2021 MLB Coach Of The Year: Donnie Ecker (San Francisco Giants)
Playing in the National League West with two teams—the Dodgers and Padres—that were expected to contend for a World Series title, the Giants shocked everyone by finishing with an MLB-best 107 wins.
That total was the most in Giants franchise history, earned by finishing second in the NL in runs scored and second in fewest runs allowed.
The Giants also got a bounceback season from 35-year-old Evan Longoria. Mike Yastrzemski continued to be a great bargain value. They even got production from unexpected sources such as Darin Ruf, Steven Duggar, Wilmer Flores, Austin Slater, LaMonte Wade Jr., Donovan Solano and Thairo Estrada. None were expected to be capable of playing big roles on a championship-caliber team.
Perhaps just as importantly, San Francisco had no hitters who truly underachieved. As a team, the Giants hunted fastballs and made teams pay when they found them, which is remarkable because the same hitters struggled versus fastballs two years ago.
The Giants trained differently than most teams by taking batting practice at full speed against pitching machines set up to attempt to replicate that night’s starting pitcher. Hitting coaches Donnie Ecker, Justin Viele and assistant coach Dustin Lind were able to help hitters make swing adjustments as needed.
But it’s not the mechanical help or the preparation that stands out to Ecker. It’s the relationships that developed, and those relationships helped hitters get the most out of their abilities.
“This all goes back to: Can you answer a question as a coach of, ‘Why do you coach?’ It’s to create as much value in their lives as possible,” Ecker said.
“Who is this person? How do they see the world? Why do they play? When we get to swing changes and path changes, if we do it from caring about the individual, it’s so much more enjoyable. It’s sustainable. You have this intimate trust in this player.”
For helping lead the Giants hitters to a bevy of career years, Ecker is our 2021 Major League Coach of the Year.
Less than a decade ago, Ecker was an assistant high school coach. He then became a high school head coach, a college coach and eventually a Cardinals minor league hitting coach. He became the Angels’ Triple-A hitting coach in 2018 and was set to be the team’s minor league hitting coordinator in 2019, but instead he was hired to be the Reds’ assistant hitting coach. A year later, he was hired to be the Giants’ hitting coach.
Over that past decade, Ecker studied biomechanics. But it was the work of Dr. Michael Gervais, a psychologist, that most shaped Ecker’s coaching approach. Gervais’ book “Pursuing Mastery” struck a chord with Ecker.
“He set me on a path to go figure it out for myself,” Ecker said.
It was those connections that Ecker points out created the environment where hitters could comfortably reach their best.
“We led the league in players working on their mental health. We created spaces for people to be open and vulnerable and talk,” Ecker said. “Are you getting the guy who knows he is in a safe place? We had healthy individuals who knew they were supported. If support is low, the challenge can’t be high.”
The Giants challenged their hitters, but as Ecker noted, it was done in a collaborative environment where the hitters themselves were a key part of the process.
“Players have ownership over everything,” Ecker said. “We support players more than we challenge them, and we collaborate where no one person’s idea is bigger than the sum of the parts. This award is a San Francisco Giants award. It’s excellent coaches and excellent players working together.”
At his retirement ceremony, Posey singled out the Giants’ hitting coaches for providing new information in an accessible manner.
“Those guys would do all the analytics work . . . and they had such a great way of relaying it to the players so that it wasn’t a burden,” said Posey, a former MVP, seven-time all-star and three-time World Series champion.
As influential as Ecker was with the Giants in 2021, he has already moved on. After the season, he left for a promotion. He is now a bench coach and offensive coordinator for the Rangers.
“It’s tough to leave. That was home for me. It’s a special place,” Ecker said.
“I knew some day I wanted to be part of a triangle like that,” Ecker said. “That environment that was created led me to want to take this opportunity (with Texas) and to try to create that environment for other people. It transformed me and inspired me.”
Getting Better All The Time
The Giants won 77 games in 2019 and 107 in 2021. Much of that improvement came from a dramatically improved lineup. The Giants improved from 14th in the National League in runs scored in 2019 to second in 2021. What's remarkable is how the Giants made that improvement without turning over the lineup.
There were nine Giants players who received 100 or more plate appearances in both 2019 and 2021. They accounted for 55% of the team’s total PAs in 2019 and 56% of the share in 2021. But even though that group increased in age from an average of 29.6 in 2019 to 31.6 in 2021, almost without fail, they were significantly more productive this year. They hit for a higher average, got on-base more and hit for more power while accounting for 81 more runs scored and 82 more RBIs.
|Player||2019 OPS+||2021 OPS+|
Combined stats for the nine returning Giants hitters