BRADENTON, Fla. -- The Pirates' most important offseason additions might not have been in the bullpen or batting cages at Pirate City during the club's first full-squad workout on Monday morning. One was behind the cage on Field 1, talking to Starling Marte during live batting practice, while the other
BRADENTON, Fla. -- The Pirates' most important offseason additions might not have been in the bullpen or batting cages at Pirate City during the club's first full-squad workout on Monday morning. One was behind the cage on Field 1, talking to Starling Marte during live batting practice, while the other watched Jung Ho Kang hit on another field.
The Pirates hired hitting coach Rick Eckstein and assistant hitting coach Jacob Cruz this winter to get more out of their bats, and their work begins in earnest this week. Eckstein and Cruz have set out to extract more power and consistency from a lineup in need of improvement.
"That's where our head is, as far as taking the offense forward, is really tapping into each guy individually to reach more of their potential and play as a unit where we're all on the same page," Eckstein said.:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::
Last year, the Pirates ranked 17th in the Majors with a .725 OPS, 20th with 692 runs and 25th with 157 home runs. They will return most of the same hitters this season, however, especially in the heart of their lineup.
They dismissed hitting coaches Jeff Branson and Jeff Livesey the day after last season ended, although manager Clint Hurdle praised both as "really good baseball men." In their place, the Pirates installed two coaches who are more familiar with what they've called "modern" hitting philosophies. Eckstein brings a wide variety of coaching and instructing experience to the role, while Cruz offers both playing experience and familiarity with the latest hitting technology.
"I think we've really put two new men for us into place that have their finger on the pulse of the offensive game. They're more proactive than reactive," Hurdle said. "Sometimes you don't get results, and a new voice can have an impact.
"The research both of these guys did as we went through the interview process, the experience they've had with analytics, with new technology, with new ways to measure, with new ways to instruct, with new ways to teach, it all just seemed like the perfect combination for us."
The differences in approach and philosophy may not be apparent until the Pirates begin playing games that matter. But there are physical representations of change around the batting cages at Pirate City: Rapsodo tracking devices capturing batted-ball information and tablets presenting it as instant feedback for coaches and hitters alike.
They aren't just dumping data on players, though. For Eckstein and Cruz, this part of Spring Training is for building relationships. On Monday, Eckstein bounced from field to field and was around the cages, watching from different angles and talking to different players: first Marte on one field, then Lonnie Chisenhall on another field, then Josh Bell on another and so on.
"Our focus is a little bit more on a ground-floor level of timing and positioning and understanding that there's certain areas of the hitting area that we need to be really good," Eckstein said. "There's a difference between the strike zone and the hitting area, and within that there are contact points that are optimal contact points, and there are contact points that are sub-optimal. If we understand that everybody has a downward plane of their swing and everybody has an upward plane of their swing, where does that play for you?"
The Pirates believe there is more potential within all of their returning hitters -- more consistency for Marte and Gregory Polanco, more power for Bell and Colin Moran. Eckstein and Cruz are setting out to treat every hitter as an individual, understanding that Bell's swing is different from Adam Frazier's swing, but Eckstein has been using the same phrase with every hitter: "There's a time to feel good, and there's a time to get good."
"So that challenge piece in there, what we're really trying to focus on is really understanding what challenge you need to help you get good," Eckstein said. "The thoughts that have been shared have been extremely positive. Now, it's time to get to work."
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and read his blog.