Washington Nationals’ manager Davey Martinez pointed to Darnell Coles’ “great rapport with both veterans and young players,” and, “... thorough understanding of the analytics that we would like to incorporate,” as two of the factors which made him the right pick, when it came time to pick a new hitting coach in the nation’s capital.
“We are very excited to add Darnell Coles as our hitting coach,” Martinez said in the club’s press release on the signing.
“We align on hitting philosophy, process, and focusing on the here and now. He’s not only an outstanding hitting coach, but a great baseball man.”
Coles served as a roving hitting instructor, hitting coach, and manager in the minors when he was part of the Nationals’ organization between 2006-2009, then left for a new job as a hitting coordinator and manager in the Milwaukee Brewers’ organization (2010-13).
He was hired by the Detroit Tigers as an assistant hitting coach in the majors in 2014, then was the hitting coach for the Brewers in 2015-18, before joining the Arizona D-backs in the same role between 2019-21.
What does Coles, 59, see as his own strengths as a hitting coach?
“Well, I would say, one, communicating,” Coles told reporters in an introductory Zoom call with reporters on Monday.
“You have to be able to communicate and get your message across, whatever that message is. You’ve got to be able to, two, be a good listener, you’ve got to be able to understand and listen to what a player is going through, having gone through it, and then be able to evaluate that information so that you can come up with a plan that makes sense. But again, the player has got to have a lot do with what’s going on, just based on the fact that what he’s feeling and what I’m seeing may be two totally different things, and I’ve got to make sure that, one, he trusts me, two, that I can understand exactly what he’s going through, three, I can convey my message to him as to where I think the breakdown issues are, and then come up with a formative plan that’s going to make sense and that’s going to allow him to A: Be confident and comfortable, and B: be able to compete on a nightly basis.”
Coles is inheriting the core of the roster that led the National League in average in the 2021 campaign, with a .258 AVG as a team, had the lowest total strikeouts (1,303) and K% (21.3%), and the second-lowest swinging strike percentage (10.3%). Is that something that he thinks he can work with?
“I think that the consistency of guys understanding the strike zone allows us to not strike out as much,” he said. “It’s when guys swing at pitches on the edges, and we’re chasing, and we’re not aligned with understanding what the pitcher is trying to do. So we’re game- planning, we’re always trying to make sure that our guys understand what the other guy is trying to do to them, and the big picture, as a group, and again, in the framework of our big picture, they’re going to pitch Juan [Soto] different than they are the masses of our team.
“So we’ve got to understand that in some instances, the general scouting report works for the group, but then in other instances, we got to make sure that Juan has a better idea as to what those two or three things that he’s looking for and allow that to kind of translate how we attack hitters, or how we understand pitchers are attacking us.”
As he explained, it’s not just a matter of coaches feeding players information before and during games, but also about them helping one another.
“Sharing information,” the 14-year major league veteran said. “When you come back from the batter’s box, ’Oh, this guy’s heater [has] got a little bit more run, a little more sink,’ that sort of thing, so it’s passing the baton to the next guy and allowing him to do his job, but I think overall the offense is in a good place.
“I think we don’t strike out a lot, but the consistency of allowing the pitcher to hang himself, we’ve got to do a better job of doing that. I think sometimes we can be a little over-aggressive in situations where we can be less aggressive and force the pitcher into a corner and force him into a mistake instead of us being over-aggressive and letting him off the hook.”
What stats does he look at to assess how his hitters are doing?
“I look at the swing percentage,” Coles said. “How much are we swinging? Are we making consistent contact when we’re swinging? Are we chasing? So that means are we swinging at balls a little elevated, are we swinging at balls a little in-off, are we swinging at balls down in the strike zone? What are we doing when we get to two strikes, are we able to compete and put a good at-bat together? At the end of the day, that allows us to consistently get a feel for if you’re swinging a lot and you’re having success, then we’re in a good spot, and there’s not a whole lot that anyone can say. If you’re swinging a lot and now you’re starting to chase, then now you’re not allowing yourself to walk and then that becomes a problem, because now you’re on-base percentage goes down, you’re not passing the baton to the next guy, and it doesn’t lead to a cohesive offense.”
“Now it may lead to an occasional home run in the air to the pull side,” he continued.
“But I think what our guys have got to understand — and I know they will — is that our offense is predicated on hitting a pitch that you feel like you can attack and get a good swing off of, but that’s predicated on you allowing the pitch to dictate, or the location of the pitch to dictate where you’re hitting the ball, and no predetermined swings. So these guys — we’ll sit down, we’ll talk about it, we’ll go over the analytics, and each individual guy, I’ll sit with them and say, ‘What analytics makes the most sense to you?’ And then we’ll have our version of, ‘I can appreciate that, but we want to add one or two or maybe subtract one or two that make the most sense,’ because I just want to make sure these guys get everything they need so we can compete on a nightly basis, especially when you’re in a division where you’ve got [Jacob] deGrom and some of these other pitchers, where you may only get one or two opportunities a game to get these guys and we’ve got to make sure that we’re on it, that we got to make sure that these guys understand the consistency of battling and not giving away at-bats, not giving away pitches, so that we can force the pitcher into a corner so that it allows our offense to cohesively stay where it needs to be and I think that this is a great offense.”