When word got out that Kevin Long would be leaving D.C. to take the hitting coach job in Philadelphia, Darnell Coles must have had a keen eye on the opening with the Nationals.
Not only for the opportunity to rejoin the organization with which he started his coaching career and to be alongside longtime friend Davey Martinez in the dugout, but also for the chance to work with one of baseball’s best hitters in Juan Soto. (Not to mention a power switch-hitter in Josh Bell and a core of young players looking to improve their production at the plate.)
But Soto is hardly the first premier hitter Coles has had the chance to work with over his nine-year career as a major league hitting coach. With stops in Detroit, Milwaukee and Arizona, Coles has found success coaching some of the game’s best hitters to some of the best seasons of their careers.
“I’m a player development guy and a lot of my player development was brought about in this organization,” Coles said in a Zoom session with reporters after being officially named the Nationals’ new hitting coach on Oct. 18. “So I understand what it takes to be patient with hitters. What it takes to sit down and talk to guys about their at-bats and understand what they were thinking, what actually happened and then how we correct it moving forward.”
Before Coles gets to work with Soto for the first time, let’s take a look back at some of his pupils from his previous stops, shall we?
Let’s start with Coles’ first full-time major league hitting coach position and one of the biggest names on his resumé: Christian Yelich with the Brewers.
Coles had already been the Brewers hitting coach for three seasons when Yelich arrived in Milwaukee in January 2018 via a blockbuster trade with the Marlins. Entering his sixth season in the majors, Yelich was already known as one of the league’s fast-rising hitters: He hit .290 with an .800 OPS over five seasons in Miami.
In his first year under Coles’ tutelage, Yelich went off at the plate, establishing himself as one of the best offensive weapons in baseball. He won the National League batting title by hitting .326 with an OPS of 1.000. His previous career highs were a .300 average in 2015 and an .859 OPS in 2016.
How’s that for improvement?
Yelich went on to lead the league in average, slugging (.598), OPS+ (164) and total bases (343) in 2018, while also being elected as an All-Star for the first time. He was named NL MVP in a landslide, receiving 29 of 30 first-place votes, and a Silver Slugger winner to cap off one of the best offensive seasons the sport has seen.
Now we know Yelich to be (when healthy) one of the best hitters in the majors. He probably had it in him all along, so how much did Coles actually help him in their one season together?
Yes, Yelich put up even better numbers the following season, this time without Coles. And, yes, he suffered a devastating knee injury late in the 2019 season that could have derailed his future success. But in the last two years, his numbers have dropped drastically, hitting .205 over 58 games in the shortened 2020 season and .248 over 117 games this past season.
How about another example from that same 2018 Brewers team?
Lorenzo Cain was an established hitter as an eight-year major league veteran entering the 2018 season in Milwaukee. He had slashed .289/.342/.421 for a .759 OPS with the Royals over the previous seven seasons.
In his first year with Coles as his hitting coach, Cain set career highs in batting average (.308), on-base percentage (.395) and walks (71) by a mile with an .813 OPS. It’s hard to tell how much Coles played a part - if any - in this, but Cain also stole a career-high 30 bags.
Cain was named an All-Star and finished seventh in MVP voting, both for the first time since his 2015 campaign with the world champion Royals.
In the three years since Coles’ departure, Cain hit .260 in 2019 and .257 in 2021. He opted out of the 2020 season after playing only five games due to COVID-19.
Yelich’s breakout season and Cain’s renaissance year may have helped Coles land the Diamondbacks hitting coach job in October 2018. One of the projects he undertook there was 25-year-old Ketel Marte.
Marte slashed .263/.324/.389 with a .712 OPS over his first four seasons in the big leagues, the first two in Seattle and the following two in Arizona. In his first season with Coles, Marte hit .329 with a .981 OPS and a career-high 32 home runs, 92 RBIs, .389 on-base percentage and .592 slugging percentage.
Marte was named an All-Star and finished fourth in MVP voting, both for the first time in his career.
You can even trace Coles’ work all the way back to his time as assistant hitting coach with the 2013 Tigers and Miguel Cabrera’s historic second MVP season in which he slashed .348/.442/.636 with an 1.078 OPS, 44 home runs and 137 RBIs. He also drew 90 walks to just 94 strikeouts.
So, yeah, Coles has had some success working with the game’s best hitters.
”I would say, one, communicating. You have to be able to communicate and get your message across, whatever that message is,” Coles said when asked about his strengths as a hitting coach. “You got to be able to two, be a good listener. You got to be able to understand and listen to what a player’s going through, having gone through it, and then be able to evaluate that information so that you can come up with a plan that makes sense.”
As for working with Soto come spring training, Coles has only one goal in mind.
“Nobody, under any circumstances, is to mess with his swing,” Coles said. “He is the epitome of what a great major league hitter is.”
Coles would know.