By any measure, the Nationals have so far been one of the worst offenses in the major leagues. They average 3.47 runs, better than only the lowly Marlins. They are batting .232 with a .291 on-base percentage. Among non-rookies, only Bryce Harper, Wilson Ramos and Ian Desmond have an adjusted OPS+ above their career average.
The across-the-board performance and underachievement has led to questions about the efficacy of hitting coach Rick Eckstein, who took over as the Nationals hitting coach in 2008 and has found himself under scrutiny in recent seasons. Nationals management continue to stand staunchly behind him, and today Davey Johnson and Mike Rizzo offered double-barreled support for the embattled coach.
“I wholly agree with Rick’s philosophy,” Johnson said. “Heck, at times, I’ve helped him formulate that philosophy. But he’s one of the most outstanding hitting instructors I’ve been around – conscientious, hard-working. If anything, he works too hard. But if you want to fire the hitting coach, you might as well fire me right with him. Because he’s got the same philosophy I do, as far as hitting goes. It’s placing the blame where it doesn’t belong.”
Wednesday afternoon, Rizzo told 106.7 The Fan that he had fired hitting coaches before, but he had not considered taking the action in Eckstein’s. He pointed to the Nationals’ performance last season as cause for patience. In their first 71 games last year, the Nationals scored 3.7 runs per game. For the remainder of the year, they averaged 5.1, most in the majors.
“We’ve done this dance several years in a row with the media and the fans,” Rizzo said. “It was around this time the last couple of years that people have been wondering when we’re going to fire Rick Eckstein. And it seems at the end of the day, the players always reach their career numbers and they get to where we thought they were. And I think it’s going to happen this year.”
At least one Nationals veteran agreed with Rizzo and Johnson. First baseman Adam LaRoche bemoaned the desire to replace Eckstein. He believes Nationals hitters alone are accountable for the team’s year-long slump. He also suggested no hitting coach could be responsible for a whole team’s success or failure.
“It’s kind of typical in sports,” LaRoche said. “When a team is doing bad, let’s get a new manager. When a golfer is not playing good, he needs a new swing coach. They can’t control anything that happens between the lines. It’s 100 percent on our offense. It’s not on the manager. It’s not on the hitting coach. Not at all. He does a great job. A hitting coach’s job in the big leagues, I don’t want to say there’s not a lot to it, because there’s a crazy amount of hours. But they flip, they throw, and they give you all the information you want. This is on us.
“It never fails. Every team that underachieves, the fans come out and want to fire the manager. Get a new hitting coach. Get a new GM. No. What about firing every one of the players? Send all of us down and bring up a whole new squad. The ones who deserve to get sent out are the guys not getting it done. This is on us.”
Johnson and Eckstein have both implored Nationals hitters to be more aggressive, especially against fastballs early in the count. “It ain’t working, is it?” Johnson said. Twenty-nine percent of the Nationals’ strikeouts have been looking, the highest rate in the major leagues.
Johnson wondered if an onslaught of technology had robbed the Nationals’ ability to rely on instinct. He said he had even pondered prohibiting watching video during games, but decided players relied on it too much.
“Some of our veteran-type hitters have had a little different approach,” Johnson said. “They – I don’t want to say guess – but they have a good idea of what they want to do, what they’re looking for each at-bat. My approach, nowadays with all the technology, maybe that’s the wave of how to be very successful. But I’m kind of from the old school. You go up there and look for a fastball over the plate, something you can hit on a line. If he tricks you once in a while, tip your hat to him.”
The Nationals’ biggest problem on offense, or in any phase of their team, has been a dearth of base runners. They have drawn 183 walks, better than only five teams, despite striking out 552 times. The Nationals have to balance the directive from Johnson and Eckstein to be more aggressive while also not hacking at pitches out of the zone.
“For me, we’re just not grinding out at-bats and getting on base like I think we should,” Jayson Werth said Tuesday night. “That’s part of it for me. I don’t know what my numbers are, but I know I haven’t walked as much or gotten on base as much. But at the same time, Davey wants us to be aggressive, so it’s a double-edged sword. I’ve been more aggressive this year than in previous years. Like I said, it just hasn’t lined up for us yet. At some point, I think it will.”
If it does, barring a sudden change of heart, it will come with Eckstein still the hitting coach.