Eckstein ready for role as Bucs' hitting coach

New hire has extensive background, plans to grow 'the individual hitter'

November 6th, 2018

PITTSBURGH -- Rick Eckstein was 3 years old when his father, Whitey, introduced him to golf. A teacher, golf coach and local club champion in Sanford, Fla., Whitey hit balls with his son every day. Eckstein would watch his father's hands and slide credit cards under his clubs, making sure he was set up at the perfect angle. That, Eckstein said, was when he became fascinated with the act of hitting a ball.
That fascination has driven Eckstein throughout his career and ultimately brought him to the Pirates, who hired him on Friday to be their new hitting coach. Pittsburgh's decision-makers created a list of candidates who matched their criteria and conducted what Eckstein called a "very extensive interview" before offering him the job.
In a statement announcing the move, general manager Neal Huntington touted the 45-year-old Eckstein's "relentless drive to combine old-school thought and new-school concepts" and said Eckstein's wide array of experience has "prepared him to implement an individualized mental, physical and fundamental program" for the Pirates.
Eckstein is still settling into his new role, meeting with fellow staff members and watching film of Pittsburgh's hitters. But talk to Eckstein about his background, and it's easy to understand why the Pirates felt he was the right man to help their hitters.
"There's talent. In every guy, there's ability to really tap into," Eckstein said in a phone interview. "The realm in which I teach, I feel like there [are ways] that I could definitely affect guys in certain ways, looking at each guy as an individual and seeing how we can keep growing the individual hitter."
Unlike his younger brother, two-time World Series champion David, Eckstein's playing career ended in college. But he followed his passion by studying exercise science and received a degree from the University of Florida's College of Health and Human Performance. He interned with the strength and conditioning staff for Florida's football and baseball teams and, in 2001, served as the Twins' Minor League strength and conditioning coordinator.
"My background is kinesiology, biomechanics, strength and conditioning. I've always looked at hitting more from a movement-based process than just as a swing," Eckstein said. "I've always looked at players, how they're putting their body in position. Can they be more efficient? What things can we do to help that efficiency and quickness and their rotational velocities? … That's an individual thing, man for man."
This connects back to the Pirates' interest in an "individualized" game-planning program, which Huntington first mentioned publicly on Sept. 30 as a solution to the extended slumps that plagued most of Pittsburgh's hitters last season. They can preach organizational hitting philosophies, but each hitter's swing is unique -- and must be coached accordingly -- because each player's body is unique.
That lines up with Eckstein's areas of expertise. He's received certification from the Titleist Performance Institute, which according to its website studies "how the human body functions in relation to the golf swing." He is also involved with the TPI-sponsored OnBase University, an organization similarly dedicated to studying how baseball and softball players move.
"How the body works, how to be more explosive and powerful and get into a certain position, why you would get into certain positions to create a certain sequencing of the body to be more efficient and more powerful: That's always been the lens that I've looked through," he said. "It's kind of funny, the game's coming full-circle now and that's where all the technology is heading."
Indeed, there is now an endless stream of information available to help craft the ideal swing. Statcast™ tracks exit velocities and launch angles, among other data. High-speed cameras and motion capture sensors allow clubs to break down players' mechanics and swing paths like never before. But it takes a certain level of understanding to interpret and apply that information in a way that's useful for players.
Eckstein checks that box, too.
He was the Angels' player information coach in 2014. In that role, Eckstein took data from general manager Jerry Dipoto's front office and boiled it down for manager Mike Scioscia, coaches and players while heeding valuable advice from Dipoto: "You're going to take a ream of paper and make it into a sheet of paper."
"There's so much data out there, and it's great. But a lot of the data for the players needs to be filtered," Eckstein said. "Just going to a player and data-dumping doesn't really mean you're going to fix a problem; in some cases, you might create a different problem. That role really defined what I felt like was going to be important for not only our team, but for each individual player."
Eckstein has been a hitting coach at the college level, with Team USA, in the Minors and in the Majors with the Nationals from 2009-13. He's also been a bullpen catcher, bullpen coach, base coach, bench coach and most recently a Minor League hitting coordinator. All of it, he said, helped shape him into the coach he is today.
"The experience for me has really broadened my view," Eckstein said. "All those roles built me to understand that everybody on the team, from a coaching or medical or strength and conditioning or staff standpoint, you bring your team together and you utilize everybody together to formulate the best plan for each player."