And he meant it.
“He just showed up,” Schwarber said on a video call with reporters Thursday. “It was great, and he came with a lot of good things for me. And the best thing is that the hitting stance, everyone wants to kind of think it’s a new thing. It’s really not.”
Long has regularly visited players throughout his coaching career, and players have regularly visited him. That was nothing new. What changed was Schwarber, 27, returning to a stance that worked in college and his early minor league years. He is a bit more “squatty” now, as he put it, and hopes a lower setup will help him cover the bottom of the strike zone better.
The Nationals offered Schwarber a one-year, $10 million contract because they believe he can rebound from a mediocre and uninspiring 2020. The chance of having a balanced lineup hinges on whether he does.
Schwarber finished last year with a .188 batting average, a .308 on-base percentage and a .393 slugging percentage in 224 plate appearances. Each of those marks was the lowest of his career.
“We want to get him to where, when he gets that pitch that’s in that nitro zone for him, he can’t foul it off; he’s got to put it in play,” said Manager Dave Martinez, who coached Schwarber for three seasons with the Chicago Cubs. “When he does that, he’s going to be really good. If we can get him to do that consistently, you’ll see the average go up with the walks as well.
“K-Long got him in his legs a little bit better. He’s staying through the ball a lot better than I’ve seen him before and not coming off so quick.”
“Got him in his legs” is baseball-speak for “squatty.” Squatty is an odd way to say a bit more crouched. Schwarber recalled that, as a freshman at Indiana, he was upright at the plate. Then he went “back down into his legs” — or, uh, got squatty — before slowly raising his body in the following years.
Deep down, it seems Schwarber knew what made his power spike at Indiana. He smacked 18 homers as a sophomore and 14 more as a junior, leading the Cubs to pick him fourth in the 2014 draft. At his best, Schwarber is a constant home run threat who walks and strikes out often. He had one homer in every 14 at-bats in 2017, then essentially duplicated that rate in 2019 and was never more productive.
So why did his stance keep getting higher until his numbers plummeted?
“A lot of it was trying to stay with the game, and, you know what, a lot of guys are throwing at the top of the zone now at 98 and 98-plus,” Schwarber explained. “So you’re trying to give yourself a better advantage up top, and then you can let some things go down low. I think it’s just finding that medium there where you can stay up top really nice and obviously being able to control the bottom of the zone really well, too.”
Little went right for Schwarber last season. But he was especially off when swinging at pitches on the low-and-outside corner, low-and-inside corner and right off the plate in either direction.
Eighteen of his 66 strikeouts came on pitches that were low, inside and not over the plate. Seven came on pitches that were low, outside and not over the plate. These are common cold zones for hitters, including Schwarber throughout his six-year career. The difference, though, was that his power on pitches that were low and in or away — whether over the plate or not — was entirely lacking. His contact was weak. Far too many of his batted balls were grounders into the shift or lazy popups.
That’s a simple path to a dismal year. It’s also why Schwarber committed this offseason to getting lower, keeping his weight back and waiting just a tick longer to unleash his bat. Coaches will say he is “staying behind the ball” to generate power that was absent in 2020. When he and Long met in Tampa, they tweaked his swing with drills that slowed everything down. They sat across from each other and talked through the adjustments. And when the base was there, about a month before spring training began, they shifted to how Schwarber can improve vs. left-handed pitchers.
He has a career .650 on-base-plus-slugging percentage against lefties. His OPS against righties, by contrast, is .859. Washington will almost certainly time Schwarber’s rest to when it faces tough lefties. But because he is the everyday left fielder — and not, say, a designated hitter, as he could have been in the American League — the Nationals will need him to improve on his stark splits.
They feel Schwarber is a bounce-back candidate because he still regularly made solid to hard contact in what may have been the worst 59-game stretch he has ever played. Putting those games behind him, he hopes, is a matter of squatting as he used to.