At some point this week or next, Washington Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo and Manager Dave Martinez will meet, according to people familiar with the plans. The future of the coaching staff will be among the topics on the discussion docket. Though both men have said publicly that they hope Martinez’s entire staff will return intact, one could imagine they must consider change of some kind after a disappointing season.
Kevin Long’s future does not seem to be in doubt. Despite outside clamor about his job security when the Nationals were losing, Long came to Washington as one of the game’s more respected hitting coaches and nothing about his handling of Nationals players has altered that reputation.
“I think the biggest things about Kevin is he’s always positive. He always wants to have fun and he enjoys his job a lot,” Bryce Harper said. “He’s been in this game a long time and knows his stuff from every level he’s been with. . . . He doesn’t just bring hitting stuff. It’s more everything. Just a good person to be around.”
Long carries a reputation as a vanguard of the cult of launch angle, aided by his most loyal disciple Daniel Murphy. When Harper struggled early in the season, some wondered if he was trying to hit the ball in the air too much at the expense of line drives to left — or even of merely taking his walks. At times, he and Long would do early work on the field in which Harper took a few rounds of normal batting practice before hitting moonshot after moonshot, a confidence-building tactic meant to remind him of the power that violent swing wields.
But Long has since said many of the adjustments Harper made targeted more consistent and quality contact instead of weak fly balls. He spent much of the second half preaching patience to his star: If they are going to walk you, let them. Harper hit .300 with a .972 OPS after the all-star break. His average launch angle in 2018 was 13.9 degrees. In 2017, it was 13.6. In launch angle terms, that difference is not statistically noteworthy.
As Anthony Rendon compiled the most complete offensive season of his career — .308 average, 24 homers, 92 RBI and a .909 OPS, despite missing three weeks with a broken toe — his launch angle fell from 18 degrees last season to 17.8 this year. As Trea Turner provided an at-times inconsistent offensive season that ended with a relative power surge, his average launch angle was 8.2 degrees, more than a degree up from the 6.9 he compiled in 2017. Whatever the eye test might suggest, the difference did not manifest itself in more fly balls; his flyball percentage actually dropped by two-tenths of a percent in 2018. His line drive percentage jumped instead, and so did his percentage of hard contact, by 5 percent — or one hard-hit ball per every 20 at-bats. Launch angle truther Ryan Zimmerman saw his launch angle drop by a degree under Long, though his numbers remained around his career norms in an injury-shortened season.
As a whole, the Nationals ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio fell minimally, from 1.38 to 1.27 this season. Long did not apply a one-size-fits-all, launch-angle-or-bust approach to this team, which saw its percentage of hard contact increase. The 2017 Nationals had a .797 OPS, eighth in the majors. The 2018 team finished with a .760 OPS, ninth in the majors — though one must account for the month spent experimenting with young players in the aftermath of the Murphy and Matt Adams deals. They led the National League with a .335 on-base percentage. They scored the eighth-most runs in baseball, and all seven teams ahead of them made the playoffs.
“What can we do better? Win baseball games. That’s what we need to look at,” Long said. “But offensively, I was pleased with our plate discipline. I was pleased with the amount of traffic out there. I thought our power numbers were plenty good enough. At the end of the day, we did score a lot of runs. That part of it went pretty well.”
The Nationals do not make coaching contracts public, but people familiar with the situation say Long is on a multiyear deal. He spoke like a man who plans to be back, already plotting his offseason strategy. Before last season, Long visited a handful of hitters at their homes at the direction of the front office, though at that time, he had not worked with any of his hitters besides Murphy and Matt Reynolds.
“Just think about how long it takes to get to know somebody. That’s basically what you’re talking about,” Long said. “It’s getting to know how they learn, how they go about their everyday routine of playing baseball. It takes some time. But I’ve never had trouble getting there at the end of the day. I feel like we gained on it a lot. I know going into next year, it’ll be a heck of a lot easier because they know what to expect of me and I know what to expect of them.”