This is a trade-deadline season defined by available pitching. We’ve already seen a handful of arms on the move, with more still to get dealt, and for the teams who’ve been looking for bats, there’s not nearly the same kind of market. But one player out there who’s gotten a little attention is Marlon Byrd, who’s been a good veteran hitter on a bad team. There’s little reason for the Phillies to keep Byrd on the roster through July, and while, a year ago, the Pirates took a bit of a risk in acquiring the bounceback outfielder, now there’s every reason to believe the version of Marlon Byrd that suddenly came into existence in 2013 is the version of Marlon Byrd that there is.
The changes, see, have only been sustained through this season’s first three months. Byrd still strikes out more than he used to, but he also hits for more power than he used to, and he’s right on the edge of being an all-or-nothing slugger. When I was first getting into sabermetrics, I learned about the concept of old-player skills, and I was told that players near the end of the line will often sell out for dingers and fly balls. Based just on the numbers, Byrd has indeed sold out for dingers and fly balls, but in his case, this seems to be less about his approach and more about the swing he modified a year and a half ago. And that makes it seem like he has a little more left in the tank.
There’s any number of articles out there talking about Byrd’s mechanical reconstruction. After all, this isn’t new anymore, and last year he played in both New York and Pittsburgh. In 2012, Byrd was a disaster. In 2013, he was outstanding, and he’s been a similar kind of player to this point. Between 2012 and 2013, Byrd worked tirelessly to make adjustments, and here’s an article from Travis Sawchik. A helpful excerpt:
[Instructor Doug] Latta gave lift to Byrd’s swing and career.
Instead of leading with his hands, Byrd was taught to lead with his right elbow. He said the subtle adjustment creates “bat lag” and “snap.” The tweak created more lift in his swing plane and a longer period of extension in the hitting zone.
Byrd’s made more than one tweak, but that might be the clearest explanation of the biggest change. It’s all about Marlon Byrd’s new swing path. He’s not really any stronger; he’s always been in good shape. But a hitter is a function of his eye and his swing, and everything about Byrd’s new statistical profile indicates an increase in loft that’s very much deliberate.
Between 2010 and 2012, Byrd ranked in the upper eighth in groundball rate. Since the start of last season, he ranks in the upper fifth in fly-ball rate. Byrd’s swing has a bit more of an uppercut, and the other numbers that come along with it aren’t surprising. Byrd swings and misses more now, especially at pitches up. He’s hitting the ball out of the yard with greater frequency, and because of his increased extension, Byrd also happens to be differently covering the strike zone.
Via Baseball Savant, here are Byrd’s home runs from between 2008 – 2012:
And here are Byrd’s home runs between 2013 – 2014:
Almost everything shifts away, as Byrd has done most of his dinger damage around the outer half. Now, before, Byrd slugged .575 against inside pitches on contact. The last year and a half, that’s improved to .648. So it’s not like this is a major vulnerability of his. The craziest numbers, though, are elsewhere. Before, against pitches low and away, Byrd slugged .385 on contact. The last year and a half, that’s .689. Before, against pitches up and away, Byrd slugged .568. The last year and a half, that’s .860. By not leading with his hands as much, Byrd’s getting the right part of the bat on pitches away more consistently, and there’s nothing at all wrong with his strength. He’s still punishing baseballs at 36, and that’s a late 36.
There are some other changes we can observe, and while they seem like they might be changes in approach, that’s probably falling out of the changes to his swing. Different swings have different hot spots. Let’s define “before” as 2008 – 2012, and let’s define “now” as 2013 – present. Now, Byrd’s swinging at the same rate of high pitches as before. Yet, against low pitches, he’s increased his swing rate from 43% to 52%. Meanwhile, now, Byrd’s making contact against low pitches at the same rate as before. But, against high pitches, his contact rate has dropped from 85% to 62%. Maybe the uppercut’s had trouble catching up, but then, Byrd has punished high pitches when he’s struck them.
There are more fly balls now everywhere. Byrd’s dropped his groundball rate against low pitches from 58% to 49%. He’s dropped his groundball rate against high pitches from 39% to 23%. He does his damage to all fields, so, unlike Brian Dozier, it’s not like the new Byrd is selling out to try to pull everything. He can hit the ball hard anywhere, because he swings the bat hard, and swinging hard with a loftier swing path can cause exactly the changes we see on Marlon Byrd’s player page.
It’s interesting to read about how Byrd used to be instructed to put the ball on the ground and run. It’s the same thing Carlos Gomez used to be told, and Gomez didn’t break out until he decided to do things his own way. Byrd achieved a pretty good career peak, so via whatever means, he made things work, but now we’ve got a second breakout where Byrd is doing the exact opposite of what he might’ve been told a decade ago. He’s not the athlete he was a decade ago, but he remains athletic, and one wonders what he might’ve been had he attempted to change himself much earlier.
Byrd isn’t a guy who walks a lot. His baserunning’s adequate and his defense is adequate, and the combination of low walks and high strikeouts keeps Byrd’s OBP from being a strength. But his strength is his strength, and between now and the end of next season, he’s due a perfectly reasonable $11.4 million or so. There’s probably not a bargain here, but there is a fine player with the right-handed pop so many teams seem to crave. Seattle’s a particularly obvious potential destination, but they’re not the only one, and given the explanation behind Byrd’s career recovery, it seems like he could keep slugging for another 800 at-bats. He’s in better shape than most players his age, and he’s not focused on one part of the field. You like your chances with a guy who can hit everywhere.
Down the stretch a year ago, the Pirates plugged in Byrd and watched him slug .486. There’s a chance now for some team to get similar production over a broader window. In terms of long-term value, he might not be perceived to be Mark Trumbo‘s equal, but in terms of short-term value, Byrd looks not even a little bit worse.
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