PHILLIES

Phillies hitting coach predicts Castellanos’ big night, enjoys Schwarber’s, too

PHILLIES

Hitting coaches live and die with their pupils. They feel the joy of a two-run double to the gap and the sting of an 0-fer with four runners left on base as if they were standing right there in the batter’s box with their guys.

Kevin Long visited both ends of the spectrum in June.

Kyle Schwarber tore it up. He entered the final game of the month Thursday night hitting .273 with 11 homers and 24 RBIs in June. His OPS was 1.057, fifth best in the National League for the month.

Schwarber also had a great month of June last year – he hit .280 with 16 homers, 30 RBIs and a 1.112 OPS -- when he and Long were together in Washington.

“He was probably the best hitter I’ve ever seen doing my job last June,” Long said before Thursday night’s 14-4 win over Atlanta. “It was, ‘Don’t take your eyes off him because he’s going to do something special.’ This has been a very similar run.”

Schwarber joined the Phillies in March on a four-year, $79 million contract. Nick Castellanos came a week later on a five-year, $100 million deal.

While Schwarber gave the Phillies reasons for elation in June, Castellanos gave them reasons for consternation.

Well, until Thursday night.

Castellanos entered the final day of the month hitting .212 in June. He had just four doubles, no homers and a .514 OPS. For the season, he was hitting .245 with seven homers, 37 RBIs and just a .674 OPS. Last season with Cincinnati, he had a .939 OPS while finishing 12th in the NL MVP voting.

 

Before the game, Long said he believed Castellanos’ struggles were rooted in the player’s trying to do too much at the plate. Major League Baseball began storing game balls in a humidor this season and that has deadened them a bit. In Long’s view, the new ball has hurt Castellanos because he’s a player who hits the ball in the air to the biggest part of the ballpark.

“He’s lost seven home runs that we came up with just on exit velo and launch angle,” Long said.

Long said Castellanos was so conscious of the power outage that he considered trying to pull the ball more “to find places that he could go to to hit home runs.” Long advised against that, but still sensed that Castellanos was getting out in front of pitches too much.

“He was jumping at the ball and going out to get everything and his contact point had become an issue where it was like three, four, even five more inches out in front than where it was in the past,” Long said.

All of this creates weaker contact and a susceptibility to off-speed pitches off the outside corner. Pitchers have attacked Castellanos with more sliders this season and Castellanos has done a lot of chasing. His chase rate for the month of June was 44.2 percent, seventh highest in MLB, entering Thursday. What’s more, when Castellanos is getting a fastball, he’s not doing damage. Last year, he hit .376 with a .677 slugging percentage against fastballs. This year, he was at .266 and .430 entering Thursday.

Castellanos had taken his June struggles hard, especially as he and others try to pick up the slack for the injured Bryce Harper. You could see the frustration in his body language. Long felt for him because that’s how hitting coaches are wired.

But Long didn’t sense any frustration in Castellanos during their extra work in the batting cage.

And before Thursday night’s game, Long said this:

“I’m seeing improvement. I think he’s working through it. I would expect in the next, if not today, if not tomorrow, I would say in the next week, two weeks, I think he’s going to take off. And I think it’s going to be pretty special. I just have that feeling from his work and what I’m seeing. I really feel like the process is in place and I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

Long’s crystal ball was right on the money. In the first two innings of Thursday night’s game, Castellanos had a hard-hit single and a three-run homer to right-center, the big part of the ballpark. He let a fastball from Ian Anderson get deep and drove it the other way.

As Castellanos crossed home plate after his first homer of June, on the final day of the month, he pointed to his family in the stands. The frustration of the previous four weeks seemed to vanish, replaced by the joy of hitting a big home run, a joy Kevin Long felt, too.

 

And there was a little more joy in the third inning when Schwarber belted a three-run homer, his 12th of the month.