Nationals Hitting Coach Rick Eckstein Has Nick Johnson Back in the Swing of Things

After working on his swing with Rick Eckstein, Nick Johnson, above, said,
After working on his swing with Rick Eckstein, Nick Johnson, above, said, "I've been doing it wrong my whole life." (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 15, 2009

VIERA, Fla., Feb. 14 -- Precisely seven days ago, 30-year-old Nick Johnson, veteran of 2,082 major league at-bats, creator and proprietor of a swing that has earned him more than $17 million, drove 90 minutes north to Sanford, Fla. Johnson pulled up to the home of Rick Eckstein, who, months earlier, was named the Washington Nationals' hitting coach. Eckstein had proposed this meeting, because that's always his preferred method. Plus, he'd done a lot of thinking. He was ready to tell Johnson something important. He braced for any reaction, even incredulity.

Because he had a message about Johnson's swing.

Since graduating from high school, Johnson had never changed his swing, at least not much. Just tweaks -- housekeeping, really. He felt comfortable with his swing. Even in 2006, his last healthy season, it earned him a .290 average and a .428 on-base percentage, fourth best in the National League.

The hours that followed in Eckstein's personal video room indicate much about Eckstein's diagnostic approach to hitting, Johnson's appreciation of the science and most important, the potential of the pair's new mission. After all, they're in agreement now: They want Johnson to master a new swing.

"I've been doing it wrong my whole life," Johnson said Saturday.

When Johnson drove up that day, Eckstein was already prepared to make the pitch -- a humble proposal, nothing more. He wanted the evidence to talk loudest. He brought Johnson to his video room, furnished with three computers and a big screen. They watched portions of a DVD of Johnson's "swing history," a composite of his eight-year career. They compared Johnson's swing with his swing from years earlier, when he played for the New York Yankees. They compared Johnson's swing with those of legends Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Barry Bonds and Ted Williams.

They paid special attention to how Johnson, when swinging, positioned his right elbow -- particularly when trying to swat outside pitches to left field. In fleeting moments earlier in his career, especially with the Yankees, Johnson kept his right elbow locked against his chest, even as he torqued. Since joining the Nationals, Johnson tended to keep the elbow high and loose, diminishing his swing's consistency.

Johnson's mouth dropped open. Wrong. All these years, he'd been doing it wrong. Nothing like Williams and Bonds.

"I'd been doing it flat-wrong," Johnson said. "He had it on tape. My thinking, my arm and everything."

So Johnson never hesitated. Yes, he told Eckstein. He was ready to change his entire swing. He wanted to. It would feel weird, retraining his muscles. But Johnson, suddenly, had his eyes trained on a leap forward.

Johnson and Eckstein headed to nearby field.

They've since worked out together every day but once.

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