The Washington Nationals announced a plethora of coaching and organizational changes following the conclusion of the 2023 season. Two non-changes have made headlines among Nationals' fans: the decision to retain both hitting coach Darnell Coles and pitching coach Jim Hickey.
Coles, previously the hitting coach for the Milwaukee Brewers and Arizona Diamondbacks, was hired by Mike Rizzo in 2021. According to ESPN.com, the Nationals ranked fourth in batting average, 21st in home runs, and third-least strikeouts that season. The Nats then fell to 11th in batting average in 2022 and again to 13th in the 2023 regular season. Coles philosophy is to prioritize contact over power at the plate, which is clear from the Nats' high batting average and low strikeout numbers. The contact first approach leads to a lot of weak contact and minimal extra base hits. Subsequently, the Nationals ranked 29th in the Majors in the home run category in 2023 and the overall power was non-existent in the Nats lineup except from a few sources.
The "new age" of baseball is hitting for power with high strikeout totals, as we see teams like the Phillies and Rangers having success utilizing. The Nationals and Darnell Coles have stuck with the contact-first approach for the past three seasons. Is it time for a change schematically? The Nats are falling behind in run totals and power categories compared to the rest of the Majors.
The Nationals have developed a few solid hitters at the Major League level, and some credit could be given to Darnell Coles. Lane Thomas, Stone Garrett, and Riley Adams are players who were acquired and developed into efficient hitters, at least for stretches of the 2023 season. Joey Meneses, a minor league journeyman, has sustained his success from his late-season call-up in 2022. The power wasn't as prominent, as typical with the Coles' approach, but the ability to drive in runs was vital to the Nationals' success.
Players such as CJ Abrams, in his first full season, took a step forward in 2023. Just 23 years old, he's still learning baseball at the Major League level. When moved into the leadoff spot, he excelled and became a more confident player at the plate and shortstop. While many aspects of his game need improvement, the step forward in 2023 was monumental for the Nationals' shortstop. One could argue, however, that players like Abrams and Keibert Ruiz had more success when deviating from Coles' philosophy and instead pulling the ball in the air.
Hickey, who coached for the Tampa Bay Rays and Chicago Cubs, was hired in 2021 alongside Coles. Jim was a part of the Tampa Bay "pitching lab" that seemingly reincarnated pitchers that lost their way, although that started to ramp up after Hickey departed Tampa Bay. Hickey was hired by Mike Rizzo to replicate that success in Washington after a couple of seasons out of baseball. The Nats ranked 24th in team ERA in 2021, 29th in 2022, and 27th in 2023, according to ESPN.com. The pitching staff has been among the worst in baseball since Hickey was hired in 2021. The bullpen did not live up to expectations in 2023, starting pitching has been a problem for years in Washington, and Patrick Corbin has been one of the worst pitchers in baseball for almost three seasons. Safe to say the results have not been pretty for Hickey.
There have been some bright spots in an otherwise pit of underperforming arms. Josiah Gray, Kyle Finnegan, and Hunter Harvey were three of the Nats' best arms in 2023. Gray has improved in the last two seasons and became an All-Star for the first time this year. Like Abrams, he's due for improvement in multiple areas, but the 2023 season was substantial for Josiah Gray. Finnegan and Harvey are the rocks of the Nats' bullpen. They've both found sustained success in late-inning situations. Rookie Jake Irvin was a bright spot this season and had a strong demeanor. The development of these Nats' players, among others not mentioned, can be credited to Jim Hickey, as much as his haters don't want to hear it.
These two coaches aren't popular amongst Nationals fans. Don't search through Twitter if you're a fan of Coles and Hickey. However, the two coaches have clearly done enough in the eyes of Mike Rizzo and ownership as the two are here to stay in 2024, despite what fans may want. It has not always been pretty, but there have been some success stories from both coaches.
So, Nationals fans, take a deep breath and relax. Yes, Darnell Coles and Jim Hickey are returning in 2024, but there is still much to be excited about. Players like Cade Cavalli will return next season, CJ Abrams and Josiah Gray will have more experience, and the Lerners could spend some money this offseason after a big step forward from the team in 2023.
What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments!