Can a hitting coach change make a difference?

Rick Schu is expected to join the Nationals on Tuesday for his first day as their new hitting coach. He has spent the past four seasons roving the minor leagues and working with players like Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon and Steve Lombardozzi before they jumped to the majors. Now, for the first time in four years, he gets another crack at serving as a hitting coach for a major league team.

But as Nationals players defended hitting coach Rick Eckstein on Monday after his firing and placed the blame squarely on themselves for a lack of production at the plate, they touched on a couple of interesting questions: What does a hitting coach actually do? And, could a new one actually make a difference?

“I’ve been the same way since I was ten years old,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, whose .271/.348/.445 slash line is under his career averages of .286/.353/.476. “When you get to this level, it’s your job to hit. We get paid a lot of money to hit and do our job, and when we don’t do our job it’s nobody’s fault but our own. A hitting coach or pitching coach is here to give you information, which our guy did. And unfortunately it didn’t work out for us.”

So then why was Eckstein fired?

“It’s unfortunate that we, our offense, put them in a position like this, that they had to make the move,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche, whose slash line of .248/.333/.431 is also under his career averages of .266/.337/.478. “He’s a great hitting coach. There’s nothing they could have done. It’s on us. It’s hard to send your whole offense down to the minors. It’s not the way the game works. Somebody takes the fall. I don’t think it’s anything he did as a coach. I don’t think it’s anything more than to spark something, go for a fresh start, see if that gets guys going.”

Hitting coaches are the shepherds of their hitters’ swings. They assemble scouting reports on upcoming pitchers, throw batting practice and soft toss. They offer tweaks to the mechanics of swings or approaches. But, as many players pointed out strongly on Monday, hitting coaches don’t swing the bat in the game. Some players love relying on film and more information when they hit, but others prefer to simplify.

“Nothing against hitting coaches, I don’t use them a whole lot,” LaRoche said. “I don’t go to them a ton. I don’t overload with information and watch a ton of video. I like to know how hard a guy throws and what his pitches are. Other than that, you want a hitting coach that’s in the cage all day long, waiting for guys to come down there. I don’t think you could ever walk in that cage any time of the day and not see Eck in there ready to throw or flip or put balls on the tee or feed the machine. In my opinion, those are your best hitting coaches.”

Others offered a differing view.

“The hitting coach helps a lot,” said catcher Wilson Ramos, who credited Eckstein with helping him improve his swing over the years. “We need one guy to help the guys, to try to help us every day and be ready for every time we need to go hit in the cage or whatever we want to do. One guy with experience to watch you and tell you, ‘Hey, you have to do this. You have to do that.’ That’s very important for the team.”

General Manager Mike Rizzo, who decided on the firing despite his own belief in Eckstein and Manager Davey Johnson’s opposition, felt that a change was needed. Harper, who had Schu as one of first hitting coaches in the Nationals’ system, said Schu has a simple approach. Scott Hairston, who was under Schu with the Arizona Diamondbacks, said Schu preaches approach and not necessarily mechanics.

Eckstein and Schu may not turn out to be that different.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of technical differences between the two,” Rizzo said. “They’re all pulling from the same playbook. When you’ve heard the message for five years, maybe hearing it a different way has an effect.”

Over the next 63 games, the Nationals and their fans will learn soon enough what difference a hitting coach makes, if at all, and if their offense can recover. Could a new guy help, though?

“I’m not sure,” Harper said. “It’s not really about the hitting coach. It’s about the players and how we play and how we perform and it’s more of what we do. It’s nothing on Eck or anything like that I don’t think. It’s something the organization felt was right.”

FROM THE POST

The Nationals rally but fall, 6-5, to the Pirates and to three games under .500, writes Adam Kilgore.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

New hitting coach Rick Schu knows several current Nationals players

Nationals fire hitting coach Rick Eckstein, promote Rick Schu

Ryan Mattheus moving rehab to Class AAA as roster choices loom

Some numbers behind the Nationals’ season

NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Louisville 6, Syracuse 4: Danny Rosenbaum allowed four runs and three walks on five hits over six innings. Erik Davis took the loss with two runs, both unearned, over the next two innings. Jeff Kobernus, Tyler Moore and Zach Walters each collected two hits. Walters hit his 22nd homer. Moore homered and is hitting .277. Chris Rahl went 4 for 4.

New Hampshire 4, Harrisburg 3: Taylor Hill allowed only two runs on nine hits and struck out four and walked on over 6 2/3 innings. Jimmy Van Ostrand went 2 for 4 with two RBI.

Salem 5, Potomac 2: Blake Schwartz allowed only three run on six hits and walked none over seven innings. Cole Leonida went 1 for 3 with an RBI and Cutter Dykstra drew three walks.

Hagerstown 6, Greensboro 2: Brett Mooneyham allowed two runs on six hits over six innings and has a 2.97 ERA. Brandon Miller went 1 for 2 with a walk and two RBI. Tony collected two hits.

Hagerstown 7, Greensboro 2 (7): Ian Dickson allowed one run on three hits over five innings. Sam Palace, the organization’s roving emergency catcher, went 1 for 3 with a two-run shot. He’s 4 for 13 with six RBI.

Vermont 7, Auburn 0: Ryan Ullman allowed seven runs, six of them earned, over 4 1/3 innings. Isaac Ballou, James Yezzo, Cody Gunter, Brenton Allen and Andruth Ramirez each collected a hit.

James Wagner joined the Post in August 2010 and, prior to covering the Nationals, covered high school sports across the region.
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James Wagner · July 22, 2013

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