Anytime the Nationals offense has struggled over the last few years, Rick Eckstein’s name has surfaced.
The Nats hitting coach has been the target of plenty of criticism - perhaps some warranted, some not - during the rough stretches, and since Eckstein came on board five seasons ago, there have been a number of rough stretches.
And so it probably shouldn’t surprise Davey Johnson when he gets a question about Eckstein’s job security after another loss in which the Nats scored just one run and stranded 12 runners, as they did last night.
“He’s not in trouble with me,” Johnson said last night, responding to that question about where Eckstein stands. “I think he’s a great hitting coach and I believe in what he teaches. He’s the best I’ve had, hitting instructor. But he takes it harder than anybody. He works harder, he does more than anybody trying to help people. But we’re still young (as a team).”
Of course, that’s the only thing that Johnson really can say in that situation. If he’s entertaining some thoughts of changing his hitting coach, he can’t come out in a postgame setting and say, “Yeah, I’m thinking about firing Rick Eckstein. I’ll think it over for a couple days and get back to you guys.”
That said, here are two things that I think: I think that Eckstein’s job isn’t in jeopardy at the moment; and I think that it shouldn’t be in jeopardy.
I’m not privy to the conversations had between Johnson and general manager Mike Rizzo. They might be trying to find ways to wake up a team that has been treading water for months now. They might be open to some outside-the-box methods to try and pull some more offense out of this group.
But I do know that Johnson has a very high opinion of the work Eckstein has done here in D.C. over the years. His quote above wasn’t just manager-speak. I know that Eckstein’s broad hitting philosophies (be aggressive early in counts, look for a pitch you can hit hard to the pull side and do some damage with it) are ones shared by Johnson, and I know that Johnson isn’t going anywhere.
Beyond all that, I don’t see how it’s Eckstein’s fault that the Nationals have gone 6-for-67 with runners in scoring position over their last nine games. That’s a .090 batting average, for those who don’t care to do the math.
Is Eckstein the one out there going 0-for-5 and stranding seven runners? Is Eckstein the one failing to get a runner in from third with less than two outs?
The Nats haven’t homered in six games and haven’t hit a multi-run home run since July 7. Is that on Eckstein?
These are professional hitters, after all. While it’s possible the aggressive approach that Eckstein preaches is playing a factor in the Nats’ offensive woes, the bottom line remains that the responsibility lies on the players to produce, and to produce in big spots.
Hitting coaches can be easy targets when teams aren’t scoring runs. And don’t get me wrong, sometimes the hitting coach is at fault in such situations. But I totally buy the old saying that coaches get too much credit when teams win and too much blame when teams lose.
Maybe a change of hitting coaches would, in fact, shake things up enough to get the Nats going. Maybe hearing a new voice would jumpstart some of these dormant bats.
But I don’t pin the blame for these offensive issues on Eckstein, and I don’t think the man deserves to lose his job. Having talked to a couple Nats players about this over the last couple months, they don’t think Eckstein deserves that, either.