Remember when we all hated that Marlon Byrd was our starting left fielder? That was a pretty grim couple of weeksÃ¢â‚¬â€a period of time when folks like Kevin Gregg and Burke Badenhop were effective double-agents for our NL Central rivals taking what hope we had and dashing it one sub-90 MPH fastball at a time. Watching the Reds was a character-building affair akin to the time your mother wouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t let you leave the table until you finished your pile of cooked (and room-temperature) cauliflower. Those were dark days.
But happier times are here for Marlon ByrdÃ¢â‚¬â€after starting 7-for-55 (a .127 batting average) through the first 16 games, Byrd has gone 19-for-60 (.317) in the 19 games since April 23 while hitting two doubles and seven home runs and knocking in 16 runs (if youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re into that sort of thing). ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a marked improvement, to say the least, so we must ask if there is a tangible reason behind this.
The easy thing to conclude is that Marlon Byrd might be a slow starter. His monthly splits kind of back this upÃ¢â‚¬â€for his career heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s averaged a .015 point improvement on his batting average in May over April and a .070 point increase of his slugging percentage as well. Last season he started much better, hitting .277 in April and .282 in May (a marginal difference, at best), but slugged nearly .100 points better in May than he did in April 2014 (jumping to .524 from .426).
His last two seasons are probably a better indicator of his tendencies than his overall career mark for a couple of reasons. One is obviousÃ¢â‚¬â€Byrd is 37 years old and on the decline, but itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s well-documented that he has found an ability to hit for power since 2013 that wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t present in his younger years. The other is because of drastic changes in his swing mechanics starting in 2013, changes which have likely led to this increased power.
Eno Sarris at Fangraphs posted this fantastic article on Wednesday, explaining the hitting approach Byrd adopted in 2013 and shared with then-Mets utilityman Justin Turner. Marlon overhauled his swing entirely, adding a pronounced leg kick and challenging the conventional hitting wisdom of always staying back on the ball. Byrd (and now Turner as well) started emphasizing getting on the front foot earlier and moving the point of contact in front of the plate. There, of course, are consequences to the new approach and the additional moving partsÃ¢â‚¬â€timing becomes an issue with the slightly decreased window for pitch recognition and the earlier transfer of weight can get them off-balance if the timing isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t right.
So, perhaps there was a flaw in ByrdÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s approach from the first three weeks of April 2015 to the past three weeks. If there was, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s very subtle. HereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a look at two swings from Byrd, one from April 8 against Gerrit Cole and the other being last nightÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s home run:
In the build up to his swing, it seems that ByrdÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s hands are a little quieter now than they were at the start of the season (notice the hands rising and then initiating the swing are in sync with the kick and plant of his front leg in last nightÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s home run, where they seem to be lagging a bit in the groundout against Cole). The big thing you can see is that ByrdÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s swing against Cole has him well out in front of the pitchÃ¢â‚¬â€that could be his mechanics, but it could just as well be ColeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s pitch sequence against him keeping him off-balance. Regardless, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s certainly plausible his more complicated swing takes longer for him to get his sea legs at the start of the season.
The increased power Byrd is showing so far in May is best explained by looking at his batted ball stats. HereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s his GB/LD/FB rate for April and May of this season, 2013-2014 combined, and his career:
He definitely has a tendency to get more loft on the ball in the second month of the season, particularly after he changed his swing. Those last two seasons have his fly ball rate regressing as the season wears on, but compensated for by a much better line drive rate. Also interesting is the rate at which heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s pulled the ball from month-to-monthÃ¢â‚¬â€heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s increased his pull rate this year from 34% in April to 53.6% so far in May, more extreme than his 6.7% monthly increase in 2014, but similar to the 11.8% increase he experienced in 2013. This all combines to look a little something like this:
What does this all mean? A couple of things. First, Byrd probably is a continually slow starter due to the combined factors of his age and how his swing mechanics affect his pitch recognition and timing. Second, his power surge this month wonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t be maintained throughout the year as his fly ball rate is due to decrease significantly, though it could last through the end of this month or slightly beyond. Third and most importantly, heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not very likely to return to the poor numbers of April if his line drive rate takes the leap in the summer months his past performance suggests it will.
We might not be so bad off with Marlon Byrd in left field after all.