Hours before the Yankees home opener, Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long is faced with the challenge of duplicating his offense's 2009 season. Key hitters Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui have both departed via free agency for new teams, and Melky Cabrera was traded to the Atlanta Braves.
Who will make up for that lost production?
The Yankees are hoping that former Yankee Nick Johnson, former Tiger Curtis Granderson, and Brett Gardner will be able fill those roles.
Johnson will start the year hitting number two between Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira. Granderson will start in centerfield and figures to hit either sixth or seventh. Gardner will most likely hit last and start in left field.
Granderson and Garnder will be the two biggest hitting projects Long has encountered since he became hitting coach in 2007.
Although Granderson has blazing speed and tremendous power, his batting average continues to suffer, dipping just south of .250 last season.
His hitting is even worse against lefty pitching. In 2009, Granderson hit only .183 against lefties.
As for Gardner, he has struggled to consistently hit during his time in the majors. In his career, he is only a .256 hitter with a .325 OBP, not in the least bit impressive with his speed.
Long will have to somehow help both players improve in their batting average. While Granderson may still be able to hit 30 home runs with a low batting average, Gardner will not survive long if he continues to hit so poorly.
Surely, Long has his work cut out for him.
This upcoming season may answer a question I have thought about for a while now.
Is Kevin really a great hitting coach, or is he just a product of great hitters?
Since his start in 2007, the Yankees have had an impressive offense.
In his first season, the Yankees led all of Major League Baseball in runs (968), hits (1,656), home runs (201), RBIs (929), team batting average (.290), slugging percentage (.463), on-base percentage (.366), and total bases (2,649)
But did Long really contribute that much to the Yankees hitting success?
I think Jorge Posada and Alex Rodriguez would back up their coach.
In 2007, Posada had one of his best seasons in pinstripes. Posada hit a career high .338. In nine seasons before that, Posada never hit better than .287.
Similarly, Rodriguez had one of his best seasons. He sported a .314 batting average, hit 54 home runs, and had a career-high 156 RBI. Those are still his best numbers in a Yankees uniform.
Other players have shared success with Long, but not to the same effect as Posada and Rodriguez.
Derek Jeter has hit .300 or better every season since Long has been in New York, but that is not unfamiliar for Jeter.
Robinson Cano had a career-high 96 RBI in Long's first season, but his batting average also dropped 36 points from 2006.
Melky Cabrera had a career-high 73 RBI in 2007, but his batting average was only .273, four points lower than his career average.
In Mark Teixeira's only season with Long in 2009, he had his usual impressive season, hitting .292, 39 home runs, and 122 RBI.
So, how much of an effect has Long had on these Yankees?
In my opinion, Long is a good hitting coach. He is well respected by the players and coaches.
However, is he one of the best hitting coaches in all of baseball?
I would argue that Long's success has been mostly a result of having a plethora of proven big league hitters.
While he may not be one of the best, Long knows how to handle his players. He knows that he has a roster full of future Hall of Famers, and he knows to help them when they need it, but he also knows when to let things work themselves out.
For a man that never played an inning in MLB, Long shows high class and respect for his players, and that should not go unnoticed.
Perhaps 2010 will be the season where we finally recognize Long as a great hitting coach. If he is able to turn Brett Gardner into a big league hitter, and make Granderson respectable against lefty pitching, Long will be due for some high praise.