Long Ball: Yankees' New Hitting Coach
Has A-Rod and Team Back in Top Form
By ALLEN BARRA
August 7, 2007; Page D6
Ted Williams and New York Yankees coach Kevin Long have much in common. Both are ranked among the great students of the art of hitting a baseball; both are considered great teachers in that art. And both, except for Mr. Long, were great hitters. The late, great Boston Red Sox outfielder and Hall of Famer compiled a .344 lifetime batting average and in 1941 batted .406, the last man in major league baseball to top .400. Kevin Long never played a game in the major leagues.
Mr. Long, who replaced Don Mattingly this year as the Yankees' hitting coach, did spend eight years in the Kansas City Royals' minor-league system. "He was a hustler," according to Yankees outfielder Johnny Damon, Mr. Long's former minor-league roommate and now his pupil. "He wasn't very big or fast," says Mr. Damon, "but he was a tough heads-up player who always tried to take advantage of every situation. I loved to see him make that head-first slide." Just before the 1997 season, Mr. Long told the Royals' farm director that he was packing it in as a player. "I knew what I wanted to do," he says, lounging in the Yankees' clubhouse before a game with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. "I wanted to coach. I felt my real talent was helping guys get better. I really feel fulfilled when I see someone reach his potential."
Beginning early in July, many Yankees have been reaching their potential with dramatic suddenness. Through the first 79 games of the season, the Yankees were just 38-41 and suffering from a sluggish offense that was producing just 5.6 runs per game. Starting July 2, however, the Yankees caught fire, winning 23 of their next 32 games as of Sunday, averaging an explosive 7.9 runs per nine innings. What's made the difference? Ask Johnny Damon, Bobby Abreu, Robinson Cano, Andy Phillips and other Yankee hitters who have been pounding the ball with amazing consistency. They'll tell you that they've all started listening to Kevin Long.
The most celebrated of Mr. Long's students is Alex Rodriguez, the major league's leader in home runs, runs batted in, runs scored, and slugging percentage, and who on Saturday became the youngest player in baseball history to hit 500 home runs. Mr. Rodriguez, of course, wasn't exactly a slap hitter before he began working with Mr. Long, having led the American League in home runs four times. But many saw a sharp decline in A-Rod's hitting last year, despite a batting average of .290, 35 home runs, and 121 RBIs. Working with Mr. Long this season, as we go to press Mr. Rodriguez has exceeded last year's home-run total, and his slugging percentage is over 100 points higher than in 2006. "He's amazing," the Yankees third baseman and a leading MVP contender says of Mr. Long. "He's a great coach, a great teacher, and a great communicator."
How did Mr. Long work his miracle with A-Rod? "It's no miracle," he says calmly, sipping a bottle of water. "What we're talking here is maybe improving a hitter's success rate by just a tiny fraction -- but in baseball terms, it's a fraction that makes a huge difference. After all, the difference between being a good hitter at, say, .300, and a great hitter at, say, .350, is just five hits out of every hundred at bats. The batter who can make all the little things work better and get those five extra hits is probably going to the Hall of Fame."
The little things that Mr. Long helped Mr. Rodriguez with have restored A-Rod's reputation as the game's greatest slugger. A firm believer in using technology to study hitters, Mr. Long pored over DVDs of Mr. Rodriguez after his prolonged slump last season (during one stretch he struck out 12 times in 17 at bats) and noticed that A-Rod's famous leg kick was too high. "Not only too high, but he was starting it a split-second too late. His knee was at his waist, and there was a 95 mph fastball coming at him. It was tough for Alex to get his leg down and turn his hips in time to hit an inside fastball -- and the result was that's what a lot of pitchers were attacking him with. It was basically a question of getting him into a better position faster. If you have to worry about getting your knee down before you hit the ball, you're giving yourself too much to do. In this instance, it was a case of subtracting in order to gain."
Did Mr. Long approach A-Rod and suggest a change? "It was more of a mutual understanding. We talked about things he could do, the mechanics of his swing. We spent four days in Miami before the season in a batting cage at his house, working on that leg lift and how to make his swing more compact, more powerful." He taught A-Rod his "net drill," which he describes thusly: "You take a stance parallel to a net only a bat-length away from you. You hold the knob of the bat to your stomach to measure the distance. Then, your coach flips balls to you and you hit them -- without the bat touching the net. That's how you know your swing is more compact. The drill forces you to pull your hands towards your body as you swing -- it gets you in the proper position to turn on those inside pitches."
That certainly addresses some mechanical problems, but as another great student of hitting once phrased it, "Half the game is 90% mental." "I don't know if Yogi got the proportions exactly right," says Mr. Long with a laugh, "but he's certainly right about having the correct mindset. I talk to hitters I work with about controlling the at bats. Hitting is reactive, so it's often assumed that the pitcher controls everything that happens. That shouldn't be so."
But wasn't Yogi Berra also correct when he said, "You can't think and hit at the same time?" "Essentially, yes. The batter shouldn't be standing there in the box thinking about what the pitcher might throw. He shouldn't be guessing. I think he's much better off to always anticipate a fastball. That way if he's wrong, he still has a fraction of a second to react to any slower pitch. If you go up there guessing breaking ball or change of pace and you get a fastball, there's no time to react," Mr. Long says.
One thing that separates Mr. Long from other hitting gurus is that he's not an ideologue. "He's not trying to sell you a theory of hitting," says New York Mets slugger Carlos Beltran, whom Mr. Long worked with in Kansas City. "He's just trying to take the tools and talent that you have and make you the best hitter you can be." Unlike Ted Williams, Mr. Long isn't trying to turn others into clones of himself. "Every body type and every temperament is unique," he says. "I work with each hitter according to his individual style and needs." One such player is Tampa Bay first baseman Carlos Pena. "I was just about out of the game last August when the Yankees released me. Kevin worked with me, smoothed out my swing, and got me into the best groove of my career."
One of Mr. Long's techniques for working with Mr. Pena was to have the slugger take batting practice from a cage rather than on the field. "Some guys, like Carlos, if they take BP on the field, all they see are those seats. They end up thinking about nothing but home runs. Their focus is much better in the cage, where they simply concentrate on meeting the ball." When Mr. Long saw Mr. Pena in the tunnel between the two teams' locker rooms last weekend, he called out, "You still taking BP in the cage?" Mr. Pena replied with an emphatic "Yeah!" Mr. Pena, a player who was nearly out of baseball a year ago, has been among the American League's top four home-run hitters nearly all of this season.
So, if one had to make a short list of Kevin Long's recommendations, where to begin? "Well, I'd say practice a compact swing. Then, go up to the plate with a clear idea of what you're going to do, don't let the pitcher control your at bat; assume he's going to throw you a fastball and be as ready as you can for that. Then you'll be ready for anything else. Next, incorporate the lower half of your body into your swing -- make it a kinetic link. Start swinging from the ground up and work it into the bat."
And then? "And then, once you've found something that works, once you've found the right mechanics, maintain them. Don't lapse into bad habits, and don't let anyone try to fix something that isn't broken. Have confidence in yourself -- if you hit a bad stretch, don't experiment. Try going back to the basics that worked before."
Is that the secret to hitting like Alex Rodriguez? "No, but it might be the secret to being a little better than you are."