WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - It takes less than three minutes listening to Kevin Long talk about hitting to fully understand this guy is operating on a different level from mere mortals.
Want to know what the batting average on all ground balls put into play is? Long knows (.220).
Want to know the average distance from the side of the rubber that a right-hander releases his pitch versus the average distance for a lefty? Long knows (2 feet vs. 2 1/2 feet.)
Want to know about launch angles and hitting planes and how to avoid getting “too steep?” Long knows all that, too.
And players love to soak up every single bit of wisdom the Nationals’ new hitting coach has to offer.
“We speak the same language,” Daniel Murphy said. “We always talk in the same language. I mean, I stole his entire language, so I have no choice but to speak his language.”
There is no one on the planet Murphy credits more for helping him transform from a good major league hitter into an elite major league hitter than Long, who previously served as his hitting coach with the Mets. And Long has a long list of success stories under his tutelage over the course of 14 seasons coaching both of New York’s ballclubs.
Who helped Curtis Granderson become a power hitter? Kevin Long. Who helped Justin Turner grow from utility man to MVP-caliber slugger? Kevin Long.
“He’s really good,” Nationals manager Davey Martinez said.
Martinez and Long actually were competing for the same job last fall, each given an opportunity to interview with the Nationals front office to replace Dusty Baker. Martinez ultimately got the manager’s job, but Long (who had been let go along with the rest of the Mets staff at the end of the regular season) immediately was offered the hitting coach position.
Long didn’t need to take much time before accepting the offer.
“I knew from being in the opposing dugout what this offense presents,” he said. “There’s a lot of damage involved in the offense. There’s a lot of speed. There’s just quality throughout, 1 through 9. It’s a great lineup. And then you throw in the bench, this is a great bench as well. To say I’m excited is an understatement.”
And to say Nationals hitters are excited is just as much of an understatement.
Several players already have talked about tweaks Long has helped them make that they believe will have significant positive ramifications. Matt Wieters is believing in his swing again and feeling “pretty sexy about what he’s doing,” according to Long. Howie Kendrick (a career .291 hitter) thinks he might be able to become even more productive. Matt Adams is, as Long described it, “a little giddy right now” after learning some of the same techniques that allowed Granderson to become a top power hitter a decade ago.
What makes Long, a 51-year-old former outfielder in the Royals farm system who never reached the majors, one of the top hitting minds in the sport today? It’s his comprehensive understanding of the mechanics of the swing, combined with an encyclopedic knowledge of every player’s stats and tendencies, combined with a simple philosophy he recognized years ago that now is all the rage across baseball: Always try to hit the ball in the air, not on the ground.
“Here’s the deal: At the major league level, if you hit a ground ball, you’re a .220 hitter,” Long said. “That’s a fact. I’m not just coming up with this number. So if that’s the case, is that what we’re looking for, .220 hitters? No.”
Long has been at the forefront of the “launch angle” revolution that has consumed the sport the last few seasons. The concept is simple: Hit the ball at the appropriate angle in relation to a straight line parallel to the field - the ideal angle is about 25 percent - and it’s going to travel a long distance and most likely not be caught.
But there’s much more to Long’s philosophy. He preaches the importance of the “swing plane,” making sure the bat is traveling on the same plane that a particular pitch is approaching it at, leading to better contact. He wants batters to view a pitch from the proper angle, aligning their bodies to match up with the pitcher’s release point.
Above all else, Long understands that every hitter is different. He may have general philosophies that apply to everyone, but he makes sure to cater to each hitter’s needs.
“I think he does a really good job of understanding the individual player offensively, what he does well, what he may need to work on and focusing on his strengths and how pitchers are trying to attack,” Murphy said. “The easiest way to describe it is: He gets you ready for that day’s at-bats to be the most productive you can. Whether you feel like you’re ready to go, or you feel terrible or you feel great, he’s going to make you feel like a killer when you step into the box.”