as appealing to him as they can.
Said Levine: "The analogy we presented to (Shelton) that we truly believe in is, (Falvey) and I are tackling the role of general manager together. We are hopeful that he would be open-minded about tackling the leadership in our clubhouse with Rocco Baldelli.”
Baldelli's bench coach will be instrumental in helping the rookie skipper acclimate to a new organization and a new world of responsibility. Shelton, who managed for three seasons in the minors before coaching in various capacities for three major-league teams, is ideally suited for the task, especially because of his existing relationships in the locker room (not to mention with Baldelli, from their days in Tampa).
I think the odds are strongly in favor of Shelton remaining as bench coach. But if the Rangers pluck him away, the Twins will need to pivot elsewhere.
Both James Rowson and assistant hitting coach Rudy Hernandez were kept on, as perhaps the only ones to survive this exodus (pending Shelton). Rowson interviewed for the manager job so evidently the front office views him highly. Hernandez has strong rapport with the Spanish-speaking players on the team.
In terms of on-field results, the instructional duo doesn't have a ton to show; Minnesota took significant steps backward in key offensive categories this year. But in so many cases – Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Jorge Polanco, Jason Castro, Brian Dozier, etc. – there were deeper issues at play. And we did see some successes, most notably rookies Jake Cave and Mitch Garver.
So, I'm good with these two being kept on. They'll have plenty of new colleagues.
Garvin Alston's tenure with the Twins lasted just one season. The team is quickly changing gears after bringing in the former A's bullpen coach one year ago, even though the pitching staff was altogether solid in 2018.
It sounds like the new manager will have significant influence over this decision. Per Dan Hayes of The Athletic, a "source suggested that Baldelli might want to bring in his own guy at pitching coach, a position he will likely rely upon heavily in his first season as the club’s manager."
One name that's been brought up (again, by Hayes, who's been very tuned in and is a must-follow on Twitter) is Charles Nagy. He brings the experience, both as a pitcher (he spent 14 seasons in the majors) and as an MLB pitching coach (three years with the D-backs, three years with the Angels). He has recent ties to Falvey, having spent the 2015 season as Special Assistant to Player Development for Cleveland.
Nagy spent the last three seasons in Anaheim before being ousted along with manager Mike Scioscia in a purge of the Angels coaching staff. But he has a solid reputation around the game. He's credited with helping left-hander Patrick Corbin (a potential Twins offseason target) develop during his time in Arizona.
Considered a laid-back type and an excellent communicator, Nagy seems stylistically similar to Rowson, and his breadth of experience would surely be invaluable to Baldelli. This match would make a lot of sense.
But if it doesn't happen, another name to keep in mind is Carl Willis, who has twice interviewed for Twins pitching coach vacancies (losing out to Alston and Neil Allen). The Cleveland connection is present there as well, obviously.
In terms of people with connections to Baldelli, Stan Boroski is the Rays bullpen coach and has been for seven years.
After four years in the position, Eddie Guardado is out. It's anyone's guess where the Twins might go now. As the nature of major-league bullpens evolves before our eyes, presumably Minnesota will opt for a new-school mind, capable of preparing his staff for experimental usage patterns and non-traditional roles.
Stu Cliburn seems most likely among internal candidates. Currently the pitching coach at Triple-A Rochester, Cliburn is a well-known commodity in the organization with nearly three decades of tenure. But despite his entrenchment, the 62-year-old is not closed-minded.
In his feature for the Offseason Handbook, Parker Hageman described how Cliburn helped sell Rochester's pitchers on the merits of the "Opener" strategy. This quotes from the piece feels relevant:
“Routine adjustment is going to be big,” Cliburn said regarding what the biggest challenge is for his players. “Sometimes routines can get disrupted for different reasons, rain and whatnot, but you just have to learn to adjust your program.”
He'd be a solid anchor of familiarity on a staff that figures to be crowded with newcomers.
Pete Maki, the former Duke pitching coach who took over for Erik Rasmussen as minor-league pitching coordinator a year ago and led the charge with implementation of the opener method, is another possibility from within.
A potential sleeper to watch: Matt Belisle, who was essentially serving as pseudo-bullpen coach for much of this season.
The Twins are moving on from both first base coach Jeff Smith and third base coach Gene Glynn.
If you're looking within, Tommy Watkins stands out as a great option. He managed the Double-A team this year and is currently managing the Salt River Rafters in the Arizona Fall League.
"I am humbled that the Twins trust me with this role," Watkins told our Seth Stohs last month. While the Twins have severed ties with holdovers at almost all levels, Watkins just continues to rise. He is extremely well liked within the organization.
One thing to consider is that first and third base coaches tend to have specializations in terms of player instruction. Smith often worked with the catchers, and – given the rawness of Garver – it's only logical the Twins will seek out an individual who can teach at that position. I've got a feeling about clubhouse favorite Chris Gimenez.
Another consideration in this search: Baldelli stated during his introductory presser that he's "looking for a very diverse staff."
"One of my best friends, who was just named manager of the Blue Jays [Charlie Montoyo], I’ve seen him relate to players in ways that I can’t. Although I would try very hard in some ways, I see him just step up and do things."
The Twins will have at least one Spanish-speaker on the staff in Hernandez. But it wouldn't be surprising to see them add another in one of these important roles. Jose Molina, currently the minor-league catching coordinator for the Angels, would check both of the last two boxes mentioned.
If the front office is aiming for experience and elder statesmanship, they could look toward Edwin Rodriguez. The 58-year-old started his post-playing career as a scout with the Twins back in 1989. He's managed all over in the minors and is currently doing so at San Diego's Class-A affiliate. Rodriguez was interim skipper in Miami for a spell back in 2010.
Oh, and he was also manager of the Appalachian League's Princeton Devil Rays in 2000, when a teenager by the name of Rocco Baldelli was breaking into pro baseball for the first time.
QUALITY CONTROL COACH
This is a relatively new position around the league, and it doesn't technically exist on the Twins' staff, but seems to be the rough equivalent of what Jeff Pickler was doing under the bland title of "Major League Coach." Pickler won't be back in that capacity, though there are rumblings he'll land in Minnesota's front office.
It's not clear the Twins will fill this position, but I'm guessing they will. The choice could very well end up being someone most of us have never heard before. One name to keep an eye on is Mark Kotsay, currently the quality control coach for an Oakland team that blew everyone away with its quality this year. Kotsay and Baldelli were teammates in Boston back in '09.
(Big shout-outs to Seth Stohs, Tom Froemming and John Bonnes for helping chip in ideas and names to mention in this rundown.)
- Nov 03 2018 06:49 PM
- by Nick Nelson
Current Role: Twins Bench Coach
Qualifications: He spent seven seasons as hitting coach under Joe Maddon in Tampa Bay. Also, he spent five seasons as hitting coach in Cleveland. He managed in the Yankees minor league system for multiple years. The 2018 season was his 14th season as a coach at the big-league level.
Current Role: Twins Major League coach
Qualifications: This past season was his second season as a professional coach. His roles this season included instructing the outfielders, advising coaches and players on game preparation, and communicating with the player development side of the baseball operations department. He served as a scout with the Diamonbacks and Padres organization. He also served in a front office role with the Dodgers.
Current Role: Twins hitting coach
Qualifications: He has coached professionally for 17 seasons. Had multiple tenures with the Yankees organization as their minor league hitting coordinator. He spent a couple seasons in the Cubs organization as their minor league hitting coordinator and big-league hitting coach. Minnesota has already interviewed him for the job.
Current Role: Twins Triple-A manager
Qualifications: He spent six seasons managing in the Indians minor league system. He moved up to Cleveland’s big-league staff in 2000 and even served as the interim manager in 2002. At the time, he was the youngest manager in baseball. He remained on the coaching staff until 2009 and then moved on to become Oakland’s bench coach. This past season was his first in the Twins system.
How do you view the internal candidates? Do any of them have a leg-up on the job? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion.
- Oct 09 2018 08:46 PM
- by Cody Christie
From afar, the narrative surrounding Buxton is that he jettisoned his leg kick and suddenly emerged as this elite hitter in the late throes of the season. The story sold was in the clickbait mold of BUXTON MADE THIS ONE SIMPLE CHANGE and, boom, he’s all fixed. While that is the most visually obvious change, Buxton’s journey to success is so much more complicated than that.
Making a radical change to your swing in a major league season is rather difficult. Yes, hitters continually tinker with their mechanics throughout the year but rarely is it seen that a player makes a fundamental switch in approach and thrives during the same season. Most times, organizations will send a player to the minors so he can rebuild out of the spotlight. It takes a special individual and a special support staff to make the improvements Buxton did in-season.
After splitting last season between toe tapping and leg kicking, Buxton proclaimed that he would be one hundred percent a leg kicker in 2017. This spring, with a newfound sense of clubhouse swagger, Buxton declared that the “leg kick is me now” and he is going to “stick with what I do.” In fact, one of his biggest influences, Torii Hunter, spent the offseason sending him encouraging text messages to stick with the leg kick.
There was plenty of reason for Buxton to be riding high. He absolutely tore through pitching in the final month of 2016. In September, equipped with the full throttle leg kick, he hit 9 of his 10 home runs and posted a 287/357/653 line in 113 plate appearances. He still struck out a ton, to be sure, but the hard contact was eye-opening and a tasty sample of his unfilled prospect promise.
But when the new season started, Buxton sputtered out of the chute. In April, he struck out in a whopping 37.2 percent of his plate appearances (only Colorado’s Trevor Story whiffed in more). Putting the bat on the ball proved to be a difficult task as 36.7 percent of his swings failed to even make contact. Sliders were another kind of evil. He couldn’t stop himself from contorting his body at pitches breaking over the left-handed batter’s box. He swung and missed on 28.6 percent of sliders seen.
There was no denying something was wrong with his approach, fundamentally. The Twins coaching staff, including Paul Molitor, were convinced the previous season the leg kick had to go. Bert Blyleven told broadcast viewers that former hitting coach Tom Brunansky had worked diligently in 2016 to entice Buxton of the same. In the spring, Molitor observed that he was spinning off so many pitches and believed he needed to get his legs in a better position in order to drive the ball. At one point at the end of April, Fox Sports North rolled tape of Buxton being joined by Hunter, Molitor and Rowson in the batting cage. The trio surrounded him and his batting tee and watched as he took a few swings with his leg kick. Hunter moved behind Buxton and repositioned his back leg, hoping to get him to remain on his backside more.
Buxton was at low point and needed to make some changes. In a homestand at the end of May, it started with ditching the leg kick.
***To read the rest of this article, be sure to download the 2018 Offseason Handbook at whatever price you would like***
- Nov 27 2017 07:02 AM
- by Parker Hageman
It's no secret how bad Buxton looked at the plate during the early part of this year. Through the season's first 15 games, he hit .082/.135/.122 with 24 strikeouts. Things started to get a little better in May as he was hitting .171 through May 21 while getting on base over 26% of the time. He was averaging more than a strikeout per game and he could hardly use his speed on the bases because he wasn't getting on base frequently enough.
Buxton had dug himself quite the hole. Even as the calendar was flipping to July, his offensive numbers were struggling to recover. He had a .552 OPS, 0.88 ISO, 47 wRC+, and a 31.8 percent strikeout rate. Something needed to click and Twins hitting coach James Rowson may have been the man with the cure.
Rowson explained Buxton's revamped approach at the plate in simple terms. "Plate discipline comes from being aggressive, not from being passive at the plate," he said. "We're looking to hit, not take. If I don't think that's a pitch I can drive, I want to take it. I think that he's starting to come into his own to distinguish the difference between those two pitches."
Buxton needed to stop worrying about his overall numbers and start focusing on each at-bat. He's now starting to use his lower body to generate more power and the results have been clear. Buxton has a 1.003 OPS since July 1 with nine home runs, two triples and four doubles. His speed has become a factor as he's swiped 11 bases in that time without being caught.
Athleticism will always be a key part of Buxton's game. As I wrote last week, he could be well on his way to his first Gold Glove. His 23 defensive runs saved ranks second among AL outfielders. According to Statcast's Catch Probability, he's made more four star catches (26-50% chance of being caught) than anyone in baseball and he's caught the highest percentage of those opportunities as well.
Buxton might not be the Paul Bunyan-like slugger that fans saw in Toronto this weekend but he seems to have found something special in the season's second half. The Twins are in the hunt of the playoffs and a 23-year old Buxton is living up to some lofty expectations.
Do you think Buxton has turned the corner for good? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion.
- Aug 28 2017 02:06 PM
- by Cody Christie
And 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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