By Mike Wysocki
Pittsburgh Current Baseball Writer
The Pittsburgh Lumber Company, Part Deux is putting on a show across National League ballparks this season.
The Pittsburgh Pirates’ unexplained offensive explosion can only be explained in one of three ways:
- Everybody on the team just happens to be having a career year.
- Everybody on the team is taking performance-enhancing drugs in an age when it’s nearly impossible to do so. Or,
- New hitting coach Rick Eckstein has been worth every penny he’s being paid.
In the month of June, the Pirates hit .288 as a team. It’s the best in the senior circuit and second only to the resurging World Champion Boston Red Sox. Even more impressive is that the team’s .271 team batting average for the first half of the season is also first in the National League and third in the entire league. July has also been off to a hot start. In seven games against the Cubs and Brewers, the team is hitting .343 with 56 runs and 87 hits including 13 homers and 20 doubles. All of those stats are the best in the entire league.
Little League coaches always spout of cliches like, “Just meet the ball,” “A walk is as good as a hit,” and “Everybody hits.” The first two might be crap, but the Bucs are taking the last one and running with it. The Pirates roster consists of twelve position players and right before the All-Star break, seven of those players are hitting .300 or better. Corey Dickerson, rookies Bryan Reynolds and Kevin Newman, back up catcher Jacob Stallings, journeyman Melky Cabrerra, pinch-hitting specialist (with three pinch dingers) Jose Osuna, and Major league RBI leader and budding superstar Josh Bell rounds out the .300 Club. Even pitcher Steven Brault is hitting .316 and is a viable late-inning pinch hitter for Clint Hurdle.
That means there are five losers on the team that aren’t members of this club. Starling Marte can be forgiven because he has 12 homers and 13 stolen bases and is a career .286 hitter. Despite a really slow start, Adam Frazier started off the recent Cubs series by going 9 for 10. Including walloping four doubles in a single game. The last time a Bucco pulled that off was when Paul Waner did it in 1932. Fraizer is now hitting .287 and hit .600 in July.
Colin Moran has established himself as an everyday big leaguer. He’s hitting in the .280’s and could be in the 300 club after the break. Elias Diaz has replaced the forever-injured Francisco Cervelli. He can be forgiven for missing the mark because not many catchers hit .300. Jason Kendall, Don Slaught, and Manny Sanguillen have done it, but it’s been awhile. All the players mentioned in this paragraph are all hitting .276 or better; incredible.
The only players not hitting over .276 are on the injured list. Cervelli, Polanco, and Erik Gonzalez. The only non-impressive active hitter is Jung Ho Kang. But in his defense, he missed an entire season and hasn’t had many at bats. Even he has slugged seven home runs in limited appearances. Making a hefty (by Pirates standards) $5 million salary is keeping him around. But his defensive versatility and power strikes make him somewhat valuable.
Coming into the season everyone was excited about what should have been a very good Pirates rotation. Injuries to all of them has killed that early hope, but nobody saw this offense happening.
So that leads us to one question. Who is Rick Eckstein? Yeah, up until a couple of days ago, I didn’t know either. He is the brother of former big leaguer David Eckstein and was the hitting coach for the Washington Nationals up until 2013. He worked with Bryce Harper, Wilson Ramos, and Ryan Zimmerman. In 2014 he was the hitting coach for Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, and the California Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, or whatever they’re called this year. He did some scouting for a few years before getting back into the dugout this season. It turns out, he knows what he’s doing.
The Pirates have two legitimate Rookie of the Year Candidates, the breakout of All-Star Josh Bell (a potential MVP sleeper) and clutch pinch-hitting for the first time since anyone can remember. All of this success has to be attributed, at least partially, to the new guy.