Washington Nationals’ Hitting Coach Kevin Long, who’s expected to be back for a third year on the bench in the nation’s capital in 2020, has now been a part of three clubs that went a long way in October.
Before Game 7 of the World Series last month, Nats’ skipper Davey Martinez was asked what kind of asset the veteran coach has been since he was hired as part of his staff, and how the one-time New York Yankees and New York Mets’ hitting coach has been able to work with an assortment of players, young and old, to get the most out of the Nationals’ hitters.
“He’s been awesome, he really has,” Martinez said. “The big thing with K-Long is he’s very information -- information overload. Very on top of everything, and very studious. Gives players, hitters all the information they need. But yet he makes it fun for the boys. They get together in the cage and he’s got all these little things that he does with them to kind of keep them loose and make it fun for them.”
It’s not all fun and games, of course, as the second-year manager explained.
“He pays attention to detail and he treats each hitter individually. A lot of times you get caught up on just trying to teach one specific thing.
“But every hitter is different. And he understands that and he gets the most out of each hitter.”
“I think he does a really good job of knowing what each person -- kind of what makes each person tick, and he uses that to his advantage,” Ryan Zimmerman told reporters when the veteran infielder was asked about Long tailoring his approach for each hitter.
“His personality, his enthusiasm, his positivity every day, it’s enviable,” Zimmerman added.
“I think what Kevin does so well, he’s positive, he’s there every day, he’s ready to work, and he let’s you be you,” the 35-year-old, 15-year veteran continued.
“There’s no right way to hit a baseball. There’s no right way to get ready to hit a baseball.
“That’s the beautiful thing. You can do it however you want to do it. And if it works, that’s how you do it.
“So as a hitting coach I think you have your theories and your ways that you think are right, but I think what K-Long does so well is he learns each person individually and basically teaches to their strengths.
“When you feel like you have no chance, you go down there and he talks crap to you, and somehow makes you go out there and believe you can get two hits that night.
“And I think that’s part of -- honestly, maybe not part of — more of the hitting coach’s job at this level than anything else.
“We’ve all been hitting them pretty much the same way our whole career. And when you make it to this level you can use some help and you have little things.
“But I’ve always said, this is your career. It’s not Kevin Long’s career. If I don’t get hits it’s not K-Long’s fault. As a big league player you should prepare yourself to hit.”
With Long in charge, as Zimmerman and Martinez said, the hitters will be prepared.
Long, veteran infielder Howie Kendrick said, played a big part in what ended up being a real bounce-back season in D.C. after he’d suffered a torn Achilles tendon early in 2018, and the work he did with his coach began as soon as Long was hired by the Nationals.
“I’m just trying to get smarter,” Kendrick explained, when asked about the work he’d done to keep hitting like he has throughout his career and especially over the last few seasons.
What is behind his “late career” success?
“Making adjustments, I would say, is the biggest thing,” Kendrick told reporters last month.
“Trying to be more efficient with my body and my swing. Kevin Long is a big part of that. Kevin lives out in Phoenix, and I live in Phoenix. It’s funny because the first time we met, I said to him, ‘Hey, what can I do to get better?’ He had a list. Like he had wrote down on a pad of paper. I wasn’t expecting it. This was the first time I had ever hit with him.
“He had this sheet of paper. He goes, all right. This is what I know about you. This is what you hit with this, this, and this.
‘We got to work from there. Being here with Dusty [Baker], I always wanted to play with Dusty Baker when I came over here. I loved the city. I love being here. I love the team, and I re-signed for two years. Last year was bittersweet because I got off to a good start and ruptured my Achilles. Having the ability to come back this year and be a part of this team and to be with the guys in the locker room, that was huge. Me and Kevin and [Assistant Hitting Coach] Joe Dillon, we got to continue the process that we’d already started with my hitting, and I just trusted them and stuck with it. They just helped me get better at a time when I really needed to.”
Kendrick ended up putting up a .344/.395/.572 line in 2019, with 23 doubles and 17 homers in 121 games and 370 plate appearances. Kendrick had a .286/.328/.444 line with two home runs and four doubles in 17 games and 67 PAs in the postseason, earning the NLCS MVP.
The Nationals, as a team, finished the regular season with a franchise-best 231 home runs on the year, and, “had eight players with at least 17 home runs, the most of any club in the National League,” and, “... 10 players with at least 12 home runs, tied with the Los Angeles Dodgers for the most in the National League,” as the organization noted in their Season in Review.
Their .265/.342/.454 combined line was good for 1st(tied)/1st/3rd across the line among NL teams this past season, their 78.9% Contact% (the number of pitches on which contact was made/Swings) led all NL teams, their Z-Contact% (the number of pitches on which contact was made on pitches inside the zone / Swings on pitches inside the zone) was the NL’s best as well (87.5%), and they also had the lowest (9.5%) Swinging Strike Percentage (swings and misses/total pitches) among National League teams, as well as the second lowest strikeout total in the NL.
“I always tell our guys, ‘If you don’t swing at a strike, I can’t evaluate your swing,’” Long told St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Derrick Goold during the World Series.
“I won’t even discuss their swing until they decide they’re going to swing at strikes,” he said.
That discipline seems to have played some part in the Nationals’ success in two out at bats, with their .262 AVG with two outs and runners in scoring position the 6th best in the majors in 2019, their .365 OBP in those situations the best in the majors, and their .464 SLG third-best among major league teams.
“I think it’s just the mentality of this team and this lineup. You don’t see it all the time,” Long told Washington Post writer Chelsea Janes in late October.
“But you just get the feeling with this team that when it’s late in the game or when there’s two outs, somebody’s going to do something special.”
They did so time and again throughout the regular season and postseason on the way to a World Series win.