If this were a normal offseason, Phillies hitting coach Kevin Long would have tried to hit with everyone — or close to everyone — on the 40-man roster before arriving to spring training in February.
Of course, this offseason has been anything but normal, and few understand that better than Long, who was hired by the Phillies in October, just 52 days before MLB’s owners locked out the players. Unable to talk to his future pupils, Long has spent three-quarters of his day, every day, looking at videos of swings, and jokes that, mechanically-speaking, he might know the Phillies’ hitters better than they know themselves.
But he knows that there is only so much that video can do without that face-to-face time that he so badly covets.
“It’s a bit gut-wrenching,” Long said on Tuesday. “It’s not a good feeling. It’s like a piece of you is gone, not having that interaction and that ability to reach out to people. It hasn’t been a whole lot of fun.
“It takes a long time [to build trust]. It doesn’t happen in a day. Doesn’t happen in a week. It usually doesn’t happen in a month. A lot of times it takes years. And if you lose two months, when do you gain that [back]? So I guess that’s the difficult part. I don’t know Didi [Gregorius]. I don’t know Rhys Hoskins. I don’t know these guys. I’ve seen them from a distance, but I wouldn’t expect them to trust me the first day they walk into camp, that’s for sure. Where as if I had two months, and I saw them beforehand, I think they’d walk in here and say, ‘Hey, K-Long, what’s up!’ And then you’re already halfway there. So that’s the tough part.”
Long isn’t alone in his sentiments. Other managers and coaches across the league, like Braves manager Brian Snitker and newly hired Mets manager Buck Showalter, have expressed similar frustrations. Whenever the league and the union do reach a deal, Long is going to hit the ground running by trying to schedule as many one-on-one meetings with players as he can. In a sense, he has hit the ground running since the moment he was hired.
Aware that the CBA would expire on Dec. 1, and that his communication would likely be cut off with his players after that date, Long decided to work with as many 40-man roster players as he could over those 52 days. Using the Phillies’ spring training facility in Clearwater, Fla., as a home base, he scheduled four to five sessions with five players who were in the area: J.T. Realmuto, Alec Bohm, Adam Haseley, Matt Vierling, and Luke Williams. All five were given feedback and drills to work on over the course of the lockout, in the event that Long wouldn’t be able to be in touch for awhile.
“I did feel a little bit of urgency to kind of get to guys,” Long said. “I would never, ever start hitting with guys in November. That has just never been something that I’ve done, but I did it this year. I did more before Dec. 2 [the start of the lockout] last year than I would have ever wanted to or ever could have imagined doing.”
The sense of urgency was felt so strongly that Long held a batting practice in Clearwater the day before the lockout started with Bohm, Vierling, Haseley, and Williams. Bohm, who lives in Florida during the offseason, made a strong impression on Long, who says he is “going to be a force in this league for a long time.”
“His approach is really, really good when he’s able to kind of stay in the middle of field and even a little bit to right-center,” Long said of Bohm, 25. “I’ve always liked his approach. I will say this: He’s going to be closer to the hitting position, and he’s going to have a shorter swing than he had last year. So I would say Alec is going to be a little bit more spread out, he’s going to have a little less load, and everything he’s gonna do is gonna be shorter and more precise to get to the ball.
“The more that you add on and the more pieces that you have involved in your swing, the harder hitting becomes. The more your head moves, the more your body moves. They’re throwing the ball harder than they’ve ever thrown it, so I really want my hitters to have less movement as opposed to more movement.”
Realmuto, 30, was the only veteran hitter Long worked with of his group in Florida. It’s safe to say at this point in his career, the three-time All-Star and two-time Silver Slugger doesn’t have too many adjustments to make, but Long is a believer in making improvements anywhere you can.
“I think he’s so talented,” Long said. “I told [Realmuto], if we can get you to feel a couple of things, and it makes you that much more dangerous and that much better of a hitter, shouldn’t we explore it? Shouldn’t we attack it? And 99% of the time, they’re going to say, ‘That makes so much sense.’ So how do we do that? Well, here’s my ideas. And then there’s where the dialogue and relationship helps. You start throwing some stuff off each other and then he starts exploring with some drills. Obviously it’s stuff that you feel very strongly about. And you’ve got to make it, you know, more or less my idea, but they’ve got to buy in, too. So there’s a lot of buy-in involved there. And honestly, I want them to give me feedback. I want them to tell me if it doesn’t make sense.
“So you say, this is what you do so well. You’re such a good bat-to-ball guy. I think you could get closer to hitting position. I think you could get a little tighter and more compact. I think you could tighten up your strike zone a little bit.”
Fifty-two days were never going to be enough time for Long to reach everyone on his list, but he hopes he can get back to work sooner rather than later.
“I just didn’t have enough time to talk to everybody,” Long said. “I’ve had a lot of success in the past working with guys in the offseason, getting their swings right, giving them four or five things to really concentrate on, and we couldn’t do that. So that’s unfortunate, because the product is not going to be as good.
“It’s all definitely new ground. But eventually, it’ll all come together.”