Published: Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Coach Jeff Branson #87 of the Pittsburgh Pirates poses for a photo during photo day at Pirate City on February 17, 2013 in Bradenton, Florida. (J. Meric/Getty Images North America)
The Pirates hope to improve their uneven offensive performance from last season with one change that will not include a dollar added to player payroll.
The change? A new voice.
The new voice is that of Jeff Branson, the Pirates' new hitting coach. His message will be similar to that of Jay Bell, who left the Pirates after one season to become the Cincinnati Reds' bench coach. Like Bell, Branson will focus on a gap-to-gap hitting philosophy and preach being “stubborn” at the plate, not deviating from a plan after one poor swing or at-bat. The difference beyond Branson's Southern accent is an element of trust Pirates manager Clint Hurdle expects Branson to have with players.
Branson is entering his 13th year in the organization. Before becoming the assistant hitting coach last season, Branson was the hitting coach at Triple-A Indianapolis from 2009-12, and he worked there with many members of the Pirates' core group of position players.
“How does a coach get the player to listen? One of Jeff's strengths, I believe, is developing trust,” Hurdle said. “You are not going to allow a coach to coach you until you trust them. I think that's the challenge a hitting coach has, more so than any other coach, because a swing is a very private and prized possession.”
Hurdle is doubling down on the Pirates' 2013 hitting philosophy with the hope that a new voice helps improve the Pirates' ranking of ninth in runs scored (634) in the National League. Pirates outfielder Travis Snider said Branson's work with Pedro Alvarez in the past two seasons impressed him.
“He developed that relationship with Pedro in the minor leagues, a level of trust he brings with his players,” Snider said. “You develop that type of trust — especially in those trials, getting sent down to Triple-A, and working on different things.”
Like Hurdle, Branson, who hit .246 in a nine-year career with the Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians and Los Angeles Dodgers, said he is hesitant to overhaul swings, which have been built and refined since players were in youth baseball. Much of Branson's focus is on the psychological element of hitting.
“Because their swing is their swing, you might make tweaks here and there, but at the level they're at, you are there for a reason,” Branson said. “Trust your swing, trust your ability and go.”
The Pirates finished third in the NL in home runs last season, but they also finished third in strikeouts. Branson, a Mississippi native, wants to move the Pirates away from a pull-conscious mindset.
“You are not going to go up there and try to pull and be successful,” Branson said.
A key for the Pirates will be improving against off-speed pitches. The Pirates ranked last in baseball against change-ups and were 27th against curveballs in 2013, according to Fangraphs.com.
“I do think part of our problem came from our desire to hit the fastball and jump on the fastball,” Hurdle said. “That three-run home run would jump in everyone's mind.”
Despite his background as a hitting coach with Texas and Colorado, Hurdle said he gives his hitting coaches autonomy. Hurdle said he declined to go outside the organization for a more proven commodity at hitting coach, in part to keep continuity.
“We went after (Texas Rangers hitting coach) Dave Magadan very aggressively last winter,” Hurdle said. “Magadan was the brand name as far as I, and many others in our industry, were concerned. We were in relentless pursuit of him, and he chose Texas. And what is Texas doing this offseason to bolster their team? They are looking to add more offense.
“Is that a knock on David? No. It just goes to show the brand name isn't always the answer.”
Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.
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