Kyle Schwarber had only been a National for a handful of days. It was mid-January, and the former Cubs left fielder was just starting to chat with his new hitting coach, Kevin Long. The two talked about Schwarber's struggles last season and the state of his swing, and Long mentioned that he could come visit him at his offseason home in Tampa and work one-on-one in person.
"Let's go!" Schwarber told him. "I'm ready."
"All right," Long replied. "I'll be there in three days."
So it was that Long and his wife, who live in Phoenix in the offseason, flew to Tampa and spent several days with Schwarber and his wife. They talked about his swing. They took batting practice at a local high school. They went out to dinner and really got to know each other.
"He just showed up," Schwarber said during a Zoom session with reporters last week. "It was great."
Long, now entering his fourth season as Nationals hitting coach, makes a point to do this with as many of his players as he can. There are obvious reasons for doing it: It's so much easier to break down a guy's swing and show him what he's doing right and what he's doing wrong in person than over video conference.
But there are less obvious reasons, as well. And those reasons are just as, if not more, important to Long.
"It's just a trust factor," he said. "The more that they know that I'm there for them and I'm in the same corner as them and I'm pulling in the same direction as them, it goes a long way. Something like that, you're going into their home town, you're meeting his wife, going to some of the restaurants he goes to, and just getting to know each other. It goes a long way."
The Nationals certainly hope it will make a big difference for Schwarber, who they desperately need to enjoy a bounceback performance this season. On the heels of a 38-homer, 92-RBI, .871-OPS power display in 2019 with the Cubs, he slogged his way through a 2020 campaign in which he batted a paltry .188 with a .393 slugging percentage and only 17 extra-base hits in 59 games.
Chicago would choose not to tender Schwarber a contract after the season, but undeterred by those numbers the Nats gave him $10 million guaranteed and declared him their starting left fielder for 2021.
He's been an everyday player for most of his career, at least when healthy, averaging 140 games played from 2017-19 and then appearing in all but one game last season. This despite some dramatic career platoon splits that include an .859 OPS against righties but a .650 mark vs. lefties.
That's where the Nationals hope Long's tutelage pays dividends. After studying Schwarber's swing going all the way back to his college playing days at Indiana, Long suggested he return to the more crouched stance he used as an amateur instead of the upright position he had morphed into over the years.
"He used to do it when he was at Indiana," Long said. "And he kind of has slowly, gradually got away from that and got taller and created more movement. We're trying to get him back to maybe how he was in college. He's done it before. It's not foreign to him."
Schwarber, who turns 28 on Friday, describes the stance as "a little bit more squatty." It allows him to stay back on his left leg longer, not start his swing too soon and reduce excess movement.
It remains a work in progress, but the first big reward of the change came Wednesday when Schwarber blasted his first homer as a National. In two Grapefruit League games to date, he's 2-for-5 with the homer and a couple of strikeouts. He still seeks his first walk, which should come soon enough; his 13 percent career walk rate is well above the league average of 8.3 percent.
"Kyle has such a good eye," Martinez said. "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. 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."
And if that all happens, Schwarber will be able to look back at that unexpected visit he got from his new hitting coach, the one who was ready to hop on a plane at a moment's notice and jump-start their relationship long before pitchers and catchers ever reported to West Palm Beach.
"From that point on, we were texting each other and sending each other stuff back and forth for most of the offseason," Long said. "It was like I'd known this guy for years. I'd never met him before that day. It was good for me, it was good for him."