During his first weeks of the regular season as a National, catcher Jose Lobaton noticed a difference between his swing and that of teammate Jayson Werth. Lobaton had only three hits in his first 30 at-bats and during a recent six-game road trip he played only half the games while Sandy Leon started instead. Hitting coach Rick Schu urged Lobaton to shorten his loopy swing, so the catcher looked at how Werth finished his swing with two hands on the bat and wanted to do the same.
So over the past week-plus, Lobaton has worked to keep his swing shorter and follow through with two hands. Since the start of the Nationals’ current 11-game homestand, Lobaton is 7 for 22 (.318) with three walks and hit his first home run as a National in Wednesday’s late comeback win. Hitters normally shorten their swings with two strikes anyway — and Lobaton hit the solo shot to right field off Angels closer Ernesto Frieri down 0-2 — but the point still stands: The switch-hitting catcher is trying to apply that approach to all of his at-bats.
“I’ve been feeling better at home plate,” he said. “I was feeling good before and comfortable at home plate but didn’t have the results. Now I’m feeling better in counts. Before I was more good counts, swinging too much. Bad counts, the same swing. Now, I’m trying to be short.”
Schu has challenged Lobaton to trust his hands to react quickly and directly to the ball. With a compact hack, he can handle the bat better and, as a result, he will be better able to hit the ball up the middle and the other way. The Nationals offense may be struggling of late to take advantage of the many scoring opportunities they have created, but Lobaton is slowly trending up with a tweaked swing.
“I’ve been trying,” Lobaton said. “It’s not easy. It’s something that I’ve been doing a lot for many years. Trying to be short and staying on top. My swing is kinda under. To be short, you’ve gotta be on the top.”
Behind the plate, too, Lobaton is feeling more comfortable with the Nationals pitching staff while Wilson Ramos rehabs his broken left hand. After a rough first two weeks, Nationals starters have pitched better recently but still lag in the bottom third in the majors in ERA. The key to the gradual improvement has been simple: “They’re locating the ball better,” Lobaton said.
Lobaton also said he has set up behind the plate more often now on the corners because, if the pitchers miss, he wants them to do so away from the heart of the plate. Especially with the sinkers of Stephen Strasburg and Tanner Roark, Lobaton has called for them to throw to the edges. “With those two seamers that they’ve got, they can get a lot of outs,” he said.
Overall, Lobaton has felt more comfortable with the pitchers and has taken more ownership of the pitching staff, and it has helped him perform better.
“I know more pitchers here,” he said. “At the beginning, it was hard. I want to do good for them. Now I’ve gotta catch. I know how to catch. I just go there and catch the ball. It’s been fun because the pitchers are doing better.”