Byrd's powerful stroke did not come easily
Technically sound swing outfielder brought to New York took years to develop
NEW YORK -- Marlon Byrd sat in a familiar place. It was Opening Day of the 2007 season, and his future was uncertain.
Byrd had signed with the Rangers in the offseason, hoping that working with hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo would fix his swing, but the team designated him for assignment. So he watched Opening Day on a TV in the weight room, unsure if he would clear waivers.
"The first time I got sent down was '04," Byrd said, "so I got sent down in '04, '05, '06 and '07."
When Byrd returned to the Majors, though, he was finally there to stay. He had toiled with Jaramillo -- "who's one of the best hitting coaches ever," in Byrd's mind -- and completely retooled his swing.
Byrd grinned as he recalled the ballplayer he once was.
"My swing was terrible," he said. "I mean, it was."
Tinkering under Jaramillo's tutelage, Byrd went from spending parts of four seasons in the Minors in the mid-2000s into an above-average Major Leaguer in the last years of the decade, culminating with an All-Star appearance in 2010 and, after two seasons of regression, his best season yet in 2013 with the Mets.
It made Byrd a hot commodity leading up to the non-waiver Trade Deadline, but as the Deadline came and went, he and his improved swing stayed in New York.
"If it happened, that [would have been] part of the business," Byrd said. "But it didn't happen. I'm still here, I can be part of this great organization and keep moving forward these next two months, see what we can do."
For quite some time, Jaramillo was one of the most respected coaches in baseball. He began his Major League career as the hitting coach for the Astros before becoming the Rangers' hitting coach in 1995. Jaramillo spent 14 years in Texas -- the longest tenure of any hitting coach in MLB -- and helped develop All-Stars Adrian Gonzalez, Ivan Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Michael Young.
It was also in Texas where, in 2007, Jaramillo and Byrd were first united. In one offseason, with Jaramillo's help, Byrd's swing transformed from a jumbled mess into a mechanically sound stroke teeming with power potential. Byrd transformed from a fledgling big leaguer into a staple in Major League lineups.
"He's had his ups and downs, but the great part about him, he doesn't give in and keeps working and keeps making mental adjustments," Jaramillo said. "That's where he is today."
That is with a swing that is always in top form thanks to constant adjusting. Both Jaramillo and Mets manager Terry Collins credit Byrd's work ethic as the root of his sudden success. Byrd played in Mexico last winter after a disastrous 2012, taking time to put in the extra work. In New York, he is constantly in the batting cage or the weight room, watching film or simply holding a bat. That has corrected the issues Byrd had.
"We knew all along that he was a quality Major League player; his past says that," Collins said. "Whether or not he still had that, we had to find out, and I think he's proved to everybody that he's still got plenty left."
It all starts with the hips, the part of the body Jaramillo seems to always come back to when he talks about swinging.
"He was just not getting his hips in position consistently," Jaramillo said.
Fixing that has let Byrd improve his recognition and make a decision.
"The more he worked on his swing, the more it gave him the confidence that he needed to be a successful big leaguer," Jaramillo said.
When Jaramillo left the Rangers for the Cubs in 2010, Byrd followed shortly. Reunited with his swing doctor, Byrd made his only All-Star appearance. Now teamed with Mets hitting coach Dave Hudgens, who worked with Jaramillo in Houston, Byrd is replicating that success in New York.
"There's some familiarity in what we teach," Jaramillo said.
Jaramillo goes back to the hips -- consistency there is key, and both he and Hudgens emphasize that. It is what helped Byrd crack the double-digit home run plateau in his first season in Texas and set a career mark with 20 in 2009.
Four years later, at age 35, Byrd is just three homers away from matching that with almost a third of the season left. In a Mets lineup that has been without its two most explosive power hitters -- Lucas Duda and Ike Davis -- for prolonged stretches and is now without All-Star David Wright, Byrd has been a revelation. His 17 home runs were tied for 10th in the National League entering Monday's games.
Byrd is not afraid to talk about the suspicions that come with this type of improved production at this age. He served a 50-game suspension in 2012 after he tested positive for tamoxifen, a medicine that blocks the effects of estrogen and is commonly used to mask steroid use.
It was prescribed to Byrd for reasons outside of baseball, he says, and it led to the one blemish on an otherwise spotless record. The surge is surprising, but he insists it is natural -- the product of desperation and dedication.
"Sometimes you need an overhaul," Byrd said. "I'm still trying to get better. Still learning.
"It's just one of those things where you've got to get your swing right. If not, I'd have been gone."