Monday’s series opener against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim marks not only the first regular season meeting between stars Bryce Harper and Mike Trout, but the return of a familiar face. Rick Eckstein, the Nationals hitting coach for five years, is back in Washington to face his former team for the first time since he was fired midway through the 2013 season. Eckstein was dismissed by General Manager Mike Rizzo during an extended stretch of offensive futility.
Eckstein was hired in the offseason by the Angels, his brother David’s former team, as a player information coach, a major league position. The position is a new one and hybrid of multiples jobs: he is part scout and part coach. He is in uniform before the game, talking with players and coaches about upcoming advance scouting reports, hitting and all facets of the games. During the game, however, he is in the stands with scouts or elsewhere taking notes with Manager Mike Scioscia’s way of thinking in mind.
Eckstein, however, said he holds no bitterness about his departure. Before the game, Eckstein shook hands with Rizzo and principal owner Mark Lerner. Facing the Nationals, where he was hitting coach from 2009 to mid-2013, he did admit would be “interesting.” Former Manager Davey Johnson was strong supporter of Eckstein, and was against his firing last season. At the time of his departure, Eckstein was the longest-tenured hitting coach in the National League East. But Eckstein sees the positive.
“They gave me a chance to be a big league hitting coach and be part of the staff and go from the worst team to the best team in major league baseball from ’09 to ’12,” Eckstein said, standing in the Angels clubhouse before Monday’s game. “Obviously there was disappointment in ’13 but all in all I have nothing but fond memories. I think that anytime somebody in your life gives you a chance to kinda achieve some of your goals, no matter what happens, you look back and say thank you. I got that opportunity.”
Eckstein was dismissed July 22 when the Nationals had the second-lowest scoring offense in baseball. Since then, Rick Schu has shepherded an offense that is much improved. Since the 2013 all-star break, the Nationals have scored 385 runs, the third-highest total in the National League. Eckstein said he catches highlights of the Nationals games but doesn’t have much time to track them and their offense success since his departure. He said he hopes for the Angels win the series but said “he pulls for everyone,” including the Nationals player with whom he forged bonds.
Eckstein said he has enjoyed his new position with the Angels. He doesn’t have much of a scouting background other than his work with Team USA from 2005 to 2008. As the Nationals hitting coach, he digested advanced scouting reports and analyzed opposing pitchers, skills that help him now.
“It’s been great,” he said. “Mike [Scioscia] and Jerry [DiPoto] and the entire staff has been really great. My role is kinda all-encompassing where you work with the advance reports and the scouting reports and the entire staff about those reports. And you’re implementing those things that you see and you’re talking with the staff constantly. All areas of the game, almost a help to the staff, the pitching coach, the hitting coach, the defensive coach, and even Scos, talking with him daily and that’s been great.”