All was quiet on the Washington Nationals coaching moves to fill their vacancies for base coaches. However, news did leak that the team will be hiring Darnell Coles as their new hitting coach and [UPDATED] as of a few minutes after publishing this article, the news became official. Depending on how you evaluate coaching moves, and their impact, might determine your level of excitement with this move. Coles was fired mid-season in June from the Arizona Diamondbacks.
With coaching evaluations, it all goes back to: Does the credit/fault go to the teacher or the student or both? On the day Coles was fired, his team was slashing .231/.305/.380/.685 for the season in a 63-game sample size. The bad news for Coles, even after the team traded some of their best players at the trade deadline like Eduardo Escobar, the team did improve slightly with the new hitting coaches to a .240/ .311/ .384/.696 slash. Arizona’s manager Torey Lovullo said it was his decision to fire Coles after three seasons with the team.
“We’ve been walking through a number of injuries, and I wanted to let those injured players return — and I wanted to see if those healthy players getting back into the fold would have this thing turned around,” Lovullo said after the firing. “But, obviously, that hasn’t happened. That’s what led me to this decision. But it just wasn’t working. We’re all in this together; we all have responsibility in this. … I thought the game-planning was fine, it’s just the execution was not there.”
Execution is always the key part. Process can be taught, but results are what most are judged by. A .685 OPS for a team that plays in the hitter friendly stadiums in the west is not good, and especially with home games in the hitter friendly Chase Field. In 2019, Coles’ first season with the Diamondbacks, they matched a club record with 220 home runs, an increase of 44 home runs from the previous season. That season, Arizona had six players with at least 25 home runs, tied for second-most in Major League Baseball.
Prior to his time with the Diamondbacks, Coles served as the hitting coach for the Milwaukee Brewers from 2015–18. Under his leadership, the Brewers recorded two of their top four single-season home run totals in their history. While all of the positives on his resumé is great, the fact still remains he was fired mid-way in his third season with the Diamondbacks for poor results.
So why is manager Dave Martinez going with Coles?
“We are very excited to add Darnell Coles as our hitting coach,” Martinez said in a team release. “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. Darnell has a great rapport with both veterans and young players and brings a thorough understanding of the analytics that we would like to incorporate.”
Although we do know through reports that the pair has known each other professionally and as good friends over many years. Coles said they were neighbors for fifteen years. He also dates back to the early years with the Nats as he was a roving hitting instructor in 2006, and also managed in the Nats’ Minor League system. You can read about the casino robbery in an article from three years ago that mentions Coles and Martinez as close friends who traveled on vacations together. In fact as soon as Nats hitting coach Kevin Long departed, you had to figure that Coles would be in the running for the vacated job.
The Nationals plan to hire Darnell Coles as their new hitting coach, per source, though a deal is not finalized. Coles was let go as the Dbacks hitting coach this summer. He served as a roving hitting instructor for the Nats in 2006 and has managed in their minor league system.
— Mark Feinsand (@Feinsand) October 15, 2021
Other than this, we just don’t have much to go on. Offense was a strength of the 2021 Nats as they led in several categories with a .263 batting average (first in the NL), .350 OBP (first in NL), .430 slugging percentage (seventh in NL) and a .780 OPS (first in NL) following the All-Star break. For the season, the Nats were also very good in strikeout avoidance (1st in NL at 1,303). But with all that good news, the Nats were ninth in the NL in runs scored at 724 which was below the Phillies who fired their hitting coach.
Part of the issue with reconciling between all the great to the not so great stats is to get to the most important one — runs scored. Ninth in the league won’t cut it. Plus, the Nats were ninth in home runs but power wasn’t the problem as they got their extra base hits and ranked fifth best in slugging percentage at .417. There has to be other reasons why the team then was ninth in runs scored. Part of it was that they were the worst team in bases loaded situations batting .198 as a team in 192 opportunities, and they were even worse with bases loaded and no outs if you can believe that. Overall and as you drill down further, the Nats led all of baseball in groundball rates at 47.4%, and as many branded Long as a launch angle innovator, that stat goes counter to that.
So Coles just needs to improve on the weak points which won’t be easy. Can you hit too many groundballs? This is debatable although as we know the BABIP on groundballs is near .200 but certainly better than a .000 from a strikeout. The team did lead MLB in hitting into the most doubleplays (worst in MLB at 158) and runners left-on-base (worst in MLB at 1,168). You could say that launch angle was an issue, but the team led the NL in contact rates. Doubleplays are almost a function that you have to have runners on-base to hit into them. So it is good news/bad news. They are rally killers, though.
“Overall, I think the offense is in a good place,” Coles said today. “We don’t strikeout a lot. But the consistency of allowing the pitcher to hang himself — we have to do a better job of doing that. Sometimes, we can be a little over-aggressive in situations where we can be less aggressive and force the pitcher into making a mistake instead of being over-aggressive and letting him off the hook.”
What makes those 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. 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.
“Here shortly, I’m getting everyone’s phone number and will call to introduce myself to them,” Coles said. “See where their strengths are, where their weaknesses are, and how and what their path to improvement is. I want to get a feel for how their season went, positively or negatively.”
With Coles, Martinez is surrounding himself with coaches he has had relationships with. Is that good? We will see.