New swing gives Byrd a second chance
Before the 2012 season, Marlon Byrd moved his family to suburban Los Angeles. The Cubs traded him in April to Boston for a minor-league pitcher and player to be named. The Red Sox released him in June. Thirteen days later, Major League Baseball suspended him 50 games for using a banned substance.
Exiled from the game, he returned to his new home and searched the Internet for local batting cages. The one in Westlake Village was too far. There was a place in Chatsworth, 20 minutes from his house, called the Ballyard. "Simple as that," Byrd said. He was two months from his 35th birthday. He batted .210 with one home run in 47 games prior to the suspension. He was desperate.
He met a man named Doug Latta at the Ballyard. They worked for the next 76 days, resting just one, and reinvented Byrd's swing. The next 13 months read like a screenplay: Byrd proved himself in the Mexican League; won a job with the Mets on a minor-league deal; smashed 24 homers; played with the Pirates in the postseason for the first time; and signed a $16 million contract with the Phillies. All because of a Google search.
"It was just one of those things," Latta said. "One of those great coincidences in life."
Byrd credits Latta, a former high school baseball coach, for his resurrection.
"I lucked out," he said.
It is that simple for Byrd, but not for baseball and its onlookers. They are skeptical of a career season at age 35, a sudden surge of home runs for a ground-ball hitter one year after a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs. The natural reaction is dismissive.
That is fine with Byrd, who is unafraid to answer questions about gynecomastia, a condition that causes enlargement of breast tissue in males, and Tamoxifen, the banned drug he took to prevent that growth. Just watch it, Byrd says. Watch the swing.
One of Byrd's favorite stories goes like this: The Mets visited Citizens Bank Park last April in the 2013 season's first week. Byrd took batting practice before one of the games. A few scouts watched. One pulled New York hitting coach Dave Hudgens aside.
Who's the new guy you got?
They did not recognize the swing of Byrd, a veteran of 1,103 major-league games. This spring, Byrd loved retelling that story, a badge of honor in his renaissance.
"I don't think that's Marlon," he said, imitating a scout. "But it looks like him!" Byrd laughed.
"Everything is different," he said. "It's just completely different."
Latta explained the adjustments: "Marlon was really working against his body. He was coming around the ball. He was hitting in a real small zone. A hitter has to handle velocity, late movement, and location. So being able to stay in the zone longer gives him an advantage. If you create that energy through the ball, it gives you a little more lift. Obviously, the results speak for themselves."
Byrd's interpretation is simpler.
"When I say it out loud," he said, "it sounds kind of silly."
Byrd was taught to hit the ball on the ground. He rose through the Phillies system as a speedy centerfielder. His best chance at an immediate career was not as a power hitter, but one who batted for average. Latta said Byrd was taught the old baseball adage of, "Hit grounders and run." He adopted that method - the one his coaches stressed for years - and succeeded because of his athleticism.
"But it does not really translate to an effective long-term functional swing," Latta said. "That mentality may have influenced his early career."
So why did it take so long to adapt?
First, Latta said, Byrd never faced the level of failure he did in 2012. That made him amenable to change. Until then, Byrd applied quick fixes to his swing when confronted with struggles. The constant revisions pushed Byrd to "a point of no return," Latta said.
"You start watching some successful hitters and you see some commonalities in their swings," Latta said. "You might ask, 'How is he doing that?' without realizing that in order to do that, the body has to work a little differently. The way muscle memory works, if someone takes 10, 20, 30, 50,000 swings one way, that is deeply ingrained. It plays into what is being reinforced and what they are told to work on and what they think they need to work on. A hitter can't just make changes at the snap of a finger."
Unless that hitter is confronting his baseball mortality.
'Made sense right away'
On July 12, 2012, Latta watched Byrd swing. He cued video of Miguel Cabrera, Paul Konerko, and Alex Rodriguez. The former high school coach fancies himself a swing whisperer.
"I just came from six years straight working with, in my personal opinion, one of the best hitting coaches ever in Major League Baseball with Rudy Jaramillo," Byrd said. "I'm an open-minded guy. I'll listen to what you have to say. And it made sense right away."
Said Latta: "It was immediate. The very first time we just went back into the cage and tried something. The difference, right then and there, was big. The sound off the bat was completely different. That sold itself."
Byrd's average home run distance of 411.9 feet, according to ESPN's Home Run Tracker, ranked seventh in the majors last season. Home run balls left his bat at an average velocity of 104.6 m.p.h., which was about the same as in the two seasons prior to his drug suspension.
The exit velocity was 104 m.p.h. in 2010 and 103.1 m.p.h. in 2011. He hit 21 home runs over those two seasons. His increased total in 2013 was not a by-product of strength; Byrd hit more balls in the air because of his mechanical adjustment.
Byrd converted a career-high 16.4 percent of his fly balls last season into home runs, according to FanGraphs. That doubled his career rate (8.2 percent), which makes him an obvious candidate for regression unless Latta's changes were real.
"People say, 'Well, Marlon is older,' " Latta said. "But I honestly don't think Marlon Byrd was actually working with his full physical capacity with his old swing. What you're seeing now is a swing that is repeatable and works much more efficiently.
"That's one of the things people have to take into consideration. We're not just looking at what the prior career was. What was going on during the career? What was his swing? What was the approach? It's definitely different today."
Taking a chance
Ruben Amaro Jr. signed Byrd a week into free agency. The 36-year-old outfielder was the lone addition to a Phillies lineup that scored 3.77 runs per game in 2013 - the franchise's lowest output since 1988. The day Byrd signed, Amaro justified it with observations from last season.
"We talked to our scouts about how his swing path and approach changed," Amaro said. "He's worked on it. I have to trust my scouts on it."
"Ruben's scouts did their job," Byrd said.
Baseball Prospectus theorized last December that one secret to Oakland's success - 190 wins in the last two seasons - came from hoarding fly-ball hitters, which are harder and harder to find. Fly-ball rates have declined since 2009; only 16 percent of batters were considered "fly-ball hitters" in 2013.
Byrd barely missed the cut with 1.06 grounders hit for every fly ball. Still, that represented a sharp change from the 1.77 ratio in his previous three seasons. He remade himself into a commodity at a time when power is at a premium.
"I was coming off a year where I hit .210 with one home run and a suspension," Byrd said. "And I was going on 35. Who really wants to take a flier on a guy like that? I had to learn how to hit again."
He can thank Latta - and coincidence - for that.
"Unbelievable," Byrd said. "It's unbelievable how it works."