Coles’ mantra for Nats hitters: “Dominate the strike zone”

Over the course of more than 30 minutes answering questions from reporters over Zoom this afternoon, new Nationals hitting coach Darnell Coles espoused all kinds of thoughts on philosophy, approach, communication and everything else that goes into his job.

It’s all quite interesting, and the Nats hope the 59-year-old is exactly what they need as they continue their rebuilding project with a partially remade coaching staff. But asked to condense it all down to one overriding mantra on hitting, Coles did so in only four words: “Dominate the strike zone.”

Coles knows he’s inheriting a young, but in some areas quite talented lineup in D.C., one that led the National League in batting average and on-base percentage while striking out the fewest times. He knows he gets to work with perhaps the best pure hitter in the sport in Juan Soto. But he also knows that, as a group, they can be better at maximizing their production, if they make sure they’re swinging at the right pitches.

“Most importantly at the end of the game, I look at the stat: left on base. How many guys did we leave on base?” he said. “If we left an enormous amount of guys on base, that means we’re not doing very well at hitting with runners in scoring position. So we’ve got to clean that up and make sure that each and every run we score - preferably early - allows our pitcher to relax and go out and pitch.”

The Nationals scored 724 runs this season, 16th most in the majors. They were perfectly fine in that department, and the reason they lost 97 games had far more to do with the 820 runs they allowed than anything.

But they did strand 1,168 runners on base, most in baseball. That happened in spite of the fact that they ranked sixth with a .265 batting average with runners in scoring position. It was a reflection more of their atrocious, worst-in-the-league, .198 batting average with the bases loaded.

So it’s Coles’ task to make sure his new club not only reaches base at a healthy rate but then brings as many of those runners around to cross the plate as possible.

“It’s not going to be based on home runs,” he said. “It’s going to be based on us going out and battling every night, not giving pitches away, not giving at-bats away. Trusting the guy next to you, so that if I don’t get the job done, you’ll get the job done.”

How do the Nationals go about doing that? Among the stats Coles kept citing today was swing percentage, noting that while this team excelled at making contact and not striking out this season, it could be better at laying off tough pitches and only swinging at those that are likely to lead to solid contact.

Nobody on the roster - or perhaps in baseball - is better at that than Soto, who after a subpar (by his lofty standards) first half exploded after the All-Star break to produce a .348/.525/.639 slash line that made him a viable National League MVP candidate despite playing for a last-place team.

The soon-to-be 23-year-old slugger will again be the focal point of the Nats’ lineup in 2022, and Coles already has a plan for him.

Thumbnail image for Soto-Swings-Gray-HR-LA-Sidebar.jpg“Nobody, under any circumstances, is to mess with his swing,” Coles said. “He is the epitome of what a great major league hitter is. He understands the strike zone. He pays attention to detail. He understands what they’re trying to do. He does his homework. He doesn’t let the moment get too big for him. He stays to the middle of the field. His best quality is that he can basically get a hit whenever he wants to, to the opposite field, which is tough to do.”

Coles will have more motivation to work with other, less-accomplished hitters on their swings, especially homegrown prospects who are still trying to realize their potential such as Carter Kieboom, Luis García and Victor Robles. He does very much hope those kids have one veteran, in particular, at their side showing them how it’s done.

“I watched Ryan Zimmerman grow up when he just signed, and then obviously evolved into a world-class player and world-class person off the field,” said Coles, who served as a minor league coach and manager in the Nationals organization from 2006-09. “My hope is that I can talk him into coming back. I don’t know if that’s possible. But if that’s possible, believe me, that’s on the table. I will try with everything I have, because he is a huge part of this organization. ... His presence in that clubhouse is something that’s immeasurable. Having him there would go a long way toward reassuring that veteran presence that makes a lot of sense when it comes to evolving as a young team.”

Coles’ prior history with the organization made this offer to return after a decade working for three other franchises, including most recently as major league hitting coach for the Brewers (2015-18) and Diamondbacks (2019-21), enticing. So did the opportunity to finally work with Davey Martinez.

Martinez and Coles were teammates in 1992 with the Reds, and though that’s the only season they’ve ever been employed by the same club, they’ve been close friends ever since. That’s in part because for 15 years they lived in the same Clearwater, Fla., neighborhood and took family vacations together. And it’s also because of a shared philosophy on coaching and life outside of baseball.

“It’s just that Davey is an ultra-positive person like I am,” Coles said. “He wants the best for each individual player. He understands the ups and downs of games, when guys are struggling. Because he’s done it. He’s gone through the struggles. He knows hitting’s not easy.”

Martinez saw Kevin Long, his hitting coach since he arrived in D.C. in 2018, depart last week for the Phillies. He quickly called up Coles, who had been fired by the Diamondbacks last summer, and over the course of several days worked out a deal with him.

“We are very excited to add Darnell Coles as our hitting coach,” Martinez said in a statement released by the Nationals. “We align on hitting philosophy, process and focusing on the here and now. He’s not only an outstanding hitting coach, but a great baseball man. Darnell has a great rapport with both veterans and young players and brings a thorough understanding of the analytics that we would like to incorporate.”

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