February 26, 2020 was about six lifetimes ago for most of us. Just a few tiny things have happened since then: a global pandemic, roiling racial injustice protests, a nation torn apart. You know, small stuff.
But 2/26/20 is the subject of today’s Jock Blog, because it was the day the ‘Murph and Mac’ show was in Scottsdale and the day we interviewed new Giants hitting coach, Donnie Ecker.
Ecker was a nice guy. Self-effacing. Soft-spoken. A local kid, from Los Altos High. Good athlete. Could have played QB at Nevada-Reno, but chose to play baseball at Long Beach State. Got drafted by the Rangers. Said he knew he’d never make it when a young Madison Bumgarner blew 97 mph cheese and some sliders past him in three pitches one night in the minors.
Little did we know that we were talking to the man who would have his fingerprints on maybe the only good thing to happen in 2020:
The discovery of hitting the baseball for the San Francisco Giants.
The Giants, sports fans, can hit.
(Shout out Marty Lurie.)
The Giants, sports fans, used to not be able to hit.
Which is an understatement.
Here are a few helpful data points. I know, I know. Before you tell me that my black-and-white TV with Mel Allen’s “This Week In Baseball” is useless because Mel never mentioned wRC+, or wOBA, I think we can all reach a peaceful agreement that hits are good, home runs are good and runs are really, really good.
So, using those Pleistocene Epoch bench marks — runs, hits, HRs — check out what Donnie Ecker and his crew, including Justin Viele and Dustin Lind, have done.
Let’s use the years 2017-2020 as our measure, since the Giants last made the playoffs in 2016. Since that playoff season, here is how it looks, rankings out of 30 MLB teams:
2017 — 30th
2018 — 29th
2019 — 26th
2020 — (tie) 12th
Pret-ty, pret-ty good.
2017 — 19th
2018 — 22nd
2019 — 25th
2020 — 1st
Leading MLB in hits! Holy Bill Terry, Batman!
2017 — 29th
2018 — 29th
2019 — 28th
2020 — 3rd
As noted hitting expert Drake once noted: started from the bottom, now we’re here.
These improvements are not slight. They are drastic.
These are your ‘Swingin’ SF Giants’, kids.
I am among those who was mightily skeptical that Gabe Kapler’s staff of 13 unproven coaches — well, 12 unproven coaches, because Ron Wotus has bling — would reinvent the wheel we call baseball.
And I’m not saying the Giants are the Big Red Machine. But what I am saying is that the work of Ecker and his staff is mighty. Of course, credit also goes to Farhan (Lumber Machine) Zaidi for bringing in Mike Yastrzemski and Alex Dickerson and Wilmer Flores and Donovan Solano. Those guys can hit. (Shout out Marty Lurie.) And credit goes to Kapler for figuring out how to get production out of veterans like Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt, who had been part of those non-productive offenses. Both Crawford and Belt are currently rocking career-high marks in OPS.
But that February day in Scottsdale, Ecker laid out his life story for us (at much prodding) and told us that he had a passion to be “elite at one thing in life.” He told us how the Bruce Bochy/World Series success with the Giants reminded him that the Giants and the Bay Area fan base can be a powerful thing together, something he wanted to be a part of.
I listened to the interview again, and his passion to conquer biomechanics and how the human body moves is his stated goal. He says it is a “complex puzzle”, and that he wants to use what he has learned to “create solutions for players, and add value to their lives.” He told us his study of hitting comes down to the things he can see — how the body moves in the swing, how the bat moves in the swing, and how the ball comes off the bat. He told us they can “reverse engineer” how the ball comes off the bat all the way down to something as simple as “early toe pressure” to change ball flight.
I know. It sounds like you just fell asleep in high school physics. I hear ya.
But, I am also here to say that, through 38 pandemically-odd games, it is working.
The proof isn’t in the pudding. The proof is in the raking.
So let’s tip a cap to that February morning in Scottsdale. We met a coach, and he is apparently a good coach. The Giants are hitting. Turns out listening to KNBR is good for your brain.