BRADENTON, Fla. – “The idea is how do we get better? How do we adapt and adopt to the modern philosophy? How do we move forward in this space? Because these hitting spaces have evolved quickly.”

That was Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington on the first day of Spring Training, discussing why the Pirates made an overhaul to their hitting leadership. The Pirates added new hitting coaches at the MLB level. Rick Eckstein was hired as the hitting coach, and Jacob Cruz hired as the assistant hitting coach.

They also made Kevin Young the minor league hitting coordinator, with Drew Saylor being the assistant hitting coordinator. Saylor was hired this offseason after being the manager for the Dodgers’ High-A team last year, and being named Baseball America’s Minor League Manager of the Year.

The Pirates had fallen behind the latest trends in hitting. They featured an offense that was middle of the pack at best last year, with some of the worst power numbers in the game. This was during a time when power numbers were on the rise, due to a focus on leverage, launch angles, and incorporating advanced metrics.

Huntington continued:

“Most importantly, how do we put our hitters in position to do damage and help them do the most damage that they can do, whether it’s home runs or balls in the gap, hard contact, taking the walks they’re supposed to take, and helping them to understand how to be the best hitters that they can be?”

Huntington stressed that the Pirates weren’t scapegoating and blaming the old hitting coaches and coordinators. They just needed a new voice. And that part about helping hitters to understand how to be the best hitters they can be seems less like a throwaway GM-speak line to me today, and more like the key to the whole thing.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been talking with hitters, studying videos old and new, and talking with Eckstein and Cruz about what exactly they are doing to bring a modern approach to hitting to the Pirates.

If you thought that the Pirates were behind on data and analytics before, you were wrong. I was wrong in that assumption as well. And I figured the best person to ask would be Colin Moran, who had his big breakout in the Astros system due to their advanced approach, then came over to the Pirates. Moran’s comparison of the organizations on the analytical side might surprise you.

“We had a lot of resources here last year man,” Moran said. “We had good cameras. They had a thing with your bat where it would tell you your bat path. I think with Rick being here, we’ve got a lot of good things going.”

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the Pirates had the analytics. They’ve been an analytics driven organization for almost a decade now. The problem seems to have been the delivery. Not so much that the old coaches couldn’t deliver the message. The key to the new approach for the Pirates seems to be how Eckstein and Cruz complement each other, allowing them to tackle multiple angles to implement the analytically driven changes.

Meet the New Coaches

Rick Eckstein has been a major league hitting coach with the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Angels, and most recently was the minor league hitting coordinator for the Minnesota Twins.

Jacob Cruz played for nine years in the majors, including some time with Barry Bonds as a teammate. After retiring as a player, he became a minor league hitting coach, and was recently the minor league hitting coordinator for the Chicago Cubs.

“It’s good to have a guy who has stories on stories of Pujols, Trout, Bonds,” Pirates’ first baseman Josh Bell said. “The track record is unbelievable. Getting some good work in with those guys.”

The common trend for both guys is that they embrace the new technology in the game, and can incorporate that into a teaching method to improve players.

“A lot of what is happening now in the hitting space is the use of the technology — Rapsodo, K-vest,” Eckstein said. “All the technologies that are out there to quantify what’s happening with a swing, and create a program around what we think can help in certain areas. … And then making it individualized, because now everything toward the hitter has the capabilities of really lining up to what a hitter does well. You can do a lot of other things to really individualize a game plan for a hitter.”

Eckstein is definitely all-in on the new technology. He brought the Rapsodo device to the Pirates for their hitters, and incorporates a lot of other technology. I’ll get to that in a bit, but if you want to learn more about it, check out this article from JJ Cooper at Baseball America.

Eckstein says that Cruz is really good at individualizing a game plan for the hitters based off the data, which seems to set up a tag team approach where they both work together to analyze the data, find what a hitter needs to do, and come up with a plan to make that adjustment.

Better Data With New Technology

During batting practice, the Pirates have a black box on the field in front of the batting cages. That device is called Rapsodo. It can read the exit velocity, launch angle, spin rate of the ball off the bat, and many other metrics that were difficult or impossible to gather only a few years ago.

“It really gives you a gauge as a hitter,” Eckstein said. “When you’re working, it gives you real-time feedback on how the ball came off the bat. Not only the velocity and the angle, but also the spin axis. So you can really kind of position a player to show them what ball flight is most advantageous for his skill set. We’re currently in the middle of that, too.”

The new technology has really changed the way coaches approach adjustments with hitters. I’ll let Cruz tell it much better than I could:

“We’re able to teach now off of those metrics, where before it was just about eyeballing the swing, and you could tell a player ‘I want you to do this’ and there was no reason why. Now we have reason, because of the data. We’re able to assess the body, how the body works, and then produce a swing that best fits that body type, those movements, that’s going to help the player have success.”

The Pirates are also using K-vest technology, among many other things. The energy from a baseball player’s swing goes from his feet through to the bat. K-vest gives a way to track that energy flow, and see where a player might need some improvements.

“It really helps with more of the sequence,” Cruz said. “Everybody talks about how we want to start the swing from the ground up. Before, it’s just like we’re looking at it from our point of view. The data from K-vest actually shows you how fast energy is traveling through the body from the lower half, up through the torso, lead arm, and into the bat. It’s really neat in the fact that these players, we can actually show them ‘If we can hold this front side open, we can create a little bit more energy, we can get the slack out of the swing.’ K-vest really helps more with sequencing of the body and of the swing.”

You probably have no mystery remaining on why the Pirates hired this duo to take over their big league coaching staff. Just listening to them discuss the technology and how to implement it shows that they’ve got an advanced understanding of a subject that is pretty new to the game.

“I think baseball is really changing,” Cruz said. “The reality is that you just can’t rely on your playing career anymore, and just going to an interview and saying ‘When I played I did it this way.’ I think that’s the biggest challenge to a lot of the coaches now. A lot of the players that want to become coaches, it’s getting out there, understanding how to use this data, understanding how to use this technology to better and further help themselves as coaches.”

Understanding what the technology does is great. Getting all of those analytics is great to see the results. But how do the coaches take the results and use them to teach and adjust a player’s swing for the better?

Turning Analytics Into Adjustments

“I think as an organization we’re just becoming a little more convicted to the analytics.” – Jacob Cruz on the Pirates embracing modern hitting philosophies.

Coaches can use the data on the players to get a feel for how certain adjustments are working, or where adjustments need to be made. They can tell if there’s a big drop off in velocity to the opposite field versus the pull side. They can tell if a guy is hitting the ball with a negative launch angle versus a positive one.

Video has been a key tool for coaches over the last 20+ years to identify weaknesses in a player. That has gotten easier in recent years with better slow motion cameras that break down every split second of a swing. But as Cruz said, you’re still just looking at a guy and making a change for no quantifiable reason. The new technology can now quantify that. Eckstein and Cruz still use video to identify possible adjustments, but they also use the data to give them an indication.

“The data is telling us he needs to make an adjustment, and you say ‘what will that be?’ Now you’re digging from a backwards type platform,” Eckstein said. “We’re using it to really get a gauge as to everything, and how we implement it is really individualized. Some players, the message they hear needs to be tailored to what they understand.”

The individual approach is key. The new data and technology allows coaches to be very specific to each player’s swing and strengths at the plate. It allows them to focus on the ideal contact points, producing that much craved lift and launch angle that has been a trend in the game.

“We understand that there’s a down part of the swing, and there’s an up part of the swing,” Cruz said. “Ideally you want to catch the ball on the up part of the swing. That’s where our max barrel speed is happening. That’s where our slug happens, out in front of the plate. With those numbers, we’re able to show the players, and not just go ‘hey, this is what we believe.’ This is actual data that the players can see, and they trust what they are seeing.”

Eckstein had a similar message on how to achieve the lift and launch angle, also noting the different parts of a swing.

“Every player has a downward portion of their swing, and a leveled off point, and then an upward portion,” Eckstein said. “If we just really dive into ‘Do we need to change his swing? Or do we need to change the contact point?’ If you’re making contact deep on the downward side of your swing, you’re going to have a negative launch angle. And if you catch the ball a little more out front on the upward side of your swing, you’re going to have a positive launch angle, same swing. So contact point is going to dictate a lot.”

The Pirates are using the technology to help identify whether a player is making positive or negative contact, and where his ideal point of contact should be to get into the positive. For example, when I asked about Josh Bell and what wasn’t working for him last year, Cruz noted that he was often hitting with a negative launch angle. The two coaches have already made some changes with Bell, which I’ll get into tomorrow, and those changes are unique to his hitting style.

I discussed with Eckstein about how some players try to adopt the trend of lift and hitting for more power, and end up getting far away from their game and struggling. That’s not just a lack of understanding on how to implement the changes — not everyone can be a 30 home run hitter with one simple change. Instead, it has more to do with their individual game.

“Just to throw a blanket statement out there to say ‘Okay, all fly balls aren’t the same. Just swinging up at the ball,’ there’s a lot more that goes into it. That’s why you indicate that some players try to put the ball in the air more and it doesn’t work out well. The way they’re probably going about it indicates that it’s probably not the right adjustment to make. Everything we do is individualized and very thoughtful and mindful towards the adjustment that we’re going to make, and everything that we’re going to preach and teach.”

The contact point for a player seems to be the key thing here, as that dictates whether you’re hitting with a positive or negative launch angle. It’s one of the most individualized things they can identify from player to player.

“We’re letting each guy know for him where that premium contact point is for him and his ability to swing,” Eckstein said. “Obviously you can get on too far of the spectrum on either side. Too far out front, or too deep. So where is that sweet spot? Where do we want to be working? Where is that hitting area for you, is really what we’re trying to identify with the players.

“When it comes to that, it’s an individual’s conversation about understanding how to put their body in position, and when they do that, where’s the contact points from that position, and how does my swing affect that? Obviously capturing more being on plane through the front side of our swing longer through the hitting area.”

Most players seem to be focusing on making contact out in front of the plate, since that’s where the upside of their swing and the max bat speed occurs. Here’s a video of Kevin Newman doing a good job of that in batting practice a few weeks ago:

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VIDEO: Kevin Newman taking batting practice. #Pirates

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I’ll also be getting to Newman more later this week.

Will the New Approach Work?

It seems like the Pirates are banking pretty hard on their offensive players to see big improvements and catch up with the pitching staff. That’s not the worst plan. In my view, they have a lot of untapped potential on the roster. I don’t think we’ve come close to seeing the best from Josh Bell. Starling Marte has the capability of being a better hitter than what we’ve seen so far. And younger guys like Colin Moran and Kevin Newman have yet to really break into the majors.

If the plan was to hire new coaches and hope that new voices and new technology would get those internal improvements, then it’s not the worst plan. I have to say that I’m more confident in the potential results after talking with Eckstein and Cruz.

This will be a key thing to watch throughout the season, as it has the capability of taking the Pirates from a mid-80 win team that is just outside of the playoffs, to becoming a playoff team. In the next few days, I’ll focus on some of the players who could see the most improvements with the new technology and new approach.

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