VIERA, Fla. — Simplicity comes naturally to Rick Schu, and at the end of his playing career he saw his future clearly. “I knew I was a lifer,” he said. He played baseball for as long and wherever he could, hitting homers in Japan and holding on in Class AAA. In the minors, he started coaching young hitters even before he stopped playing. Once he became a coach by title, Schu thrived. Teams offered him the chance to manage in the minors, but he always turned them down. All he wanted was some hitters.
The job Schu has now is the one he wanted all along. In the middle of last season, the Washington Nationals promoted Schu from minor league hitting coordinator, a role he held for three and a half years, to major league hitting coach. His new hitters, many of whom had worked under him in the minors, noticed an immediate change. First of all, when they walked into the batting cage, they heard music playing.
The beats and riffs are interrupted by horsehide meeting ash and Schu’s patter. Banter outpaces mechanical tips. Pitch selection advice: “Hunt heaters!” Someone smacked a line drive: “Cables!” A string of well-hit line drives: “Be greedy!”
“He’s the type of guy that just lets you hit,” Bryce Harper said. “He’s not going to come in and try to change you. He’s going to let you play and do what works for you. He’s going to be there for you, of course, but if you want his help, you got to ask him. He’s here to help you out. He’s not going to change you into the hitter he wants you to be. Having Schu come up last year, he was huge for us.”
Late last year, the Nationals’ schedule grew easier and the lineup grew healthier, but Schu’s impact was undeniable. From opening day through July 21, the Nationals scored 3.7 runs per game and hit .240 with a .300 on-base percentage and a .383 slugging percentage. On that day, the Nationals fired Rick Eckstein and replaced him with Schu. After July 22, the Nationals scored 4.6 runs per game and hit .267/.331/.419.
From what minimal value spring training stats carry, the Nationals have carried over their strong hitting. They entered Wednesday ranked third in slugging (.443) and second in on-base percentage (.349) among Grapefruit League teams.
Nationals players are careful not to blame Eckstein. “We weren’t going to hit as bad as we were for the whole year,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “I thought [Eckstein] was great. He helped me do a lot of things. I’ve had a great relationship with him.”
But they are also quick to credit Schu.
“He changed the atmosphere a little bit,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “He’s a fun guy. He’s serious, too. He was more light, more free and easy.”
“He had a positive effect,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “His energy, his approach, I think helped. His message, he knew a lot of those young guys throughout the minor leagues. He knew how to relate to them.”
“He brings high energy every day,” Span said. “Even if you aren’t feeling good at the plate or feeling good in the cage, he will make you believe it’s not as bad as what you think it is. Psychologically, he brought that sense of confidence to us offensively.”
Schu succeeds at coaching hitters, really, because he likes hitters so much. He acts more like a hitting partner than a hitting coach. The word “positive” comes up a lot when players talk about Schu. “He’s a real good dude,” McLouth said.
Schu does not try to change hitters. He wants them to relax. He lets players watch video, but not if they only watch the outs they made. Eckstein, short and clean-shaven, carried a binder full of stats and tendencies. Schu, barrel-chested and goateed, carries a Fungo bat and a clipboard.
“There’s so much information out there, guys kind of get locked up,” Schu said. “ ‘He throws this in this count’ — the percentages. How about let’s just get a good pitch over the plate? Have an idea. Make them elevate the ball. And barrel it.”
When Schu arrived last season, he aimed to simplify the Nationals’ collective approach. He told them they should care less about a pitcher’s tendencies and more about looking for a fastball. He wanted them to think less and let their rhythm dictate an at-bat.
“Staying aggressive and hunting fastballs takes a lot of anxiety out of everything,” Schu said. “It takes mechanics out of there. It takes failure out of there.”
It’s not that Schu disregards mechanics. He keeps a list of “checkpoints” for each player. He studies classic swings, looking for a minor move that may help one of his hitters.
But he also knows each hitter needs to be instructed differently. Span likes feedback about his swing, and Schu gives it to him. Schu mostly steers clear of Desmond.
“He’s a guy I’m real careful talking to,” Schu said. “He’s been overcoached his whole life. It’s like every swing he takes, somebody is in his ear. He got bombarded, man. I just tell him, ‘Whenever you need me, I’m there for you.’ ”