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Relationships with Bryce Harper, Joe Girardi key to Kevin Long’s hiring as Phillies hitting coach

Harper says he "could not be happier" with the hiring of his former hitting coach with the Nationals.

New Phillies hitting coach Kevin Long is excited to be reunited with Bryce Harper.
New Phillies hitting coach Kevin Long is excited to be reunited with Bryce Harper.Read moreSeth Wenig / AP

A few days ago, after he sat behind home plate with Juan Soto for the National League wild-card game at Dodger Stadium but before he was named as the Phillies’ new hitting coach, Kevin Long phoned Bryce Harper.

“I told him that he was going to have a familiar hitting coach, and he said, ‘I just got goose bumps,’” Long said Wednesday. “I said, ‘Good. Me too.’ We’re excited to be reunited.”

The Phillies introduced Long on a videoconference call Wednesday, 10 days after letting go of Joe Dillon, Long’s former assistant for two seasons with the Washington Nationals. Long signed a two-year contract, according to a source. Phillies manager Joe Girardi has one year left on his deal, plus a team option for 2023.

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For three years, the Phillies’ and Nationals’ top hitters (Harper and Soto) and hitting coaches (Dillon and Long) have orbited one another. Harper left Washington for a 13-year, $330 million contract with the Phillies as Soto was ascending to stardom — and eventually a World Series title in 2019 — with the Nationals. Long recommended Dillon to Girardi two years ago before ultimately replacing him.

The latter move begs the question of why the Phillies believe an offense that slipped to league-average levels this season will be in better hands with Long than Dillon, who is widely regarded as Long’s protégé.

“I’m not so sure how much of a philosophy change there’s going to be,” Girardi said. “But let me compare it this way: There are a lot of protégés, but there’s one Nick Saban. There’s one Kevin Long.”

Girardi worked with Long for seven seasons with the New York Yankees and said he “knew this is the guy that I always wanted if I ever got a chance to be back together with him.” That wasn’t possible two years ago because Long was employed by the Nationals.

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But with Long’s contract expiring and the sides “far apart on numbers,” as he said, he received permission to speak with other teams. At Girardi’s insistence — and with the approval of Harper, who was close with Dillon — the Phillies were at the front of the line.

“I could not be happier with the hiring of Kevin Long,” Harper said Wednesday. “He has coached some of the best players and hitting teams in the league and has helped many organizations and players reach their peaks.”

Harper worked with Long for only one season, but they developed a close relationship. Harper struggled in the first half of 2018, batting .214 and slugging .468 with 23 home runs in 414 plate appearances. But Long helped him simplify his swing and hit line drives rather than trying to launch the ball over the fence. After the All-Star break, Harper batted .300 and slugged .538 with 11 homers in 281 plate appearances.

“I’ve always enjoyed my time with Bryce,” Long said. “He is an exceptional talent. His swing is one that I know and I’ve worked with before. I’m excited for that opportunity.”

But improving the Phillies’ offense will involve more than merely keeping Harper happy.

As a general philosophy, Long said he tries to “build swings that are on time for the fastball.” Phillies hitters combined to slug .420 against fastballs, 24th in the majors and below league average (.446). He said he wants to help the Phillies synchronize their minor-league hitting instruction to the approach that is being emphasized at the major-league level.

Long is also planning a trip next week to Clearwater, Fla., to meet with young third baseman Alec Bohm, who went from being runner-up for NL Rookie of the Year in 2020 to one of the worst everyday players in the league this year. Among Bohm’s biggest shortcomings: He slugged .264 against fastballs, down from .505 last year.

“Alec’s a big part of us winning a championship,” Long said. “I saw him in 2020 and he was one of the best hitters in the league. It’s my job to figure out what he was doing then and try to get him back to that high level of performance.”

» READ MORE: Protecting Bryce Harper: Power hitter options for the Phillies this offseason

Girardi and Long had a memorable dustup June 22 at Citizens Bank Park. Long shouted at Girardi, who had asked the umpires to inspect Nationals starter Max Scherzer for foreign substances. Girardi nearly left the dugout and escalated the situation.

Four months later, they laughed about it, with Long referring to Girardi as “family.”

“My wife suggested that we play it out in spring training and act it out again, but at the end, give each other a hug,” said Girardi, who cleared the air with Long the following day. “She thought that would be a good idea.”

Said Long: “My wife handled it differently. She said, ‘Are you kidding me? He would kill you.’ I said, ‘I’m not going to back down. But you’re probably right.’”

» READ MORE: Young players who must meet Bryce Harper’s challenge with the Phillies in 2022

Did Girardi suspect Long would be a free agent when the Phillies got rid of Dillon on Oct. 3? Or was their reunion serendipitous?

“I knew his contract was up, but I didn’t know if he’d be available,” Girardi said. “My thought was I didn’t necessarily think so because I knew how good he was and I knew anyone who had him would want to keep him around because of the job he’s done.”

Extra bases

Girardi said the Phillies are a “couple days” away from hiring a new infield coach. Bobby Dickerson, who spent 2019 with the Phillies, remains in consideration, according to a source. ... The Phillies will hold organizational meetings in Clearwater this month.