CLEARWATER, Fla. — On the first day of spring training, new Phillies hitting coach Kevin Long introduced himself to Mickey Moniak with a pointed question.
“Is there a fear of being closer [to the plate]?” Long asked.
“No,” Moniak said. “Not at all.”
That was everything Long needed to hear. Because he believed he had already seen what may turn Moniak into a better hitter. Long figured a change in the direction of Moniak’s stride could spur more rotation with his hips. But it was all predicted on shuffling his feet in the left-handed batter’s box and moving him closer to the plate.
Simple as that.
» READ MORE: Edge in Castellanos’ game was there as a teen when he was cut from Harper’s national team
Moniak was willing to try it, so Long went to work. Sure enough, the 23-year-old outfielder roped three doubles and three home runs in a span of 16 at-bats through Thursday. And when the Phillies line up for pregame introductions Friday at Citizens Bank Park, there may not be a more unlikely player on the opening-day roster than Moniak, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 draft who was all but written off by team officials when the offseason began.
“Just that small, little adjustment has worked wonders,” Moniak said. “That’s why K-Long’s the best in the business.”
Moniak is from Carlsbad, Calif., near San Diego; Long resides in the San Diego area. Long has worked with a few of Moniak’s friends, including high school teammate Phillip Evans, a utility player in the New York Yankees organization. But Long and Moniak hadn’t met until they arrived here three weeks ago.
They almost certainly would have gotten acquainted in the offseason. But Major League Baseball locked out the players for 99 days and barred team officials from communicating with them during the work stoppage. It wasn’t ideal.
Long, 55, didn’t advance beyond triple A despite batting .273 over eight minor-league seasons. For 15 years, he has been regarded as one of the game’s best hitting coaches. He worked alongside Joe Girardi with the Yankees, and when the Washington Nationals didn’t renew his contract, the Phillies jumped to hire him to replace deposed hitting coach Joe Dillon.
Unable to speak with Phillies hitters during the lockout, Long made use of the time by studying video of them. He estimates that he watched 10 hours’ worth of Moniak’s at-bats. Moniak figures Long saw 1,000 of his plate appearances between the minor leagues and the majors.
By the time the lockout was over, Long knew Moniak’s swing as well as anybody.
» READ MORE: Phillies counting on Mr. Fix-It Bobby Dickerson to improve the majors’ worst infield defense
“I looked at his swing and I thought, ‘Man, this guy’s doing himself an injustice,’” Long said. “For the mechanics and the swing that I saw, I go, ‘If he could just get closer to the plate, get his stride direction in line,’ I said, ‘I don’t see any reason why he’s not going to be really, really good and special.’ So it was kind of easy.”
Who was Moniak to argue? Since the Phillies rushed him to the big leagues for the final two weeks of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, he was 6-for-47 (.128) with one home run. He struck out in 22 of his 55 plate appearances, a 40% rate.
The Phillies yo-yoed him to and from triple A last season. But after starting seven of nine games in April, he got a grand total of nine plate appearances over four ensuing call-ups. It’s not like Moniak lit up the minors either. He’s a .253/.301/.401 hitter with a 21.9% strikeout rate in 2,080 minor-league plate appearances.
And president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said in November that neither Moniak nor fellow first-round draft pick Adam Haseley was a serious candidate for the Phillies’ center-field vacancy.
Instead, the Phillies considered other options, including a potential trade for Tampa Bay Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier. Nothing materialized, and they wound up re-signing Odúbel Herrera as the lefty-hitting half of a platoon with Matt Vierling. If Herrera hadn’t strained a muscle in his side early in camp, Moniak wouldn’t have gotten much of a look.
So, yes, Moniak was going to be receptive to anyone who wanted to help, especially Long.
“But he shouldn’t be unless I make sense of it,” Long said. “You’ve got to understand the ‘why.’ If the ‘why’ makes sense, then hopefully we get some buy-in. He knew that I’d looked at a lot of video, and he knew that this was well planned out. It made sense to him. And it’s been an immediate turnaround.”
» READ MORE: Bring on the ‘chunk guys’: April will put Phillies’ pitching depth to the test
To wit: In the eighth inning Wednesday, Detroit Tigers reliever Nick Kuzia threw Moniak a 3-0 sinker on the outer half of the plate. Rather than taking it for a strike, or reaching for it and rolling a grounder to the left side, Moniak scorched it into center field for a single with an exit velocity of 109.6 mph, according to Statcast.
“He’s not reaching for anything,” Long said. “Pitches on the outside corner, he says he feels like they’re middle.”
Moniak has recognized other benefits to the new set-up in the box.
In the past, he would step with his right leg and stride across his left leg. That isn’t happening anymore. Instead, being closer to the plate enables him to plant his right foot after a shorter leg lift, clear his hips, and rotate his upper body through the ball.
As Long presented Moniak with his findings from the video study, he sounded familiar.
“When I was an amateur,” Moniak said, “I think this is how I hit.”
Long wasn’t interested in how or why Moniak strayed from that approach. He cared only that they could work together to get him back to it.
» READ MORE: Predicting the Phillies’ opening-day roster
“I always knew I would kind of cross-stride and cut myself off,” Moniak said. “I’ve done work in the past to try to fix it. But I mean, [Long] got me right from Day 1. I feel like I’m seeing the ball better. I’ve got a lot more time up there to be able to adjust to pitches and still be on the heater.”
Moniak’s spring hot streak pushed him ahead of Haseley, who got traded last week to the Chicago White Sox for a minor-league pitcher. Maybe he will sustain it and revive a Phillies career that seemed to peter out last year. Maybe he won’t.
Regardless, Long has him feeling as confident as he has ever been since he arrived with the hype of a No. 1 overall pick.
“Showing up Day 1 and being able to get after it, and [Long] doing the research and knowing what he wanted to do with us, was huge,” Moniak said. “It’s a huge testament to him and why he’s so good at what he does.”