Almost two months later, Ian Desmond’s words sound prophetic. On the afternoon of July 22, about an hour after the Nationals fired Rick Eckstein, Desmond issued a warning: Don’t blame Eckstein once the Nationals’ offense takes off.
“When we do get hot, when we do start doing it, it’s going to be really good,” Desmond said then. “When that time does come, it shouldn’t be that, ‘Rick Eckstein was the one at fault for us not hitting.’ Because it’s inevitable this team is going to hit. We are going to drive in runs. That is a fact. At some point, it’s going to happen. I really feel like at the big league level, not that the hitting coach is irrelevant, but the players are prepared enough to where they should be able to handle themselves on their own.”
One fact is undeniable. The Nationals have hit far, far better under hitting coach Rick Schu than Eckstein, and it’s a wide enough gap that warming weather can’t be the lone cause.
In 98 games under Eckstein, the Nationals hit .240/.300/.383 and scored 3.7 runs per game. Since Schu took over, the Nationals have gone 33-21, averaged 4.8 runs and hit .276/.340/.437 in 48 games. Over the course of the whole season, those numbers would first in the National League in hitting, on-base percentage and slugging.
Has Schu been the catalyst, or just the guy who happened in charge when the Nationals took off?
“That’s debatable,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “Whatever your opinion is on that is your opinion.”
In Desmond’s opinion, Schu’s relaxed approached has made a difference. Eckstein had a well-earned reputation as a workaholic, and he may have overloaded the Nationals with information and mechanical advice. Desmond in no way disparaged Eckstein. He and Schu had the same messages, mainly, but deliver them differently. Eckstein hammered the Nationals with information far more than Schu.
“On a fundamental basis, I think a lot of hitters are doing the same exact things they were doing then,” Desmond said. “I’ve said it over and over again. Timing and being able to see the ball, have a clear mind, is essential to having success in the batter’s box. I think what Schuey’s done, he’s given us an opportunity to kind of hit our stride. He stands out of the way, but he does little things that put you in the right direction – subtle things like music in the batting cage. Little stuff. It’s an attitude. It’s that mental confidence when you get in there. We’re no longer thinking about mechanics. We’re thinking about rhythm or contact. Whatever it is. He’s done a good job in a subtle way.”
Eckstein “knew what we want to do, and he did it. He went after it,” Desmond added. “That comes with being here at 11 every day and studying and accumulating as much information as possible. There’s no point in retaining the information in you’re not going to pass it on. I think they have different styles.”
Manager Davey Johnson had great fondness for Eckstein – his firing, he has said, was Johnson’s lowest moment of a difficult year. He would never side against Eckstein, but he also likes the work Schu has done.
“They have basically the same philosophy: hit off the fastball,” Johnson said. “And the talent that we had here is the same talent, and they’re getting the same message. They just didn’t do it. And I’ve been preaching from the get-go, ‘Be more aggressive, early in the count, blah, blah, blah.’ We just didn’t do it. Sometimes, it’s always water seeks it’s level, and we were way down. We needed to come up. So a lot of that had to happen, otherwise guys were looking at being brutal. I mean, I think Schuey’s done a great job. He does want them to hunt, hit off the fastball, and I think we’ve done that more.”
Rizzo has known Schu, who was the Nationals’ minor league hitting coordinator, for a long time and has respected him. Given his performance and Rizzo’s feeling toward him, it seems like a safe bet Schu will come back next season.
“He does a great job,” Rizzo said. “He did great as our coordinator. He’s got the Nationals way of doing it. He’s done a great job here and did a great job in the minors leagues. He brings an energy and a personality to the ballpark every day. He works hard.”