MILWAUKEE — Marlon Byrd understands why his season is met with suspicion.
The recently acquired Pirates right fielder received a 50-game suspension last season after testing positive for a substance banned because it can mask steroid use. Byrd insists he never has used steroids or HGH. He said he unknowingly took a drug that contained tamoxifen after having surgery.
Byrd is friends with Victor Conte, whose BALCO lab was at the center of one of the largest drug scandals in sports history.
His breakout season — career-bests in home runs (22) and slugging percentage (.526) — comes at an age, 36, when players are typically in decline.
They are the red flags flying atop his banner season, which has continued in Pittsburgh. Since arriving from the Mets via trade last week, Byrd has 12 hits in 31 at-bats. Byrd said the career year is not the product of a chemically enhanced body but rather a makeover of his swing.
Coming off a 2012 season in which he batted .210 with one home run in 48 games, Byrd was seeking a place to hit near his offseason home in Chatsworth, Calif., northeast of Los Angeles.
Amid the sprawling industrial parks, he stumbled upon a spartan batting facility containing cage netting and a handful of pitching machines inside a simple steel-framed building. There he met Doug Latta, a high school coach who offers private lessons.
“I walked in his place and said, ‘Hey, I want to hit.’ He said, ‘All right let’s work,’ ” said Byrd, who had signed a one-year, $700,000 deal with the Mets in the offseason. “He has an eye. He can see what you’re doing wrong. He can see flight of ball. I’m open-minded. He gave me his thoughts. I said, ‘It makes sense. Let’s do it.’ ”
Byrd is a strong, barrel-chested man. But the power from his 6-foot, 215-pound frame had been sapped for a simple reason: He had hit too many groundballs.
In 2010 and ’11, he hit 1.7 groundballs for every fly ball. Last season, the ratio was more extreme: two groundballs for every fly ball.
“I come from more of an old-school style of baseball,” Byrd said. “Coming up, the coaches I had played for in the 1970s and 1980s, we were taught to swing down.”
Latta gave lift to Byrd’s swing and career.
Instead of leading with his hands, Byrd was taught to lead with his right elbow. He said the subtle adjustment creates “bat lag” and “snap.” The tweak created more lift in his swing plane and a longer period of extension in the hitting zone.
Byrd has hit more fly balls than groundballs this season, enjoying a career-best ratio (0.92). His home run-to-fly ball ratio, 16.8 percent, is also a career best.
“I was able to figure out how to get the ball in the air more consistently,” Byrd said, “with backspin.”
Teammate Garrett Jones is a believer.
“He’s not any stronger,” Jones said. “It’s just a little mechanical change to his swing path.”
This season, Byrd ranks seventh in baseball in average home run distance, 412 feet. But balls are leaving his bat at the same velocity as they were in 2011 and ’10, according to hittracker.com. They are just airborne more often.
Latta helped Byrd remake his swing, but Byrd also is a student of the game. He speaks about subtleties of the swing like a hitting coach. He added a leg kick as a timing device this offseason.
“I watch every hitter. I’m a baseball fan,” Byrd said. “If there’s a game on TV, I’m watching. If I’m fixing my swing, I watch the guys I love to watch, Manny (Ramirez) with the leg kick.”
Byrd understands the skepticism. Still, he seems to welcome the questions, perhaps because he has no doubt in the answer.