In six years, Donnie Ecker has gone from coaching the baseball team at Los Altos High, his alma mater, to landing the job of hitting coach for the San Francisco Giants.
Anyone wondering if such a rapid rise in the coaching ranks has gone to Ecker’s head may first want to see how he commutes to work each day. The 34-year-old leaves his San Francisco hotel on an electric scooter and rides nearly 2 miles to OraclePark, where the Giants opened summer camp July 3 to prepare for a shortened season set to start Thursday.
“The joke is that you have the dream job and the keys to the castle – and you ride a scooter to work,” Ecker said. “I’m low maintenance.”
It also says something about Ecker’s commitment to efficiency. There may not be a faster way to navigate a traffic-snarled city like San Francisco than on a motorized scooter, and Ecker needs every extra minute of the day he can possibly procure. As he learned during his prior stints in professional baseball – Ecker worked for the St. Louis Cardinals, the Los Angeles Angels and most recently the Cincinnati Reds – coaching is a grind.
“The dark side comes with the work level – it’s a 24/7 job – and there’s no time off in the summer,” he said. “It takes what it takes.”
Describing his typical day during the compressed training camp, Ecker said he gets up at approximately 4:30 a.m. to work on game planning and then analyzes video before coaching batters during the Giants’ three-a-day practices. He’s rarely in bed before midnight.
Not that Ecker is complaining. He’s all about the grind.
“I love it,” he said. “I’ve been obsessed with the process since my high school days.”
From player to coach
Ecker graduated from Los Altos in 2004 as a two-sport standout. That year he turned down a football scholarship from the University of Nevada, Reno, and the opportunity to sign with the Reds – who selected him in the 28th round of the MLB Draft – to instead play baseball at Long Beach State. After transferring to Santa Clara University and then Lewis-Clark State, Ecker was chosen by the Texas Rangers in the 22nd round of the 2007 draft and spent five years in the minor leagues.
He retired to pursue what may be his true calling: coaching. In particular, coaching hitters. Ecker’s modern-day approach to hitting incorporates technology and biomechanics with traditional methods.
“I was curious about the biomechanics of the swing when I was in high school and got a little experience working with the Stanford golf coach,” he said.
Ecker’s interest in the science of movement and how it could help batters only grew stronger, he added, and soon put him “far ahead of where baseball was.”
It wasn’t long before MLB organizations took notice. In 2015 – a year after Ecker left Los Altos after two seasons as head coach to become an assistant at Bakersfield College – the Cardinals hired him as part of their player development staff. After three years working as a hitting coach in their minor-league system, Ecker served in the same capacity for the Angels’ Triple-A team for one season. He moved up to the big leagues in 2019, hired as the Reds’ assistant hitting coach.
Ecker wasn’t looking to leave Cincinnati – that is, until the Giants called last fall.
“After Gabe Kapler got hired (as Giants manager) and was hand-picking his staff, I got a call from the Reds general manager and he said, ‘They want you to interview to be the head hitting coach,’” Ecker recalled. “I already had a few other calls (from other teams) and wasn’t interested because I was happy in Cincinnati, but this one was an easy yes.”
Securing the job wasn’t so easy, however. Over two weeks, Ecker said he was interviewed eight to 10 times and by eight departments. Kapler’s vetting process included calling coaches from as far back as high school.
“It was the most detailed and thorough process I’ve ever been through,” Ecker said.
The more Ecker got to know the Giants, the more he wanted to work for the team he grew up rooting for.
“I was excited about where the organization was going, whether I got the job or not,” he said. “I was impressed with people I was meeting and wanted to collaborate with every one of them.”
In December, Ecker and two other young coaches were hired to improve the hitting on a team that ranked near the bottom of the league in that category last year. Ecker and Justin Viele serve as co-hitting coaches; Dustin Lind is the assistant hitting coach and director of hitting.
Ecker is more than OK with sharing the duties.
“It’s really the dream scenario,” he said. “It’s been the No. 1 thing I’ve observed – that if I get to the highest level of offense, this is exactly the way I would run it. In the minors, you’re on your own. In the big leagues, you usually have one other person – and now there’s two. And they’re both like best friends to me – like brothers. It’s the greatest system. We communicate well, we’re on the same page and attacking this thing all together.”
Installing the offense
Ecker said their primary job is to help the Giants “score as many runs as possible,” and that requires an individualized approach.
“We don’t have a hitting philosophy,” he said. “We focus on what is best for the human in front of us. We give them the resources they need.”
Ecker had little time to work with the players in person during spring training, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, but said he regularly interacted with them and his fellow coaches over Zoom while camp was closed. Ecker also was able to focus more on revamping the offense.
“Selfishly, it’s been good for my particular role, coming in year one and installing an offense that’s new and getting to know people,” he said. “Never again in my career will I ever get four months to press pause, get to know people and install the system. It’s a way to work ahead.”
That work will endure its first true test Thursday night in Los Angeles when the Giants take on the rival Dodgers.
“We will be judged when the lights come on,” Ecker said.