Byrd's a rare Phillie: He's hitting

Marlon Byrd is batting .375 this spring.
Marlon Byrd is batting .375 this spring. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff)
Posted: March 12, 2014

CLEARWATER, Fla. - No moment in baseball better illustrates a hitter's mastery over an opposing pitcher than a line drive. A ground ball can find a hole in the infield, and an otherwise harmless fly ball can become a home run if a fortuitous gust of wind carries it far enough, but a line drive is something else entirely, even if a fielder happens to snare it for an out. A line drive is crisp. It is at once a display of grace and force and dominance in a one-on-one confrontation.

A line drive is the batter, without words, telling the pitcher: I beat you.

Marlon Byrd hit a line drive Monday against the Atlanta Braves, and the sight was striking - not because Byrd had hit a line drive, but because anyone on the Phillies had. On a 3-1 count against Braves reliever Luis Avilan, Byrd drove a fastball into the left-center-field gap for a double, the Phillies' only extra-base hit in their 8-1 loss.

He spent several minutes after the game offering the usual platitudes about using spring training to find his timing and get into a rhythm, but he saw the double less as a gauge of his progress than as his responsibility: You get a 3-1 fastball, and you'd better tattoo it.

"If I can't do that," he said, "I shouldn't be playing."

Byrd didn't intend to, but he damned most of his teammates by admitting that expectation. The Phillies presumably have gotten as many good pitches to hit as any other major-league team this spring, but Byrd is the only member of their lineup's core who's actually hitting them. His batting average is .375. The Phillies' as a team is .194. Ryan Howard's: .182. Chase Utley's: .158. Jimmy Rollins': .133. Domonic Brown's: .091.

General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. had signed Byrd to a two-year, $16 million free-agent contract in November to play right field and lend support to those players, and the worry at the time was that Byrd's surge in production in 2013 - he hit a career-high 24 home runs - didn't provide enough proof that he could handle the role.

It remains a reasonable concern. A late-career uptick should always give a baseball talent evaluator pause, make him wonder whether the player can repeat such a performance. Byrd, who is 36, made his major-league debut with the Phillies in 2003 and has played for seven teams over his 12-year career, insisted he can and will.

"I came over here for a couple of reasons," he said. "The big one is to win. The other big one is to protect Ryan, make sure he hits, make sure he gets pitches to hit. I've done it. I've protected David Wright. I've protected Sammy Sosa, Josh Hamilton, Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee, [Alfonso] Soriano. . . .

"I know the league better. I know myself better. I know what it takes to get ready. I know what it takes to stay in the big leagues. I know what it takes to succeed. You have the highs and lows. You try to minimize the lows - stay on an even keel, the yin and yang."

Amaro had justified the signing by arguing that Byrd - who was suspended 50 games in 2012 after he tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug - had altered his swing path and that Byrd's subsequent improvement was born of that adjustment.

There is at least one piece of evidence to suggest that Byrd, for whatever reason, had indeed found a more effective approach at the plate. According to the statistical service Fangraphs, over his 47 games in 2012, Byrd hit line drives on 25.7 percent of the pitches he made contact with. Over his 147 games last year, his line-drive percentage was 23.8. Those two marks were the highest of his career.

"He's a veteran, professional hitter, capable of hitting in different spots in the lineup," Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said. "Could be a 3-4-5 hitter."

That last remark by Sandberg was particularly interesting. In a lineup that included Bobby Abreu (.150) as a designated hitter, Sandberg batted Utley third, Byrd fourth, and Howard fifth on Monday - a notable detail if only because Howard, when healthy, has been a fixture in the No. 4 position.

Sandberg attributed the move to the constant experimentation that managers carry out this time of year. He wanted to split up Utley and Howard, both of whom hit lefthanded, and besides, Sandberg said, Howard still came to the plate twice with men on base early in the game, "in a cleanup hitter's type of situation."

Of course, Howard flied out the first time and grounded out the second, stranding the runners. A nice line drive in either of those moments would have done some good, would have made everyone, including the Phillies themselves, feel a little better about things.

But there's only one hitter at the heart of their order who's delivering that kind of dominance these days.


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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