Don Long has no shortage of projects in Pittsburgh. Entrusted to tutor a lineup that bears little resemblance to The Lumber Company, the Pirates hitting coach has both a lot of building and rebuilding on his daily docket. There are promising young bats to nurture and at least as many reclamation projects that will either thrive or wither under his tutelage. It is a tall task for Long, who assumed his current position in November 2007 after spending eight years as the minor-league hitting coordinator for the Phillies and 11 more as a manager in the Angels' organization. Long sat down with Baseball Prospectus during spring training.
David Laurila: It is often said that hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports. Do you agree with that?
Don Long: I think that a lot of guys make it a lot harder than it is. It’s definitely a challenge, but I think if you get to know yourself and what you’re capable of, and stay within that—what parts of the zone you’re able to handle well—you manage that aspect of it. These guys are all very talented. Most of them, swing-wise, have good swings. Most of their problems come from not being on time to swing and not being in position to swing. It’s definitely a challenge, but at this level, these guys are all good and the great players manage those things better than good ones do.
DL: Do most hitters have similar zones that they handle well?
Long: No, I think it varies. It depends on the type of hitter. It depends on different physical attributes, different things they do in their approach to hit and what position they put themselves in to hit. Some guys cover the outer half of the plate better than they do the inner half. Whatever your strength is, until you have to hit the whole zone—with two strikes on all of his pitches—the key is to expect the ball where you want it and be ready to attack it and be able to consistently put it in play hard.
DL: With so little time to react, how does a hitter learn to take a strike away when he prefers something on the inner half, or vice versa?
Long: We practice it every day. We’ll have rounds that we call "Zone your strength," which is basically knowing what part of the zone you like the ball in and expecting it there before it’s thrown. Don’t wait until it’s thrown and then say, "There it is," or you’ll be too late. Expect it there and start to make your move to hit it in that zone and trust your eyes to tell you, "No, that’s not it," and lay off it. Too many hitters—I don’t like the word "struggle"—but when they’re more challenged than in other times, that is what they’re doing. They’re trying from the first pitch of the at-bat—they think they have to swing at everything that surrounds the zone. Sometimes, they start to expand the zone and make the pitcher’s job easier. So, it’s something we practice every day in our regular rounds of BP, our early hitting on the field, or it might be just taking a guy in the cage and doing it there as well.
DL: Is it important for hitters to put extra work into improving their weak zones or should they primarily concentrate on what they do well?
Long: If it’s such a gaping hole that a pitcher doesn’t have to bring the ball into the zone to get you to swing the bat, then yeah, you have to put some attention on that. Again, most of these guys have a strength and enhancing and developing that strength while being mindful of other parts of the zone, or other pitches they need to improve on, is important. But I think you can spend too much time working on your deficiencies and not enough on your strength.
DL: When you get a new player, what is your initial approach with him?
Long: My approach is to have spent time watching film of him before I ever meet him so that I have an idea of what I think his strengths are. I really give him the first voice. What has worked for you? What hasn’t worked for you? Kind of feed off of him and not try to jump in too quick, because if I do that, just based on what I’ve seen on film, then I’m not necessarily getting to know him first, and I think it’s important to try to develop trust and a relationship with a guy that you don’t know. It’s important to give him the first voice and kind of work off of him. I’ve been in that situation a lot in the three years I’ve been here and I think it has worked. The player, once he has reached this level, like probably any player—there are certain things they’ve done well. That’s the reason why they’re here. That’s the reason they got signed, and if you jump in too quick with certain guys, you can kind of chip away their confidence. They come here believing in what they’re doing, and the first day in, you’re having them make changes. It’s putting them—and you—in a position to be really frustrated.
DL: What have you asked from Lastings Milledge since he came to Pittsburgh?
Long: Well, approach-wise, just getting himself to a simpler, more fundamental position to hit, where he can get the bat to the ball, and out through the ball, and be much more consistent. He’s bought in, made some nice adjustments, and if you look at him when we got him last year, to where he is now, just approach-wise and how he takes batting practice and how he’s able to get the bat to the ball in different parts of the zone, he’s much improved. Basically, that was a slow process—one little piece at a time—and not trying reconstruct everything at once. Again, it was having that period of time to build some trust before I decided to jump in on it.
DL: What did you see from him, mechanically and/or approach-wise, when he got here?
Long: Basically, it was just a matter of kind of tying himself up—he’d get out over his front foot some. It made it hard for him to stay off of off-speed [pitches] down in the zone and get to fastballs middle in. He has much better balance now. He’s much quieter getting ready. He’s not so rushed and violent like he was, so he not only has better position, the way he’s getting to that position is much more under control, which allows him to repeat the position more often. Then it’s just a matter of making sure he’s ready to hit and seeing the ball well. The swing kind of takes care of itself. I’m a believer in that all good swings are taken before you swing the bat, because you’re in your best hitting position, seeing the ball and ready on time.
DL: In a recent Prospectus Q&A, Buck Showalter talked about how Paul O’Neill struggled against lefties early in his career, but that his swing and approach indicated that he would ultimately handle them much better. I assume that you see similar things in certain hitters?
Long: Every level these guys go to is a new challenge and the same holds true here. The first challenge these guys have is to get here. The second challenge is to be good here. The third challenge is to extend their careers here, be a part of a winning team, and be in winning situations. There are milestones along the way that they’re all trying to reach, and it’s really a treat. Garrett Jones came up last year and hit 10 home runs in his first 19 games. He got more fastballs than he did after that period of time, and he had to make some adjustments. He kind of got out of his box and started to go after some pitches that weren’t really good to hit, but then he brought himself back. So it’s an adjustment, even for the guys who have played a lot of years. It’s a constant game of back-and-forth. You hit this well; OK, we’re going to try this; you’re not hitting it particularly well; you need to adjust, be able to do something to handle it or lay off it. It’s really a great challenge to try and hit at this level.
DL: Jones obviously showed that he was more than capable of hitting big-league pitching when he finally got an extended opportunity to do so. Was he maybe ready earlier than last year?
Long: I think a lot of Garrett coming over here was just a matter of opportunity. He made some adjustments in spring training and loosened himself up. He’s a good athlete and he became more athletic in the box, and from there, it was a matter of opportunity. He did some nice things in Triple-A, he came up here, there was a spot for him to play, and obviously in half a season his production was very, very good. I can’t speak for where he was before, but I know that in our situation, we gave him a chance. We believed in him, and he made some great adjustments and has come a very long way.
DL: What does “more athletic in the box” mean to you?
Long: You have balance. You can repeat your position to hit. You can repeat the timing necessary to get ready to hit. You can see the ball well. You can stay balanced throughout your swing. You can maintain your approach, game to game and pitch to pitch.
DL: Can you touch on Jeff Clement as a hitter?
Long: He’s got great power, and a great work ethic. He’s really driven to become the best he can be. He’s shown a lot all the way through the Triple-A level. Again, talk about milestones, he’s been in the big leagues and now the opportunity is there. [He needs to] continue to improve—work to improve every day and gain the confidence that he belongs at this level. That’s kind of where he is at right now.
DL: Is it easier to hit without the responsibilities that come with the catching position?
Long: I don’t know. I think there’s definitely a lot of wear and tear on your legs. There’s definitely a lot of wear and tear on your hands, like taking foul tips, etc. Yeah, I guess in general that probably holds true.
DL: What do you see in Pedro Alvarez?
Long: He’s another guy who has come a long way in a year. His at-bats this spring compared to last are greatly improved. He has great balance and is working hard, and I’m sure that at some point in the future… we’ll see where he ends up. If he continues his progression, he could really be a nice player.
DL: In which ways has Alvarez improved his at-bats?
Long: For him, it’s not trying to do too much. [It is] staying within the zone like we talked about earlier—making the pitcher come to him rather than him swinging at anything that’s thrown up there because he’s excited. That’s probably the biggest thing. He’s managing the strike zone much better. He’s much calmer in the box. He’s seeing the ball and making the pitcher come into the zone and when they do, he’s putting an aggressive swing on the ball. That’s what a hitter has to do to be successful.