PHILADELPHIA — With the Washington Nationals’ offense largely underperforming across the board, manager Davey Johnson and general manager Mike Rizzo have fielded questions about the job security of hitting coach Rick Eckstein. Again.
It seems an almost annual storyline for the Nationals — who speak glowingly about Eckstein, his work ethic and his ability as a coach. But with the Nationals’ offense among the worst in the major leagues in almost every statistical category, for the third straight season there are questions about whether or not the team may consider firing him.
Those questions, however, are met with a resounding denial when they’re brought to those making the decisions.
“I wholly agree with Rick’s philosophy,” manager Davey Johnson said Wednesday. “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. Like I tell these guys in the spring, take care of No. 1. Don’t worry about anybody else. Just be as good as you can be. Anything else, I’ll worry about you as a group. If you’ve got any problems, I’m a problem solver. The main job is you guys being as good as you can be when you step on that ball field. It’s all about adjustments. With all the technology, the pitchers can have one way to get you out one day. If you have some success, they change. You need to make those adjustments. If you’re a breaking ball hitter your whole life and now all of a sudden they’re throwing you fastballs, you need to make that adjustment. But it’s an individual adjustment. A coach for the whole group is not going to solve the problem for the individuals.”
This is Eckstein’s fifth season as the Nationals’ hitting coach. And many players credit him with helping them reach their full potential in career years. Michael Morse often noted Eckstein’s influence. Kurt Suzuki, too, pointed to his work with Eckstein for helping to revitalize him after his August 2012 trade to the Nationals.
And quietly, most players shrug off the suggestion that the hitting coach should take the blame for the team’s offensive issues. They know they’re professionals and they made it to the major leagues for a reason. If their performance is not up to par, most acknowledge the responsibility lies with them to fix it.
Rizzo called criticism of Eckstein “unfair.”
“I never attribute the success or failure of the offense directly to one person,” Rizzo said. “I think it’s unfair. I think they take too much criticism when something goes wrong. I think they get too much credit when things go good. We’ve done this dance several years in a row with the media and the fans.
“I think 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.”
Johnson was also quick to point out that the Nationals are not simply underperforming on offense. They are simply not playing as well across the board as they did during their 98-win 2012 season.
“(Eckstein) takes it awfully hard,” Johnson said. “And I’ve tried to lighten up for him… I was looking up where we were last year and compared to where we are this year, and two things jumped out at me: Last year, even with a bunch of injuries to Werth and Morse, we were averaging 3.75 runs per game. This year, we’re at 3.47 to this point.
“And it’s not strictly on the offense, because the pitching earned run average after 70 games was 2.95, and this year it’s 3.6-something. And you could say our fielding hasn’t been as good. But a lot of runs after a fielding error, pitchers make mistakes and ended up giving up runs, where we didn’t do that as much last year… It’s not just the offense. Pretty much a lot of the aspects, we’re just not performing to what we did last year. Do we have the potential to do that and more? Yeah. Last year we took off around this time and started gelling as a unit, both sides of the deal.”