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Q&A: Pirates’ Jeff Branson talks hitting approach, goals

Tribune-Review
| Wednesday, March 23, 2016 9:27 p.m
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Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates hitting coach Jeff Branson talks with Gregory Polanco in the dugout during a spring training game against the Phillies at Brighthouse Field in Clearwater, Fla.

BRADENTON, Fla.

Jeff Branson is entering his third year as the Pirates’ hitting coach, having helped the club to back-to-back seasons in which the Pirates have ranked fourth in the NL in runs scored (682 in 2014, and 697 last season).

The Tribune-Review caught up with Branson in the McKechnie Field clubhouse to address a number of hitting-related subjects as the Pirates open a new season in 10 days, a season where improved offensive efficiency — from maximizing lineup construction to trading power for on-base skill — is a focus in a division with little margin for error.

Q: The front office traded away 30 percent of the club’s home runs last season in Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker. Does there have to be a different approach, a greater buy in to the two-strikes, all-fields approach?

A: “I wouldn’t say it wasn’t a buy in (last season), it’s different types of hitters this year. Higher on-base percentage guys. (We’re) not looking for the three-run homer. It’s about run production, getting on base any way we can, being the hitter the inning is calling for you to be, not what hitter you are on the lineup card.”

Q: What have you seen from Jung Ho Kang behind the scenes and in the batting cages?

A: “Just watching him swing the bat, I don’t see any restriction to it at all. The biggest thing is timing, facing live pitching, but that is going to come over time.”

Q: Starling Marte is a star-level performer, but if he could improve his plate discipline it seems like there could be even more there. (His walk rate fell from 6.1 in 2014 to 4.3 percent last season, while his out-of-zone chase rate rose from 37.3 percent to 40.4 percent of pitches seen). Is plate discipline able to be improved?

A: “There’s things you can do to help it. That’s something we strive to do every day. (With) some guys it takes longer to get, some guys it doesn’t (happen). Where he is now compared to two years ago, there’s a drastic change. … It’s something he knows will allow him to be a better hitter, which is going to help us win games. It’s a mindset he’s thinking about every day to become a more consistent hitter. … There is never going to be a guy that never chases. That’s the nature of the game, it’s credit we have to give to some of these pitchers, but the commitment from him — knowing that this is how he can become better — he’s aware of it, and he works on it.”

Q: What has your focus been with Gregory Polanco this spring? (Polanco has just two extra-base hits, and a .369 slugging mark through nearly 1,000 career plate appearances. But he showed improvement in the second half last season — .749 OPS versus a .653 mark in the first half — and ranked 67th in baseball in pitches seen per plate appearance 3.8).

A: “Just timing, awareness of how pitchers attack him. When he gets in the box, not thinking about his swing, just thinking about what the pitcher is trying to do him. Thinking about the pitch (he) wants to hit, in the spot I want to hit it, rather than, ‘OK, my hands are doing this.’ Your total concentration has to be on the pitcher. … As a young guy, when we don’t feel good, that’s the first thing we want to do is start thinking more in the box. That’s just the nature of us as hitters: we want to be perfect.”

Q: Andrew McCutchen (team-best five homers) seems like he’s in a good place.

A: “Andrew is going to be Andrew.”

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

is a former freelancer.

Categories: Pirates
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