When the Washington Nationals struggled offensively to begin the 2021 season as several Nats players slumped out of the gates, it did not take long for people to call for Kevin Long to be fired as the team’s hitting coach. Not only was Long not fired, his offense turned in a good season in a few key categories like batting average (1st in NL at .258) and strikeout avoidance (1st in NL at 1,303). But there were some stress areas of failures like doubleplays (worst in MLB at 158), runners left-on-base (worst in MLB at 1,168), and home runs (9th worst in MLB at 182).
What makes the offensive numbers even better is that the team traded away four key offensive pieces mid-season as Trea Turner, Kyle Schwarber, Yan Gomes and Josh Harrison were all gone by July 30 as well as losing Starling Castro to a season-ending suspension on July 11. Those aforementioned stats were accomplished with less than two-thirds of a season with those players gone. After the trade deadline, the team’s offense looked like it would be just Juan Soto and Josh Bell mixed in with a bunch of minor leaguers, and the stats showed that the offense was more consistent and improved after the trade deadline scoring 4.68 runs per game compared to 4.38 runs per game before the deadline. Soto got scorching hot in the second half of the season, and some of the newly acquired players contributed to the offense like Lane Thomas and Keibert Ruiz.
So often for coaches, they are judged by results instead of the proven talent they have, which is out of their control. It is always a question of the successes and failures and more about is this the common success or failure based on the quality of the student or the teacher. Honestly, it is a lot of both. Personally, I was always a big supporter of Long as being one of the best hitting coaches in the league, but for some reason, the team did not want to tie him up long-term and sources told us he was often looking for large pay increases. After the 2020 season, it was rumored that Long was looking to leave for higher pay. Some in the media painted him as gone, but through our sources we said that was not the case. Long returned for the 2021 season on a one-year deal. Given the same opportunity to look around for a new job after the 2021 season ended, Long has reportedly accepted a job with the Philadelphia Phillies.
The irony is that Long will work on Joe Girardi‘s staff, and it was Girardi who Long worked for in 2014 with the Yankees when he was fired. Girardi himself is on the hot seat as the Phillies last week rejected his 2023 team option putting Girardi out there as a lame duck manager for the 2022 season. Also, the Phillies recently fired Joe Dillon as their hitting coach, and it was Dillon who was Long’s assistant coach with the Nats. Further, there was the argument between Girardi and Long on June 23rd when Girardi challenged Max Scherzer for using a sticky substance. There seemed to be no love lost between Girardi and Long making their reunion in Philadelphia even stranger, but as they say, money changes many things. How things will end there will be something to be seen.
— Britt Ghiroli (@Britt_Ghiroli) June 23, 2021
You have to think the Nats could have paid up to keep Long, so clearly there were some other dynamics in-play here. Long and Soto had a special relationship. Our photographer captured an embrace at the end of the 2020 season between the pair, and of course Soto chose Long as his Home Run Derby pitcher as well as the pair last week traveled to Los Angeles to watch the Dodgers’ Wild Card game together as “fans”.
While Soto had one of the best seasons of his young career this year, he struggled getting the ball in the air at times. A few stats that boggle the mind is that Soto hit into 23 doubleplays which is more than he accumulated in his entire career plus his postseason. Soto’s HR rate was the lowest of his career at 4.4% compared to 6.6% last year. Fortunately for Soto, he went on a HR surge after his HR Derby appearance to raise his final numbers to 4.4%. Soto had only 11 home runs before the HR Derby, and hit 18 afterwards in only 72 games played.
As we dig into Soto’s launch angle, he hit at a 12.5° launch angle in 2019 to only 5.8° launch angle in 2021, however his “hard hit” percentage was the highest of his career in 2021 at an impressive 52.7%. There is no doubt that if Soto’s launch angle was higher as an overall average, he would have hit more home runs in 2021. In total, he only had 29 home runs in 2021.
While most of the focus will be on Soto in regards to a new hitting coach for 2022, there are other players to consider also. What was also impressive was Long’s work ethic. As the team made new acquisitions before the season, Long was making house calls and meet-ups with players like Schwarber and Bell in the off-season, and he seemed to fix both players by studying their video from season’s of success and replicating that. He got Schwarber to get a good knee bend that had him looking like former pupil Daniel Murphy and it transformed Schwarber into a lethal weapon from June 12 to June 29 when he blasted 16 home runs in that span and set several records. Days afterwards, Schwarber injured his hamstring and that changed everything. On May 12th, Bell was batting .133. He started his season in a deep slump, and then finished on a nice run at a .287/ .375/ .513/ .889. It was a nice bounceback season for Bell who fell off the table with the Pirates in 2020 as he batted just .226 with a .669 OPS. Bell is a notorious bad starter and has hit .234 in his career in the month of April. Keep in mind that the 2020 season was just 60 games.
But there were players who Long could not fix like Victor Robles, Carter Kieboom, and Andrew Stevenson. Robles batted .203 on the season, Kieboom at .207, and Stevenson during games he started hit .184. Those three were part of the problem, but Stevenson hit .347 as a pinch-hitter. Each player had some glimpses of hope in 2021, but the overall picture was not good for those three and once again you ask, was this more an issue of bad students versus a bad teacher?
Certainly there were plenty of reasons to be optimistic about what Long’s students accomplished, and now there will be a new voice coming as the Nats search for a new hitting coach. Could they choose Joe Dillon or look to someone new?