The Texas Rangers made meaningful changes this summer when they parted ways with manager Chris Woodward — Tony Beasley is currently serving in an interim capacity — and subsequently replaced Jon Daniels with Chris Young as their top front office decision-maker. But a move that has been every bit as impactful was made 10 months ago. Last November — shortly before Baseball America named him their MLB Coach of the Year — Donnie Ecker was hired away from the San Francisco Giants and given the title of Bench Coach/Offensive Coordinator.
Ecker’s reputation as a tech-and-data-savvy hitting nerd is well-earned. Prior to the two seasons he spent as Gabe Kapler’s hitting coach in San Francisco, the 36-year-old Los Altos, California native built his bona fides as an assistant hitting coach with the Cincinnati Reds, and before that as a minor-league hitting instructor in the St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Angels organizations.
Ecker, who is well-educated in biomechanics and analytics, discussed some of the philosophies and practices he brought with him to Texas when the Rangers visited Fenway Park earlier this month.
David Laurila: You spend a lot of time at the ballpark, often arriving by 9 AM for a seven o’clock game. What does your day typically look like?
Donnie Ecker: “It starts with understanding where all of our people are at, zooming in on our hitters first and looking at the things that we find valuable. How is their performance aligning with our North Stars and peripherals? As a department, we want to be on top of that day-to-day. Most times, that’s a process of going deep and bringing up simple and actionable items to the surface. Everything is from the inside out, leading to what we want our conversations and training to look and feel like that day for that player.
“From there, I zoom out and put my focus on the opponent and all of the individualized matchups we have against their bullpen. That flows into prepping for their starting pitcher, which is a beast in itself in regards to detail and thoroughness. We will individualize that as much as we can. Then we are looking at possible themes that may be there to expose over the course of a series. Those themes will never override who we are — our foundational beliefs — but if there are micro match-ups, guys that can’t take care of the run game, guys that can’t field push bunts, or outlier bullpen tendencies against runners in scoring position that require back-side hitting, whatever it may be, is there something unique that we can expose? Game planning on day one of a series can take anywhere from five to seven hours. And truly, every day is a new puzzle. Every day, there is a process that is required to make sure my work is clean.”
Laurila: I know that you look at a ton of video. What are you focusing on?
Ecker: “We break it up into three areas. We’ll isolate how [the hitters] are moving in context to the pitches they’re trying to solve. How is our guy setting up and moving on a four-seam, and is that where we want it? How is he setting up and moving on a sinker guy? Is his alignment where we want it based on rubber position and release height? So it’s basically checks and balances. Are we in the right setups and alignments, or are there things we need to solve?
“From there we’ll dig into the second phase. We separate path from movement, so we’ll just look at path. And then, the third part is looking at how our movement and path correlate with what we want to swing at that day or what we’re maybe trying to eliminate from the opponent.”
Laurila: Optimal body movement profiles differ, two-seamer to four-seamer…
Ecker: “They can for each guy. In places I’ve been in the past, it was very specific. One way to think about it is this: Say you’re a quarterback and you throw a fade route really well. Your natural bias is to have a tilted front shoulder, and you create really good loft on your ball, but you can’t throw the slant very well. We don’t really need to coach, or cue you up, for the fade, but we do have to figure out something to help you throw a slant better. So for hitters who have a natural bias to become flat and plane out on fastballs up, we may need to do something that’s a little bit different on a sinker matchup. And vice versa.”
Laurila: How do you train that?
Ecker: “It’s a mutual and symbiotic relationship — and we’re not being reactive after the season starts. We’ve already downloaded in spring training what a guy’s movement signature is, what he does best. We’ve identified these things and put them all in a bucket. What is his bias when he’s left alone? Does he flatten out more, or is he more on the VBA [vertical bat angle] spectrum? Maybe he’s somewhere in between.
“We’ve created a mixed movement signature that we agree on. Do you think this is how you move best? Great, we agree with that. Are these the pitches, over the course of time, that you’ve covered the most? We have data that can strip our opinion out of that. So we kind of set the foundation objectively, in the spirit of honesty. Then we add that level two question. You do this thing well, so how do we help you do this other thing well?”
Laurila: Can you give an example?
Ecker: “We’ll look at a bunch of different areas. We can look at, is there something we can do to either increase or decrease the amount you hinge? Is there something we can do to increase or decrease the amount of spinal flexion you have? Is there something we can do to increase or decrease where your bat position starts? Can we shift pressure to the front side to give you some speed or adjustability to get under a sinker guy? Can we shift stride length against a high vert guy? These are what we would consider kind of level two, level three, PhD layers of offense.”
Laurila: What about movement profiles for handling off-speed pitches?
Ecker: “Once again, it goes back to honesty and foundational questions. If we have a rookie, it’s going to look different than with a guy who has eight years of sample size. At the end of the day, we’re trying to have the player answer the problems that show up the most. Do you hit breaking balls? Well, if you do, great; let’s learn what makes you great at that. But if you don’t, we need to address that.
“For me, everything starts with, ‘Are you training it?’ If you don’t do something well, and you’re not training it, there’s nothing else to the conversation. First things first. Let’s make sure we’re training the truth. Then, once you start training it, we have to find out what’s happening. Is it a problem where you don’t have adjustability to create length on breaking balls? Is there a perception issue? There are a lot of variables that could come into play.
“Again, it starts with, ‘Are you training it?’ If you hear, ‘No, I just like my flips and overhand BP,’ well, okay. We need to change that, or we need to accept that if you don’t study for a math test and keep getting D’s, that’s probabilistically what is supposed to happen. So no complaining. Otherwise, first things first — let’s change the training environment, and let’s see how the athlete responds to that training environment. If we start training just breaking balls, and he starts feeling certain things that help him get a breaking ball off the ground, that’s where we start really diving into what I’d call responsible.”
Laurila: A hitter has a fraction of a second to decide if, and how, to swing the bat. In a sense, you’re training the mind to recognize and react.
Ecker: “Everything is this relationship with our environment. The perception-action coupling that’s happening from home plate to the pitcher’s mound is so important. It’s why we’re always going to double down on maximizing space versus shrinking space.
“One good way to figure out how to be adjustable — how to brace on your lead leg, how to stay through a baseball — is to hit breaking balls from 65 feet. Then hit breaking balls from a further distance from the mound. Stuff like that.”
Laurila: Some guys self-identify as “made hitters” — J.D. Martinez is an example — while others were seemingly born to hit. What are your thoughts on innate skills versus trainable skills?
Ecker: “I think hitting is the messiest phase of any sport in the world. It’s such an open skill — there are so many variable complexities — and the more in-stadium data that we’re able to capture, the more we learn how unique it is in terms of guys solving problems. So I don’t know that I have a great answer for that question. But I do think it’s important to have something you believe in. From a macro-foundational standpoint, what do you believe in? What is your value system? From there, go get those types of players, and then trust what you do well in development. Try to blend those two things and be unapologetic about your process.
“We can learn from other silos, including sports, which do a great job of acquiring system employees/players. They don’t just draft ‘best athletes,’ they match scheme and personnel. Ninety-eight [mph] with two plus breaking balls probably matches everyone’s scheme, but what about the level below that, the not-so-obvious players? It’s an area in baseball that I am drawn to and curious about how it evolves in the future. It’s why you see the top NFL coaches having certain degrees of roster control contractually. It’s not a secret. They know their schemes best, and they know what they can clean up and what they can maximize. The low-hanging fruit is still in alignment, and how the departments mesh together to blend these decisions. That all circles back to knowing what you stand for, identifying what that looks like, and trusting what you have proven and not proven, objectively, to be able to produce in development.”
Laurila: We’ve ended up talking a lot about hitters’ movement profiles. Just how important is that?
Ecker: “It’s hard to say that any one thing is ‘most important,’ but like I said, there are three pillars we focus on. Movement is one of them. Path is number one, movement is number two — and movement influences path — while three is our game planning model.”
Laurila: How do you approach assessing and teaching path?
Ecker: “The way we think about path is that there are four things that show up the most: Four-seamers with vert, true sinkers, shapes moving into you, and shapes moving away from you. From that, how can we build you a path that has the highest level of forgiveness so that when you do miss, you miss in the air, on a line, with a high hit probability? Path forgiveness is something we talk a lot about here. We want to create a higher margin of error. Where we hit our foul balls means a lot to us. How we train that means a lot to us.”
Laurila: Let’s close with this: Give me a snapshot description of your philosophy.
Ecker: “Find out what your players do well, double down on it, be honest and responsible with the areas they need to improve, understand that early work is different than the playbook at 7 PM. Lastly, train. Play the game before you play the game. Why wouldn’t you?”
Earlier “Talks Hitting” interviews can found through these links: Jo Adell, Jeff Albert, Greg Allen, Nolan Arenado, Aaron Bates, Alex Bregman, Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, JJ Bleday, Bobby Bradley, Jay Bruce, Matt Chapman, Michael Chavis, Jacob Cruz, Nelson Cruz, Paul DeJong, Josh Donaldson, Brendan Donovan, Rick Eckstein, Drew Ferguson, Justin Foscue, Michael Fransoso, Ryan Fuller, Joey Gallo, Devlin Granberg, Andy Haines, Mitch Haniger, Robert Hassell III, Rhys Hoskins, Eric Hosmer, Tim Hyers, Josh Jung, Jimmy Kerr, Steven Kwan, Trevor Larnach, Doug Latta, Evan Longoria, Michael Lorenzen, Gavin Lux, Dave Magadan, Trey Mancini, Edgar Martinez, Don Mattingly, Hunter Mense, Ryan Mountcastle, Cedric Mullins, Daniel Murphy, Brent Rooker, Drew Saylor, Trevor Story, Fernando Tatis Jr., Justin Turner, Mark Trumbo, Josh VanMeter, Robert Van Scoyoc, Chris Valaika, Zac Veen, Mark Vientos, Matt Vierling, Luke Voit, Jared Walsh, Jordan Westburg, Jesse Winker, Nick Yorke, Kevin Youkilis.