Marlon Byrd was drafted when I was ten years old. At that time I was much more concerned with trying to get Jimmy Rex to trade me his first edition Gyarados card than I was with the Phillies 10th round draft pick. Honestly, most of what pre-teen Eric remembers about the first Marlon Byrd Phillies era was how great his name sounded coming out of Harry Kalas’ mouth. Byrd has had a really interesting career and I wanted to find out more about it, so I’ve done some digging. Let’s discuss how Byrd got here and why he is what he is and has been what he has been.
Byrd started his freshman year at Georgia Tech with every intention of playing both football (he was a stud running back in high school) and baseball. Short and stocky, he looked like a Kirby Puckett starter kit. Then, as newly christened college men often do, Byrd did something irreparably stupid. He decided it would be fun to karate kick a door. He sustained muscle damage in the kicking leg and subsequently developed an infection that required multiple surgeries to correct. He lost two years of athletics to the injury and remained so sedentary during his rehab that he ballooned to a Ponsonesque 315lbs.
Completely unfit for Division-I athletics at that point, Byrd transferred to Georgia Perimeter Junior College where he dedicated himself to his body and baseball and actually became quite svelte. The Phillies drafted him in 1998’s 10th round.
Due to the time lost to the injury and recovery, Byrd was just a tad bit old for every minor league level at which he played on his way to the big leagues but the results were terrific. He was named the Phillies Minor League Player of the Year after his first full season in 2000. In 2001, Byrd almost became the second player in Eastern League history to post a 30-30 season (Jeromy Burnitz was the other) but he fell two homers short of the milestone. Baseball America named him the #1 prospect in the Phillies system. Byrd’s stock had peaked as a Phillie.
The next year, Byrd clubbed just 15 homers at Triple-A, was criticized for how much he struck out and had off the field issues with domestic violence which were settled out of court. He made his MLB debut in ’02 and played a full season in The Show in ’03 and thus began a long, strange career of statistical ups and downs. Let’s look at each of Byrd’s Major League seasons very quickly. I’ve bolded some important parts that you’re going to need to remember for later in the post.
2002: A 10 game cup of coffee with the Phils.
2003: 135 games, 553 trips to the plate. Byrd hit .303/.366/.418 with a curiously low 7 HRs but totaled about 40 extra base hits and was 11/12 in stolen base attempts while playing center field. Two years earlier most scouts thought his arm would limit him to left field. He worked on it and it was now playable in center. He finished fourth in ROY voting. It was a very promising campaign for the 24 year old Byrd.
2004: A positively hideous .228/.287/.321 line in 100 games. He struck out in 18% of his plate appearances.
2005: Byrd plays five games with Philly before being traded to Washington for Endy Chavez. Byrd begins playing all three outfield spots and hits a shrugworthy.266/.323/.376 in 75 games worth of action.
2006: A third poor season in a row. Statistics similar to the ones we saw in the year prior. Byrd hits to open market in November.
2007: Byrd signs with the Texas Rangers and suddenly begins making lots of contact. He hits .307/.355/.459 with a modest but respectable 10 HRs and 35 total XBH in just over 100 games.
2008: A similar year in a more full time role, Byrd posts the lowest K total of his career (min. 400 Abs) and gets on base at a terrific .380 clip.
2009: Now age 31, Byrd’s numbers take a dip in the OBP department but he hits 20Hrs, matching his total from the previous two seasons combined while ripping 40 doubles. His flyball to groundball rate skyrocketed to an even 1:1 and he led the league in sacrifice flys.
2010: After signing with the Cubs, Byrd has another good year and makes his first All Star team. He slugs another 40 doubles and 12 homers. He’s generally a contact hitter once again.
2011: Any shred of power Byrd had is now gone. .276/.324/.395
2012: A season lost to a PED suspension split between Chicago and Boston. He wasn’t good when he played and he didn’t play much.
2013: The Mets take a flier on Byrd and it pays off big time. He’s traded mid-year in a deal for Vic Black and Dilson Herrera. He rips 24 homers between NY and Pittsburgh and adds 35 doubles and 5 triples. .291/.336/.511
Go to the bathroom, you’re half way home.
Ok. Now, let’s discuss why Byrd has experienced these ebbs and flows of production. Since Byrd’s signing, quite a bit has been written about his sudden spike in power and how it came to be. Matt Gelb, David Murphy, David Cameron and Jason Collette have all at least touched on it during the past week and a half. In general, the relevant aspects of those articles (as it pertains to this post, anyway) are this:
“Phillies scouts have seen that Byrd has changed his swing path, his flyball rates are up, he’s hitting the middle of the ball instead of the top, and he’s traded contact for power which has made him more desirable.”
Then, something David Murphy said gave me an idea.
“Amaro should not need a scout who has spent 20 games watching Byrd in person to tell him that the outfielder is hitting more fly balls. All he needs is a laptop and an internet connection.”
I have a laptop and an internet connection. So do you. And it’s all well and good to go to FanGraphs and check out Marlon Byrd’s flyball rate and contact rates and analyze an endless array of relevant numbers. I encourage that. But we can also, from the very comfort of our own homes, take a glimpse into what Phillies pro scouts (who I think are very important, much more so than Murphy seems to imply in his article) were seeing. So now that we’ve learned that Byrd is hitting more flyballs, let’s learn why. In fact, let’s try to learn why Byrd has been the different types of hitter he’s been at the many various stages of his career. Let’s start in Philadelphia.
Enjoy this lovely .gif of Byrd from May 16th of 2003. It’s his sixth inning double off of Jeriome Robertson (Brad Lidge, Octavio Dotel and Billy Wagner pitched the last three innings for Houston, which was probably something to see).
Here are some things to notice from this slice of video. First, Byrd does a little double toe tap with his front foot as he starts his swing. He picks his foot up and puts it down and then picks it up again and strides toward the ball. In general you’d like to see a hitter’s feet doing very little and, when they do move, you’d like that movement to be casual and smooth. Byrd’s feet here are a little noisy. It’s not a death sentence, but it’s not ideal, either.
Next, I’d like you to look at his hands. Notice how they ease back slowly before firing forward and never come to a complete stop. They move almost in a loop and are just about parallel with his ear as his hips begin to open up and he launches the barrel toward the ball. There’s nothing wrong with this, just keep it in mind.
The last thing I’d like you to notice is the way Byrd’s weight is distributed when he makes contact with the ball. There’s bend in his right toes which indicates that his right foot is bearing weight. He front foot’s heel is up off the ground and his lead leg’s knee is bent, more indicators that, at the point of contact, he weight is on his back foot. Stand up right now and pretend to swing a bat. Mimic Byrd’s lower half at the point of contact and you’ll feel how your weight is on your back foot. This is not a good thing.
In just about all moments of athletic explosion, you’re taught to transfer your weight to your front foot somehow. We rotate our hips and momentum onto our front foot when serving in tennis, the “same foot, same shoulder” rule applies when picking up a blitz in football, throwing of any kind requires weight transfer and hip rotation from the back foot to the front foot. Hitting a baseball is no different. Your weight should transfer from the back to front and into the ball when you make contact. If Byrd was swinging like this as a Phillie (and he was, you just saw it) it goes a long way in explaining why his power output was much worse than it was in the minors.
Byrd continued to hit poorly in Washington and then landed in Texas where things started to click. Here’s video of him taking BP as a Ranger.
Again, let’s start with the feet. That double toe tap has been eliminated and instead Byrd is taking a simple step forward, getting his foot down early (like, really really early) and shifting his weight from the back foot to front as he swings and he remains very balanced.
Now look at the hands. Byrd’s hands go back much earlier than they did in Philadelphia. In fact, they retreat at the same time his front foot comes down and then come to a complete halt before Byrd begins to swing and they return forward to meet the ball. This is a very “back-to-basics” approach that looks like it was designed by coaches to make things as simple as possible for Byrd. Simple mechanics, in both hitting and pitching, are easier to maintain. Though in this case the over simplification sacrificed some explosion and power in the process, as far as I’m concerned. Overall though, the changes worked and Byrd became an above average hitter. Texas saw no reason to change what they’d made and why would they? Byrd was hitting around .300 and getting on base at an above average rate during his years there. They had made a nice little contact hitter.
And Byrd remained a contact hitter through his time with Texas and his stints the Cubs and the Red Sox. Here’s a clip from 2012 where Byrd’s swing is exactly the same. Hands and feet get into position very early, there’s a pause, and everything ignites from there. It’s a two part swing.
After signing with the Mets, Byrd made some significant alterations. Here’s video of Byrd from the end of last season with Pittsburgh.
Again, let’s start with the feet. Instead of an early, little step forward, Byrd is really loading up with what I call a “K Stride” because that high knee bend makes the hitter’s legs look like someone is drawing the bottom half of a capital K as it descends back toward the ground. He’s picking up the front foot and drawing it back towards his body before bringing all of that mass forward a great distance. The hands are now starting later and are no longer the stop and start, very simple, contact oriented, rudimentary system we saw before. They are now in constant motion, whipping and accelerating as they travel. But the most important new change is the very dramatic finish Byrd is displaying. Look how completely different Byrd looks as he makes contact with the ball compared to when he was originally with Philadelphia. He’s up on his back tippie toe (no more weight bearing bend in the toes), the front leg is rigid and tall (instead of bent at the knee) and his front foot is planted firmly on the ground (instead of the heel being up off the ground). This is a man whose weight has been properly distributed forward and thus, into the ball. Here’s the look at him in Philly again compared to now.
This is what Phillies scouts were seeing and were encouraged by. There are other things for them to like. For instance, Byrd is still really fast. In 2012 I timed him regularly in the 4.15 second range from home to first, making him a comfortably plus runner. Last year on this play against the Pirates, I’ve got Byrd timed at 4.03 seconds from contact to the bag. That’s a 75 time. Byrd;s run times skew a little faster than he really is because of the way his swing’s follow through carries him out of the box and I won’t put a 70 on his legs or anything, but times like this (and the infield singles and extra-base-hits that come from them) are in there.
It’s hard to say why the Phillies allowed Byrd to swing like he did the first time around. I’m finding more and more as I navigate the industry that player development and coaching is far more important than I initially thought and can really impact a player’s performance. That Byrd has been habitually malleable speaks well to his athleticism (since he’s controlling his body and making alterations at will) and his work ethic (which has always been praised). I look forward to getting a look at Byrd in just a few months.