Kevin Long spotted the problem in Yan Gomes’s swing earlier this summer. Gomes saw it clearly on video. But there was a slight problem when it came time to address it: Gomes doesn’t feel when he jerks his hands forward, ever so slightly, and so he also can’t feel when he doesn’t.
This is the challenge of midseason swing tweaks. If a tendency is natural, and done without thought, it is better to look at it in the winter, when repetitions are limitless and results don’t count. Yet Gomes, one of the Washington Nationals’ two veteran catchers, couldn’t wait months to change. His batting average dipped to .198 on July 19, a season low, and something was forcing him to hit everything way up in the air. And that’s around when Long, the Nationals’ hitting coach, found what he calls a “cock” in Gomes’s swing.
“His bat kind of goes up and in front of his helmet, right before he swings,” Long said. “And when you do that and then you start to swing, that’s what causes more loop than we need. You try to just Band-Aid it for now, until you get more time where you don’t have to take something into the game. Because he really can’t feel himself do it. That’s kind of the underlying issue.”
The Band-Aid fix is a two-handed finish that’s produced flashes of improvement. Gomes, Long and assistant hitting coach Joe Dillon noticed that in some of Gomes’s better stretches — 2013, or bits of 2014 — he kept both hands on the bat instead of letting go after contact. Going back to that helped him find a stride for five games in late July, collecting six hits, three homers and five walks in 20 plate appearances.
But it’s otherwise been a lot of the same for the 32-year-old. That cock in his swing, no more than an inch-long wag toward the mound, forces him to get underneath pitches a little more. It’s turned dozens of could-have-been liners into pop outs. It’s contributed to his .205 average entering Tuesday, in split time with Kurt Suzuki, a number that only shrinks when considering expectations. Gomes was acquired in a November trade as an all-star catcher, costing Washington a depth starter and an outfielder who wound up in this year’s Futures Game. Gomes has not performed as such, or even close to it, with his .629 on-base-plus-slugging percentage way below average, and his chances to rebound dwindling.
“The results aren’t even close to good enough, and it’s incredibly frustrating,” Gomes said. “It’s one of those things that eats at you, and you want to hit your way out of a slump however you can, but you also have to take it slowly. Baseball, unfortunately, doesn’t really let you do anything all that fast.”
Heading into the season, Gomes was viewed by some in the organization as the Nationals’ best addition. There was Patrick Corbin, sure, but Gomes had 30 home runs across the last two seasons and came highly recommended by the Cleveland Indians pitching staff. The plan, then and now, was for him and Kurt Suzuki to share time behind the plate. Suzuki is 35 and started 83 games at catcher in 2018. Gomes, still used to a starter’s workload, could benefit from less wear on his body.
But the divided at-bats have been a complicating factor for Gomes. He started 105 games and had 435 plate appearances for Cleveland last season. He’s currently on track to play in about half of 162 contests, maybe a bit more, and won’t get the same live opportunities at the plate. The adjustment is ongoing.
“I’m not going to sit here and say that not playing every day is hurting me offensively, because I should still be able to figure it out,” Gomes said. “But it’s different, for sure, I can’t deny that. You have to find other ways to stay in a rhythm when you’re not in the lineup as often.”
One benefit, however small, is that both he and Suzuki get extra work with Long. Catchers’ primary responsibility is to game plan with pitchers and scout the other team. That doesn’t leave a ton of time to hit, and Manager Dave Martinez tells Gomes to worry about catching, then catching, then catching, then everything else. Reports on his handling of pitchers have been good across the board, especially from Corbin, meaning that side of his reputation has checked out.
So it was time in the batting cage and video room that led Gomes to the two-handed finish. Long believes this curbs the loop created by the cock, and give Gomes’s swing a better path to the ball. Players take hundreds of swings each season, year after year, but insist they can remember how they felt in a past month or game or even a moment. Gomes is trusting that what he did earlier in his career will help now, and can feel his body syncing like it used to. That showed with a burst of power a couple weeks back, when he hit three home runs in four appearances. But that wasn’t smoothed into consistency.
Gomes ultimately hit .173 with 17 strikeouts in 97 plate appearances in July. He has one hit in his first 15 plate appearances of August. The Nationals have a $9 million club option for Gomes in 2020, and an $11 million option for 2021, but his future with the team is far from set. Suzuki is here for another season and has 12 home runs and a .258 average. The rest of the lineup has clicked, either consistently or for stretches, to help put Washington in a pennant race. Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto and Trea Turner fuel it. Matt Adams brings pop. Adam Eaton gets on base. Victor Robles is a speed and power threat. Howie Kendrick is as dependable as they come.
And yet the all-star catcher is still underachieving. Anything else would be a pretty big lift.
“It’s been a tough year for him,” Long said. “But it can turn at any time. You just have to trust that it will.”