Hard work pays off for Kyle Schwarber and another testament to hitting coach to Kevin Long!

Kevin Long with Daniel Murphy. Photo by Lee Heiman for TalkNats

This success by Kyle Schwarber with 15 home runs in 17 days is a result of hard work and sticking with the process. When Daniel Murphy was with the Mets, he also went through a transformation with the same hitting coach, Kevin Long, who has been working with Schwarber since mid-January. Murphy and Long both moved to the Washington Nationals, and Murphy’s success gave confidence to other players to put their trust in Long.

While Long has been criticized for going for power at the expense of strikeouts, he has made it clear that he does not teach “launch angle” hitting rather he teaches BLD (boring line drives). In fact, Murphy struck out less than 10% of his plate appearances in 2016, his best season of his career, and in 2015 he only K’d 38 times and walked 31 times.

Long is really just anti-groundball. He is always quick to spit out the “.220 stat” which used to be the BABIP (batting average) of ground balls, and that average has dropped further as teams keep improving where their infielders are positioned against groundballs.  In Long’s lexicon, groundballs are a dirty word. He wants his hitters to keep balls off the infield dirt and get them in the air where the success rate is much higher — and in particular — he wants line drives.

Shortly after Schwarber signed with general manager Mike Rizzo in January, Long made a phone call to the former Cubs’ slugger.

“He reached out after I signed and just congratulated me,” the 27-year-old outfielder said. “And we started talking about hitting, and he just mentioned about coming [to Tampa] and I said, ‘Come out whenever.’ I’m like, ‘Let’s go. I’m ready.’ He was like, ‘Alright, I’ll be there in like three days.”

Fireworks started early for Schwarber whose first two home runs for the Nats were walk-offs, but the game before that second walk-off on April 30th, the slugger was struggling and only batting .186  with a .238 OBP, .305 slug, and a pathetic .543 OPS. He was looking like a bust, and the fans were frustrated. But Schwarber kept with the plan with the encouragement of Long who flew to Tampa in January and got Schwarber “squatty” in his stance.

“He just showed up,” Schwarber continued. “So it was great, and he came with a lot of good things for me, and the best thing is the hitting stance, everybody wants to kind of think it’s a new thing. It’s really not. You kind of look back in my past where even in college [at Indiana] and early years of Minor League baseball — I was a squatty guy. It’s kind of getting back to who I was and going back to the basics there.”

To be honest, Schwarber didn’t look natural at first in that squat. It looked forced. Over time, the leftfielder started to look comfortable and he had games he would lock-in. It was in Arizona in mid-May where Schwarber was looking like Murphy. Today, Schwarber’s OPS is .906 and the largest increase in the Majors of over .350 points.

After last night, Mets sites were dubbing Schwarber as the new “Mets Killer” taking the crown from Murphy. The Nats new lead-off hitter has 15 home runs in a 17 game span. He is setting records along the way.  With his hot streak, Schwarber has propelled the Nats into the playoff picture and dealt a serious blow to the Mets. The Nats have now taken 5 of 8 games from the Mets this season, and pulled 3.0 games behind them for 1st place.

“I’m not going up there trying to hit home runs,” Schwarber said after crushing two bombs last night. “It’s definitely a good feeling. I wouldn’t say that I haven’t felt locked in before, but the home runs, sure, that’s definitely been a little surprise, but I just want to keep doing the consistent work day in and day out.”

Schwarber said that Long came to meet him in Tampa Bay in January. The Nats’ hitting coach is a hard worker and was prepared and had watched hours of video including clips from Schwarber’s horrific 2020 season where he finished at a .188 batting average and a non-power hitter slugging percentage of .393 and an almost charitable 0.4 WAR. It was further proof to many that Schwarber was a bust and Rizzo wasted $10 million of ownership’s money.

Keep in mind that Schwarber was the 1st round pick (4th overall) in 2014 and he quickly became a Cubs legend and World Series hero, but the team from Chicago cut him loose as they were slashing payroll.

But it was the hard work of Long, and the Nats analytics staff with the confidence that Rizzo had to believe they could fix Schwarber and that is why the Nats signed him.

“Now I’m just giving myself a better chance to stay behind the baseball, and doing that. Working with Kevin … it’s been fantastic,” Schwarber said.

The hard work and perseverance has paid off, however it was the belief to stick with the process when you’re batting .186 that is paying off now. Many players give up too early, and you see it happen too often. You can see Josh Bell turning things around.

The work is being put in with Long and Juan Soto too. He has become a groundball machine of late, and when he gets the ball in the air, there is too much top spin like we saw on his double in the first inning.

The question has been asked over and over if the elbow pain or the shoulder strain that put him on the 10-day IL earlier in this season are the root causes for the power zap?

“Not at all, not at all,” Soto said. “It’s never been an issue for me. Like I said to the guys, the only way my shoulder hurts is when I throw. When I swing, it feels great. They think maybe, but for me personally, I don’t think there’s been any issues.”

Soto spoke to these issues yesterday, and said he is working on it. He is trying to be a positive for this team any way he can, even if that means he is not hitting home runs. There are other parts of his game.

“It’s not a lot of homers for me,” Soto said. “I’m just trying to get on-base and let guys drive me in. … Right now, that’s my mindset to just try to help the team as much as I can. Whenever I have a ‘get them over,’ ‘get them in,’ whatever, I just try to do it.”

Hitting is always a work-in-progress because when you have success, you have to adjust to the pitchers who try to find new ways to give themselves an advantage. When you are struggling, you do the work to improve. It is continual perpetual motion and yes, sometimes it is mind over matter. Soto did not forget how to hit, and there are over 600 guys in MLB right now who would love to have Soto’s .396 OBP and his .824 OPS. But for Soto standards, this isn’t good enough for him.

“It’s really tough for me because some balls I just square up, and it’s going right into the ground,” Soto continued about his increased groundball rate. “Like we talk with the guys — a homer on the ground. It’s just tough for me, but I feel good, because I squared up the ball. I just try to put the ball in the air and do my best.”

So yes, Soto needs more launch angle but the key is getting back to boring line drives like he smashed in the first inning. The home runs will come after that. It is a process, an evolution. Stick with it.

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