Donnie Ecker

Giants coaches believe players can get ready for shortened MLB season

Giants coaches believe players can get ready for shortened MLB season

For a few weeks now players have been eyeing the first week of July, hopeful that Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association find a compromise that gets the game back on the field sometime around the time fireworks are scheduled to go off.

But every day that passes without a deal is one less day for the staff to potentially get players ready. At some point, that might lead to tension as teams look at the calendar, but for now the Giants still believe they have plenty of time to prepare for a shortened season. 

On last week's "Chalk Talk at Home," pitching coach Andrew Bailey and hitting coach Donnie Ecker said they're confident that Spring Training 2.0 can get their players ready in about three weeks. 

"I think it depends on where these guys are coming in," Bailey said. "I think we can do it in the three-week timespan. We may not be seeing a full workload, 100 pitches or whatever you see. I think that we still have to do some buildup there, but we can definitely get guys ready in that timeframe and be a little bit cautious with back-to-backs and different things and monitor (them). Ideally, the longer the better, for sure, on the pitching side of things."

Ecker said the hitting coaches -- himself, Justin Viele and Dustin Lind -- are looking at a similar timeframe, although they do have more wiggle room. 

"I think we need a lot less time from a physiological standpoint than pitchers do," he said. "The three week (schedule) is kind of a sweet spot for us to get enough live at-bats in."

While it takes some work to get your timing down, the Giants should have more than enough time to get their lineup ready. Buster Posey has often gone into a season with just a couple dozen at-bats under his belt, and the veteran-filled lineup is full of players who won't need much more than that if they're able to play games in their second spring. Pitching machines are so advanced these days that players are able to take unlimited hacks against machine-thrown breaking balls or 100 mph fastballs. Many of the team's veterans have posted clips on Instagram where they're hitting off machines at home. 

It's a bit more complicated for pitchers, but Bailey said he is starting to get calls from players who live in areas that have opened up to the point that you can throw live BP sessions and simulated games against hitters. The analytics staff put together a questionnaire that allows the Giants to track and log throwing programs on a daily basis. 

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Bailey is leaning on over-communicating, and the message from the staff has been to over-prepare if possible. Ideally, the Giants would like their pitchers to come in more stretched out than they normally would, giving them flexibility when games start. 

"We'll just get creative with our staff, our usage and make sure that their workloads are okay and healthy," Bailey said. "I think obviously winning is at the forefront of everybody's mind, but keeping our players healthy for 2020 is a priority of ours as well."

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How Giants are approaching hitting during coronavirus pandemic pause

How Giants are approaching hitting during coronavirus pandemic pause

A former graduate of Los Altos High School, Donnie Ecker was able to move back to his native Bay Area in taking the job as the Giants' new hitting coach. A lifelong fan of the San Francisco 49ers and the team he now works for, Ecker is quite pleased to be back among familiar surroundings, and while he admits there are certain downsides, the opportunity was one he couldn't pass up.

"It's a responsibility," Ecker described Thursday on KNBR's "Papa & Lund" podcast. "I think there can be a lot of outside noise when you come home. People you went to school with that you haven't talked to in 15 years are asking about season tickets. So, just managing some of the noise is a part of any job, but in this case, the way I've always described it is one of those responsibilities you dream of. And in this case, it's to play a part with an incredible staff to see if we can restore some of the excellence that has been here for so long."

Ecker had a few weeks to develop a familiarity with Giants hitters at the start of spring training in Arizona, but with the MLB season indefinitely paused due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, they've since been separated. So, how does the coaching staff operate given the current shelter-in-place guidelines?

In addition to utilizing the technology at their disposal, both coaches and players alike have been forced to get creative to find ways to work on hitting during this unprecedented time, and Ecker believes that process alone can have long-term benefits.

"As much as we're staying connected with guys and how important that is," Ecker said, "it has been great to step back and give them a platform to be really creative in their own sense. So, the way guys are training with their wives and they're finding ways to hit in the backyard and train, there's an element to that -- it's almost like being a child again in your backyard. And I think there are some really nice habits that can come out of that. So, it's a balance of staying on course and on schedule while also, you know, let's not miss the opportunity that's in front of us to be really creative."

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While Ecker and the players are making the best of the current situation, he knows there's a limit to how effectively they can mirror a true game environment. As such, the focus is more on overall fitness than hitting.

"We know that, no matter what, it's really difficult to replicate 98 miles an hour and 90 mph sliders," Ecker explained. "So, we really prioritize keeping our bodies in the best shape as we can, and just really leaning on Brad Lawson and our strength and conditioning team and our medical staff to keep these guys in really good shape, so that when we do come back, we're not spending our time ramping them up physiologically and we can kind of get back to work and hopefully accelerate that a little quicker."

When MLB does return -- and that's anyone's guess -- Ecker will be able to get back to work with his hitters and instruct them in person, rather than on the phone or over a video call. The Giants have a long way to go to catch up to the top offensive teams in the league, and it will partly fall on him to help get them there.

So, is there someone in particular he would like the hitters to model their swing after?

"We put Barry [Bonds] on a pedestal here," Ecker said with a chuckle. "The things he did were -- everything about it from game-planning to body mechanics to pitch selection -- it was as good as we have ever seen in the game."

Obviously, not everyone can swing it like the greatest power hitter of all time, so Ecker takes a more case-by-case approach, depending on the body composition and movement of the player in question.

"We would individualize based on how the guy moved, how long his arms were ... so finding comparable body levers is a really big deal. And then you're looking at movement capabilities. So, if a guy is a really stiff mover like a Mike Trout, we may have him model and look after certain guys who move that way. Or, if he's a really loose, long-lever, high-flexibility guy, we may have that guy model his move and his swing after somebody that's more comparable."

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Hopefully, Ecker and the Giants' hitters can re-commence that process sooner rather than later.