Before leaving for the Milwaukee Brewers, Coles was a hitting instructor, hitting coach and manager of two teams in the Nationals’ minor league system. As a coach, his major league résumé includes hitting coach for the Brewers, assistant hitting coach for the Detroit Tigers and hitting coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks, who fired him in June. As a player, Coles appeared for eight teams across 14 seasons. He was a first-round pick of the Seattle Mariners, sixth overall, in the 1980 draft.
So once hitting coach Kevin Long departed for the Philadelphia Phillies last week, Martinez called Coles and started the discussion. By the weekend, the team was close to hiring him. On Monday, the club announced an agreement, terms not disclosed. Even without knowing what the Nationals will do this offseason, Coles is likely to inherit a young, mostly inexperienced lineup led by Juan Soto and Josh Bell.
“I was born and raised in that organization,” Coles said of Washington. “… When you get an opportunity to come home, so to speak, it’s always nice.”
A 30-minute video call touched on a variety of topics. Coles, 59, hopes he can help persuade Zimmerman to return for another season. He was quick to say no one should touch Soto’s swing. He even lobbied, if only indirectly, for an expansion of the Nationals’ major league staff. In 2021, Martinez had seven uniformed coaches. Often, and especially during the hours before each game, they were stretched thin while throwing batting practice, running fielding drills and scouting the opponent.
Beyond the addition of Coles, Martinez is in the process of reshaping his staff. Third base coach Bobby Henley and first base coach Randy Knorr have been reassigned to player development roles. With Long gone, it is unclear whether Pat Roessler, the assistant coach he brought on board, will remain with the team. While discussing his vision, Coles described an open exchange of ideas among an assistant hitting coach, a run production coordinator and members of the analytics department.
As of now, the Nationals don’t specifically employ a “run production coordinator.” They have three video coordinators who work on advance scouting — one of whom typically focuses on hitting — plus a research and development team that needs to fill a few holes. Coles clarified that, more than anything, he just wants someone who can focus on numbers and hitting strategy.
“That person is vitally important because the information that we give or get to the players is going to be what allows us to compete during games,” Coles said. “So we got to make sure that all that stuff is spot on: what pitchers do, why they do it, when they do it, how they do it and then how we’re going to make our adjustments to attack that pitcher on a nightly basis.”
Pressed on if that means he would like to have a hand in hiring two or three supporting staff members, Coles leaned both ways.
“My hope is that’s possible. Even if it’s not, we can get it done between the framework of the two or three guys,” Coles answered. “It’s just a matter of having that one person who is dialed in to that area alone and not having that person be torn away because he’s got to run out and throw BP or he’s got other stuff going on. He can dial in to that information.”
When it came to strategy, Coles described a concerted relationship among the Nationals’ swing rate, chase rate and contact percentage. On a macro level, he wants his hitters to swing at pitches that give them the best chance of making hard contact (which can plainly translate to not getting yourself out on the pitcher’s terms). On a micro level, that relationship should be malleable, changing based on the batter, pitcher and situation.
Under Long in 2021, and after getting stripped down at the trade deadline, the Nationals finished tied for eighth in the majors in on-base-plus-slugging percentage. To get there, they were fourth in contact percentage, 25th in swing rate and sixth in chase rate. In a nutshell, they were selective and often hit the ball. They also rarely struck out.
But the frequent contact was not always fruitful. They ranked 12th in hard-hit percentage and 16th in runs per game (4.47), a mark against their situational hitting. Coaches felt that players such as Alcides Escobar, Starlin Castro and Luis García were occasionally guilty of swinging too much because of their ability to reach borderline pitches.
At times, Long would have preferred they swing less, perhaps increasing the quality of their contact. Hints of that logic were woven through Coles’s stated plan.
“The consistency of guys understanding the strike zone allows us to not strike out as much as when guys are swinging at pitches on the edges and we’re chasing and we’re not aligned with understanding what the pitchers trying to do,” Coles said. “… Again, analytically, we’re trying to make sure that walk percentage, swing percentage, chase percentage all line up. Are we swinging a lot? Are we making good contact? Great, that’s fine.
“But if you’re swinging a lot, then now that leads to chasing a lot, that means you’re not walking and then we’re going to fall off a cliff. So there are multiple ways that we’ve got to figure out what each individual guy needs. We’ll attack [with our] strengths and also attack their weaknesses.”