Embattled Hitting Coach: Struggles Weren’t Because Of A Lack Of Effort By Anyone
By Sweeny Murti
When Joe Girardi was asked Monday if his coaching staff would be back next year, he said only that they worked very hard and that he has a good relationship with all his coaches and that those decisions would be coming further down the road.
Could hitting coach Kevin Long take the fall for the Yankees’ worst offensive season in more than 20 years?
I sat down with Long last weekend in Boston and got some answers about what went wrong with the 2014 Yankees and specifically his role:
In the simplest terms, what happened this year?
Kevin Long: “Well, we didn’t score enough runs. The consistency of coming out on an offensive basis, giving yourself a chance to win, I didn’t feel like we did the job we needed to do. And you can’t just point to one individual, it’s a collective group. Me being in charge of the offense I take as much blame as anybody. And it’s hard to swallow. At the end of the day it’s a tough pill.
“For as much time and effort as I know I’ve put into it and the guys have put into it, you can’t blame effort and you can’t blame the work we’ve put into it. But at the end of the day you’ve got to find ways to get it done and we just did not do that.”
Is there anything that you think was a main factor why it just didn’t click for guys who’ve done it in the past?
Kevin Long: “You know, when you think about the middle of the order, several people were in the middle of our order. Those are guys that you need production from. And if you don’t have production from the middle of your order it’s going to be tough in this league to compete every single day.
“The bottom of the order guys, do you expect them to do big things? I would think most people would say no. The top of the order has to get on and has to give those guys a chance and I feel like for the most part they did.
“Now are there some reasons why those guys (in the middle of the order) didn’t perform? I would say yes. I would say physically Carlos Beltran battled all year. And I give him a lot of credit, because a lot of people would have quit and they would have said ‘You know I’m just going to go get my (elbow) surgery, I’m a shell of what I should be.’
“Mark Teixeira coming back, you know, he would tell you he battled as well, didn’t have that snap in his wrist that allows him to be the hitter that he wants to be.
“Brian McCann — I give him a lot of credit because he did figure it out. You know he ends up with (23 HR and 75 RBI). At one point you thought that would have been out of distance, that there’s no way he could have done that. His at-bats got better as the year went on, there’s a positive there. I think if Beltran gets back, he’s going to have surgery as soon as the season’s over, that’s going to help. And I think Tex will be better. So there is something to look at and say this could and will get better as we go along.
“Also another thing I think we should talk about is we’ve got to be better on the bases. I can’t tell you how many times we ran ourselves out of innings, or we didn’t do little things we need to do. And in today’s game where runs are so hard to come by you have to be more efficient in those areas. Moving runners will be more of a premium, getting guys in will be more of a premium. Hitting with runners in scoring position we were probably in the middle of the pack [finished with .253 BA with RISP, 8th in AL, 14th in MLB], but again if you don’t have speed out there or don’t have a good secondary (lead) it’s going to be tough to score runners.
“There are a lot of factors. Obviously when it doesn’t go well you can point to a million different things. And in this case I think you can point to a lot of things.”
We talked about this two years ago where you said you weren’t going to become the Bronx Bunters, but the way the offense is trending now, do you have to start thinking about doing more things differently?
Kevin Long: “No we’re not constructed like that. (GM Brian Cashman) doesn’t get a whole lot of speed guys. He goes out and gets guys that can hit the ball out of the park. I don’t think hitting the ball out of the park was as much of an issue as the other things. We had about 150 home runs [147 to be exact]. At one point it didn’t even look like we’d get close to that. We did hit some home runs and we did some things (in the second half), but it’s more about the little things. Executing and not missing a pitch when you need to. And I’m going to go to baserunning again — we have to better there, we have to better with men in scoring position.
“Getting guys over from second base (to third base with nobody out) I looked at our clip the other day, it was really, really good. And getting guys in, I think league average is 55 percent or something, and I think we’re a little bit above that. Some of those little things we did do well.
“As far as bunting, Joe’s going to pick his times to bunt and it’s not going to be a Beltran or a Teixeira or a McCann. It’s going to be bottom of the order guys or some guys at the top of the order. He’ll pick his spots, but I don’t think we need to do more bunting. Should we work on bunting maybe a little more? Maybe. But I did see numerous times our guys were willing to bunt against the shift. And I’m talking about some of our big guys. I saw Beltran do it twice, McCann did it probably 10 times on the year, I’ve seen Headley try a few times. I’ve seen a lot of guys at least try to combat that shift.”
I want to get back to the shift, but you talked about runners in scoring position. Averages are down all over, they’ve been up higher before. Is that an approach, is it luck, is it the health of the guys in the middle of the order you were talking about earlier? Is there anything that you can say why this team didn’t drive in as many runs as it should have with runners in scoring position?
Kevin Long: “Luck is a big part of it. Some bleeders will work, any blooper will work, an infield hit will work. There are so many things that can keep an inning going or get runners in. A lot of it is luck. You can look at the Cardinals. They were incredible last year (.330 BA with RISP in 2013, down to .254 in 2014). They go one year and you tell me they did something that drastically different that they weren’t able to come through in those situations? Same hitting coach [John Mabry], same pretty much everybody in place. They lost Beltran. You can’t tell me he’s going to make almost a 100-point difference. So that leads me to believe, yes there is some luck involved. And whether it’s a big sample of a full year or what have you, there are just some years where everything clicks and falls into place.”
The shift — you guys do it more defensively, and other teams do it to you more than I’ve seen in the past. It’s definitely a reason some of your batting averages are down. But what can you do about it and did you do enough about it this year?
Kevin Long: “I think what you do is you start attacking that in spring training. And how do you do that? You just set up a back field and work on hitting ground balls the other way. Plain and simple. Just a ground ball and hitting it the other way. Do guys practice that very often? Not really.
“The power hitters, the shift guys … I think more guys are going to have to work on it, and will work on it.”
Is it that easy to just say “hit the ball the other way?”
Kevin Long: “If you work on it and you get a feel for it, I believe it is. (Derek Jeter) always says to me, and he’s right, ‘I wish they’d do that to me, I’d get a hit every single time.’ I don’t know about every single time, that’s his confidence coming into play, but yes, you can manipulate the barrel of the bat and create angles that allow you to get some extra hits. And you know what? You do it four or five times, that’s all it takes, and they are going to start honoring your swing a little bit more and know that you’ll do that.”
So where is your role in all this? I hear from fans all the time, “They don’t hit against the shift, it’s the hitting coach’s fault.” At the end of the day it’s the guy in the batter’s box, but what is your role in getting these guys to understand it and execute it?
Kevin Long: “Yeah, you just start attacking it. Obviously the way baseball is now with the amount of shifts … again, you just attack it. You set up the field — and I’ll be a part of this — you set up the field, get everybody out there and work on hitting the ball the other way. And not in the air, because that’s not going to work. It’s more hitting it on the ground the other way. So we’ll attack it and at least make it available to them. And the more you practice it, the more that you go, ‘Oh I can do that. I should be able to do that at any time.’”
So when it doesn’t happen — is it your message not getting through or is the hitter just not able to execute?
Kevin Long: “I don’t know that it’s not my message getting through, because we all talk about it. It’s very open conversation in the dugout, with the players, with me … so you just continue to harp on it, continue to stay on it. And then we’ve got to a find way. When we’re in batting practice there’s nobody that jumps in the cage or in BP that starts yanking the ball and hitting it out of the park. They all start where? Hitting the ball the other way. So they’re all capable of it. They’ve got to commit to it a little bit. They’ve got to say I’m going to take this hit right here.”
I’ve talked to you about this before — the role of hitting coach is not the same as the offensive coordinator in football. You’re not drawing up plays and when they’re unsuccessful in scoring it’s directly the result of what you’ve drawn up. There are a lot of different ways to do what you do and how you impact hitters. Did you ever think this year because the team wasn’t scoring runs that your job was in danger?
Kevin Long: “I don’t think that way. I never have, I never will. I truly believe that I’m one of the best hitting coaches in the game. Why would I say that? I’ve been doing this long enough and I’ve heard from enough players out there that have been other places. And I ask them if there’s something else I need to do, I will graciously do it. And if I need to attack some different areas or find some deficiencies that I need to get better at, then let’s do it. You’re always trying to get better. You’re always trying to give the player the best avenue to succeed. Some years are going to be tougher than others, some days will be tougher than others, some weeks. This has just been a rough couple years actually (chuckles). Last year the players that we had weren’t the top caliber players. This year we had some names in there but I don’t know if they were right (physically).
“So no excuses, I’ll take full responsibility and blame, but I’ll continue to work as hard as I’ve ever worked. I’m going to continue to do whatever I can to help our organization, our players, and at the end of the day I can go to sleep at night knowing that I gave everything I had to this organization, to the fans, to the players, to everybody involved.
“And you know what? At some point I won’t be the Yankees hitting coach and they’re going to understand that this guy Kevin Long really did give us everything he could. And you know what? We blasted him and maybe gave him a harder time than maybe he deserved. But when your offense struggles or you’re not scoring runs, I get it. I understand. If you want to attack me, attack me. Come after me and give me as much grief as you want to give me. But I can tell you this: it’s not from not being involved in the offense or with the players and trying to make them as consistent as I can make them on a daily basis.”