Was Firing Rick Eckstein the Right Move

 

With the Nats continuing to suffer and fade winning two of their last ten games and having no wins after the All-Star Break the rabble was thirsty for blood. The angry denizens of Natstown demanded a sacrifice and so Mike Rizzo served them Rick Eckstein. Perhaps Eckstein wasn't the issue, and the move was only a ceremonial showing of doing something because doing nothing won't be accepted. To say there aren't problems with the offense is to ignore large issues with the Nationals, but to say it is the starters fault is faulty. 

The Nats are an odd collection of players and for more on that you should read O'Hara's piece on the Nats bench woes, but there are issues with the Nats starting position players. June was the Nats best scoring month. They averaged over four runs a game and had five starting position players with an over .800 OPS. They haven't had more than three in any other month, and in July the only plus performers are Jayson Werth and Wilson Ramos with a 1.152 and .902 OPS respectively. The Next closest is Anthony Rendon at .692. That is a bit of a problem. For every month of the season the Nats have had one or two position players hitting the cover off the ball and the rest looking meek and useless at the plate.   

One reason the Nationals may be so poor in these situations is that they do not walk. The 2013 Washington Nationals have the second lowest OBP in the NL at .300 and the sixth fewest walks. As of right now Harper is in a slump since returning from the DL but his OBP is .333. So even though Harper isn't hitting or hitting for much power he is still getting on base in a third of his at bats. When other Nats slump they don't get on base and this leaves no one for the few hot players to drive in. The average number of solo homers for a baseball team is 60%. The Nats are a tick above that at 63%. If the Nats players had more of an ability to take what the game gave them and were willing to take more walks when slumping then the slumps wouldn't be as dreadful as Adam LaRoche's .213 OBP in April or Ian Desmond's .273 OBP in May.  

Baseball is a game of inconsistency, but when the valleys are this low and the peaks so spread out it makes it hard to have any sort of consistent offensive threat. Teams are prone to slumps; and the Nationals even more so. There are other issues with the Nats when it comes to hitting in certain situations. Some of this is situational hitting, but most of it is smart hitting. No matter if there are runners on base, men in scoring position, or if a batter is ahead in the count the approach shouldn't change. Look for a pitch to drive and drive it somewhere. If that pitch doesn't come take what the game gives whether it is a walk or the batter simply trying to do what he can with the pitch that is offered. The Nats are below the major league average in most situations.  

To understand one of the Nats main issues one needs only to watch them approach an at bat when they get ahead in the count. They look like robots, swinging because the count says they should swing, and their team .893 OPS looks good on paper, but in comparison to league average of .952 it is not good. When the Nats are behind in the count or the count is even their numbers are right around league average, but when they get ahead in the count they are far off. Another area where they are far off is when they fall behind in the game. When trailing the Nationals have a .620 OPS which is well below the NL average of .688. Guess what though? The Nationals when ahead have a .720 OPS and when tied .722. Those numbers are right around the NL average of .721 and .714. The Nationals are an average hitting team when the count is even or in the pitcher's favor and when the score is tied or they have the lead. They are below average when they are ahead in the count and when the score is not in their favor.  

 This is an oddity and it speaks to a philosophical problem. Either Eckstein or Davey Johnson needed to tell the players to approach every situation the same. To relax and wait for their pitch to drive it somewhere and they did tell them this. Eckstein and Davey preach a philosophy they like to call being patiently aggressive. In other words nothing different than any other hitting instructor would tell them. Wait for your pitch and drive it. Except they said it a different way, and often times critics of the Nationals offensive approach would complain that they were too aggressive. This cannot be further from the truth. If anything the Nationals are too passive at the plate. So far in 2013 they have seen the third most pitches in the strike zone and have swung at the 25th fewest. The Nats are prone to taking pitches early in the count to attempt to work the count and end up putting themselves in a hole. The average NL team has put the ball in play on 407 first pitches, the Nats 380.

The Nats are not the overly aggressive team everyone thinks they are at the plate. They took the idea of being patiently aggressive and swung too far to the passive side. They are not at the plate looking for a pitch to drive and then driving it. They are trying to work the count and then when they are ahead in the count they swing because they think they should swing. On 3-0 counts the average NL team has put the ball in play six times, the Nationals ten. Why? Because they are thinking they are going to get a pitch to hit, but of those ten balls they have put in play only one has been a hit. It is a mechanical and robotic approach.

The Nats need to simplify their hitting approach to see ball, hit ball. Look for a pitch up in the zone and drive it somewhere. They Nats are a team that doesn't hit well when ahead in the count, when behind in the game, and they let too many pitches in the zone go by. A simple approach of waiting for and recognizing a pitch they can drive and then driving it is what the team needs. They haven't done that. Instead they have hit to the count and been susceptible to being pitched backwards. Rick Schu's philosophy want be any different from Rick Eckstein's or the 29 other hitting coaches in baseball, but maybe he can phrase the message in a manner that will get through to the Nationals hitters and they will stop being robotic and start swinging at pitches they can drive and stop swinging at the ones they can't no matter what the count is.  

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