By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 31, 2010; D03
VIERA, FLA. -- Sometimes, Rick Eckstein dreams about baseball swings. On Monday morning, he woke up thinking about Adam Dunn's. He had arrived at Space Coast Stadium an hour before anyone else so he could sit in a dark office and watch it on film. Now, most important to him, Eckstein wanted to feel it.
Before dawn broke, the Washington Nationals' hitting coach stepped into the batting cage, a bat resting on his shoulder with the knob facing straight ahead. Eckstein, a natural right-hander, stood in the left-handed batter's box. He lifted his left elbow and held his hands in front of his left shoulder, the tip of the bat now sticking toward the sky. He swung.
Eckstein could have emulated any other Nationals batter he oversees -- he has learned to mimic all of their swings. In his second year with the team, Eckstein has become both a rising star in coaching ranks and a favored resource inside the Nationals' clubhouse. Any coach can tell a player what to do. Eckstein can explain how you should feel.
"I've had good hitting coaches in the past," Dunn said. "He takes it to another level. His life is hitting. Not baseball. It's hitting."The morning ritual
On Monday, Eckstein began his workday at 5:50 a.m. in the coaches' locker room, where he keeps boxes of granola and bran cereal in his stall. The night before, Eckstein went to bed at 8:15 so he could climb out of bed fresh at 4 a.m. "I think better in the morning," Eckstein said. At home, he drank coffee and stared at his computer, watching video he filmed himself.
"When I get here," he said, "I've got my mind where I want it."
Eckstein settled into a black leather office chair in front of two laptops. Sunday night, Eckstein had told Erick Dalton, the Nationals' video coordinator, which clips he wanted ready. Sometimes in the offseason, when a thought strikes Eckstein, he sends Dalton a text-message request for video of a specific player swinging in a specific game.
"I don't think he has a clock," Dalton said. "He just does his job."
On the laptop to his right, Eckstein scrolled down a list of players until he stopped at Dunn. Eckstein's right hand shook as he double-clicked the cursor. Up came an at-bat of Dunn's that ended with a groundball. On the other screen, Eckstein pulled up Dunn hitting a home run last year.
Eckstein leaned back in his chair, rested his chin in his right hand and stared at the screens, tapping a key to move them one frame ahead, one frame back. He spotted differences, small enough that you would not have noticed them, significant enough that he asked they not be printed. Once Eckstein explained what he sees, the disparity in Dunn's swings changed from imperceptible to obvious.
"I just look at it," Eckstein said. "And I know what's going through my head."
Once he finished watching film, he headed to the cage, walking past the first players to arrive. He used Dunn's swing, trying to replicate the spring training groundball and the home run from last season. Dunn had told Eckstein what he had been feeling, and Eckstein tried to match that to what he watched.
"I'm more of a visual learner," Dunn said. "You could tell me [stuff] all day long. But until I actually see it or feel it, it's useless. He's able to show me what I need to be doing and what I am doing."
Eckstein uses the technique only with players whom it works with. Ryan Zimmerman has never seen Eckstein copy his swing. It's not that he can't; Zimmerman is just more of an aural learner.
"He goes with everything individually," Zimmerman said. "He realizes what each person wants and what each person doesn't want."
In the cage, Eckstein batted right-handed and made small circles with his hands far out in front of his chest. He tucked his shoulder, brought his knee up and then forward.
"Ryan Zimmerman," he said.
He made another swing with different form.
He held his hands low and close to his stomach, rotated his hips and smacked another ball off a tee.
"Josh Willingham," Eckstein said.Learning process
While he grew up in Sanford, Fla., hitting fascinated Eckstein. He watched two disparate hitters -- say, Julio Franco and Tim Raines -- and wondered how they could have such different swings and both hit so effectively. "How does each guy make it work?" Eckstein would think.
He and his younger brother David, the veteran major league infielder, watched Atlanta Braves games on TBS, the only baseball they could find. Then they would go outside and pretend to swing like Dale Murphy or Bob Horner.
He always wanted to play. Eckstein often felt stifled by coaching. He respected his coaches and always took instruction. But "it never made sense to me," Eckstein said. It never felt right.
After his first year at junior college, his coach told Eckstein his right-handed swing was so bad he couldn't play unless he created a new, left-handed swing. After drilling for one summer, he hit .383. His career continued. "That's when I really started to kind of say, 'How do I need to hit?' " Eckstein said.
His career stalled after college at Florida, but Andy Lopez, his head coach, added him to his staff. He hated coaching his first year and fell in love with it his second. He worked with his brother, who recommended him to other major leaguers. Word spread.
Eckstein wanted to make sure his hitters never felt like he did, like hitting didn't make sense. Once he decided he would make his career in coaching, he talked to a friend in MLB's New York offices. He asked for video of 70 of the greatest hitters ever. He studied their swings and learned how to hit like them. Watching a Class AA player on film, Eckstein might blurt, "He's actually got hands like Frank Robinson!"
He learned to swing like all 70 players, and he still can. He still takes more swings every day than any Nationals player, trying to perfect their swings himself. "I'm a better hitter now than I ever was as a player," Eckstein said.
Eckstein's best asset is his recall. He can watch a swing once and then visualize it. He believes he has a photographic memory, which helped shaped his philosophy.
"I think everybody has to teach the way they think," Eckstein said. "To sit down and just talk hitting, there are a lot of people that can do that. How do you teach someone how to do it? How do you truly teach them? Talking and teaching are two different entities. To sit down and listen to some of the most respected hitters in the game sit down and talk hitting, wow, it's powerful. Meaningful. How do you teach a young kid all that they know? How do you teach it?"
Eckstein asks himself that constantly, while he thinks about swings. He went to sleep early Monday night. He planned on going to sleep early, still thinking about hitting. And then, he said smiling, "I dream."