It would be unfair to evaluate the impact of new hitting coach Rick Schu only 15 games into his tenure, but he certainly is trying hard to improve one of baseball’s worst offenses. He uses iPads and Flip Cams to record players’ swings in the batting cage, to provide them a close-up side view of their swing. He plays music and tells jokes during indoor batting practice to keep the mood light. He provides scouting reports on opposing pitchers. He preaches aggressiveness on fastballs and remaining calm at the plate.
There has been “no adjustment for me,” said Schu, who spent the past four seasons as the Nationals’ minor league hitting coordinator until Rick Eckstein was fired on July 22. “I’ve got my hitters. This is what I do. I knew everybody, from the young guys to the old guys. Just talking to the guys and their offensive game plan, and we’ve seen some good things. It’s pretty much gone as I expected. We really haven’t gotten hot hot, but I’ve seen some good things that can help get us on a bit of a roll if we grind at-bats like we’ve been doing of late.”
The numbers behind the Nationals’ offensive struggles are ugly and well-known, from the terribly low run totals, on-base percentage, inability to hit the fastball and ineffectiveness against left-handed pitching. To reach last year’s average of 4.51 runs per game, the Nationals would have to score an absurd 6.5 runs per game over the remaining 48 games. Any improvement will be gradual.
“It doesn’t get any better than Rick Schu,” said Chad Tracy, who knows Schu from their time together with the Arizona Diamondbacks. “He’s always got a positive attitude. Always keeps it light. Not clutter your mind with too many things. A joy to be around.”
Schu, also held in high regard by Bryce Harper, is known as an approach-minded hitting coach. He rarely talks about mechanics. He urges players to trust their game plan on pitch selection and not to try too hard, which he believes is counterproductive and adds pressure. He has, however, talked mechanics with some players, like Denard Span, who has struggled to find a comfortable swing all season. Span is hitting .260 with a .312 on-base percentage.
One of the first things Schu told Span was a term he preaches: “fluiditity.” Span was amused because, well, it’s not a word and sounded funny. “It’s all about being fluid,’ Span said. “Having rhythm. Being loose.” Schu had used it with other players, too.
“I don’t even know if it is a word,” Schu added. “I use it. Kinda what we were talking about, being loose and coaching the same way and getting them relaxed and getting into a flow. If they get too tense in there then it’s counterproductive and you get muscly swings.”
What Schu wanted Span to do was to ease up. Span said he didn’t feel tense at the plate but to an outside observer he likely was, and as a result his swing may have been too choppy. Schu urged Span to move his hands and rest them on his shoulder before the swing to be in a better position. Before that, Span said, his hands “were all over the place.”
An occasional move out of the leadoff spot has had some effect, too. Span was aggressive as a seven-hole hitter. He has hit .357 with two home runs in 48 at-bats from that spot in the lineup. As a leadoff hitter, where Span believes he has see more pitches, he is hitting .248 with a .307 on-base percentage.
In the batting cages and when talking to players, Schu tries to be goofy, encouraging and light-hearted.
“It’s such a grind that you gotta have fun,” he said. “People play millions of dollars just to do what we’re doing. It’s a great job. There’s a lot of pressure to it. You gotta enjoy it. You gotta relax. You gotta laugh. You get a little music going. Create an environment where it’s fun to be around. It’s better that way than grinding on yourself so much.”
The underperforming nature of the lineup and bench, even in the past few weeks, weighs heavily on the players and Schu, too.
“As a hitting guy, you can’t hit for ‘em,” he said. “You give them every opportunity to understand their swings, mindset and give them an approach every day to help them get better and hopefully the hits come. That’s on them to be able to take what you’ve been working on and slow the game down a little bit once they get in the box.”
Schu’s situation is a difficult one. He was brought in to serve as a new voice with nearly two months left in a disappointing season to help spark an offense during a now-improbable playoff run. If the offense doesn’t improve, it’s hard to assign complete responsibility on him. If he does make a positive impact, it could help his case for next season.
“He’s back in the big leagues,” Tracy said. “It’s an opportunity for him to show what he can do, and for next year.”