The hiring represents a significant get for the Nationals, who add a grizzled and well-respected veteran coach to their rookie manager’s budding staff — a coach known around the league as a guru of many new-age hitting principles, particularly the Murphy-honed emphasis on launch angle as opposed to hitting down on the ball. Murphy, Yoenis Cespedes, and several other stars have credited Long with improving their offensive performance. There was some speculation that Long would merit serious consideration for either of the New York managerial jobs this offseason (the Mets named Mickey Callaway their manager last month; the Yankees job remains open).
The Nationals asked and gained permission to interview him, presumably for their manager position, but ended up hiring him as their hitting coach instead.
In Long, the Nationals get a forward-thinking offensive mind to pair with an experienced lineup and clubhouse that has known only one hitting coach, Rick Schu, since 2013. Schu and Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo worked together nearly two decades ago in Arizona, and Rizzo was loyal to the former Phillies prospect. Letting him go could not have been an easy decision.
As of Thursday evening, Long was the only person locked in to Martinez’s coaching staff, and the consensus around the organization is that other positions might be filled slowly. The General Managers’ meetings will be held Nov. 13-16. When they hired Dusty Baker in 2015, the Nationals were still making decisions about their staff at those meetings, where interviews and conversations can happen in quick succession.
They still need a pitching coach, as their last high-profile coaching hire, Mike Maddux, agreed last week to become the pitching coach for the St. Louis Cardinals. Hitting coach and pitching coach are the most hands-on members of any staff, and the former is a particularly finicky position with a roster such as the Nationals’, which is loaded with hitters who have histories of success and will therefore be wary of outside help.
But Long’s track record and reputation in the industry should earn him quick respect, aided by the endorsements of Murphy, who Rizzo consulted as he pursued Long for the Nationals’ hitting coach position. Murphy’s three-year deal with the Nationals expires after the 2018 season.
The Nationals’ offense was not exactly dormant in 2017. It was, in fact, one of the most potent offenses in baseball during the first half of the season before injuries perforated the everyday lineup. Since Schu’s first full season as hitting coach (2014), the Nationals have a .743 OPS, eighth-best in baseball. In Long’s three years as Mets’ hitting coach (2015-2017), they hit to a .733 OPS, though the comparison is somewhat unfair given the differences in personnel. More tellingly, the Mets had the lowest groundball rate in baseball during Long’s three seasons there (40.3 percent). During the same stretch, the Nationals had the 11th-highest rate — 45.1 percent.
Hiring Long also signals a willingness on the part of the front office to guide Martinez in picking his staff, much like it did with Dusty Baker, instead of handing him full autonomy. As demonstrated by the hiring of Maddux before the 2015 season, Rizzo and his staff seem to be increasingly willing to pay for top-tier coaches. Though the terms of the Nationals’ deal with Long are unclear, his track record would indicate that he likely was pursued by several teams and likely didn’t come cheap. Whatever the price, one of the deeper and more experienced offenses in baseball just acquired a new leader, a man widely respected in their clubhouse and others as a man at the forefront of offensive thinking.
Long’s son, Jaron, is a minor league pitcher in the Nationals’ organization who pitched to a 3.61 ERA in 26 starts between Class AA Harrisburg and Class AAA Syracuse. He will likely begin the 2017 season one step away from the majors, in Syracuse, though he has never been a part of major league spring training.
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