When Kevin Long reached out to Kyle Schwarber shortly after the slugger signed with the Washington Nationals, one thing quickly led to the next.
The Nationals’ hitting coach first texted Schwarber to offer his congratulations. But Long had already studied Schwarber’s swing, so he was full of ideas. Long mentioned the possibility of working with Schwarber ahead of spring training, and Schwarber was on board.
“I said, ‘Come out whenever,’” Schwarber recalled telling Long. “And he was like, ‘All right, I’ll be there in like three days.’”
So Long showed up, ready to work at a high school near Schwarber’s place in Tampa, Florida. And during those hitting sessions in January, Long and Schwarber talked through changes to Schwarber’s swing and approach aimed at making the veteran hitter a major component of Washington’s retooled lineup.
Much of the adjustments involved Schwarber’s legs and staying back on the ball. It’s not necessarily novel — Schwarber said he used a “squatty” stance before — but the Nationals hope the changes bring Schwarber back to his 2019 production.
“The best thing is that the hitting stance, everyone wants to kind of think it’s a new thing,” Schwarber said. “It’s really not. If you kind of look back at my past, even in college and early years of minor league baseball, I was a squatty guy. I think it’s good for me. It’s kind of getting back to who I was and going back to the basics.”
Schwarber struggled at the plate last season, hitting .188 for the Chicago Cubs with 11 home runs and a .701 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in the shortened campaign. But Washington general manager Mike Rizzo showed this offseason that he didn’t take 2020 stats at face value, believing the unorthodox season may have played a role in any regressions.
That’s why the Nationals traded for first baseman Josh Bell despite a down season the year before. And that’s why Rizzo inked Schwarber on a one-year, $10 million deal. He thinks the 27-year-old will look more like what he did in 2019, when he hit a career-high 38 homers with 92 RBI to go along with a .250 average and .871 OPS.
Schwarber remembered, as a freshman at Indiana, he used a more upright batting stance. The next three years, the left fielder squatted more before gradually inching higher. Part of that change came from more pitchers throwing high heat at the top of the zone. Standing taller, Schwarber had a better chance to catch up to those pitches.
But he’s trying to strike a balance now, giving himself more of a chance to stay back on a variety of pitches and locations.
“We want to get him to where, when he gets that pitch that’s in that nitrozone for him, he can’t foul it off, he’s got to put it in play,” manager Dave Martinez said. “When he does that, he’s going to be really good. If we can get him to do that consistently, you’ll see the average go up with the walks as well.”
The Nationals paired Schwarber with Juan Soto’s hitting group so far in spring training, hoping Schwarber takes note of how Soto focuses on hitting up the middle. Martinez doesn’t want Schwarber to press at the plate. Instead, the more contact Schwarber can manage, the better — his power will still come out.
The early signs are promising, Martinez said, with Schwarber “staying through the ball a lot better than I’ve seen him before.”
The next step will be to see if Schwarber can translate that offseason work to games, becoming the kind of middle-of-the-order bat the Nationals envisioned when they signed him. The early sessions with Long might’ve given Schwarber a head start on that process.
“It was nice to kind of get that instruction,” Schwarber said, “and then he left and I was able to keep pounding all that stuff in that he gave me to show up in the spring training and have a really good base.”
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