Learn how big league hitters fine tune their skills
Russell Branyans breakout giving Mariners a boost
by: Tim Booth
USA Today (6/22/2009)
By Tim Booth, AP Sports Writer
SEATTLE — This was the moment where every novel idea, every hokey gimmick was open for Russell Branyan's consideration.
Here he was a year ago at age 32, stuck playing in the minors, still trying to gain traction and prove he could be an everyday major leaguer even after spending parts of 11 seasons with seven different big league teams.
So Branyan went "looking under every stone" as he puts it about a year ago, trying to discover what was missing from his game.
Turns out, it was how he was looking at things.
"Last year I went back to the minor leagues and I said, 'You know I've been sputtering up and down, minor leagues, major leagues. I'm just going to uncover all the stones to ensure myself the best chance to play this game and get back to the big leagues,"' Branyan recalls. "That was the first stone; just working on my eyesight and vision and doing it on a consistent basis."
With his eyes now getting as much regular exercise as his arms or legs, coupled with the chance to play every day, Branyan has been the offense for the first third of the season for the Seattle Mariners. He's hitting .305 -- nearly 70 points higher than his career average -- and has already clubbed 16 homers and driven in 31 runs.
Those last two numbers are his highest totals since 2006 when he split the season between Tampa Bay and San Diego and hit a combined 18 homers and drove in 36.
At the rate Branyan is going, his career highs of 24 homers and 56 RBIs -- done in another combo season of 2002 between Cleveland and Cincinnati -- will be long passed before fall is on the horizon.
Asked if can afford to give Branyan days off -- other than Sunday when he had a sore arm after getting hit by a pitch -- Seattle manager Don Wakamatsu simply chuckled and said, "It's pretty tough." Branyan is the only Mariners' hitter with an on-base plus slugging percentage above 1.000.
Branyan says the catalyst for his sudden jump in hitting production is eye exercises that he started a year ago when he was searching for a solution to some of his problems at the plate.
The exercises, done through a company called Vizual Edge, helps to strengthen the focus of each eye through a series of drills that take about 20 minutes to complete.
Through the drills, Branyan was able to determine his eyes weren't correctly focused on where pitches were as they came toward the plate. When tested and asked to point to where the ball was as it was suspended in the air, Branyan found he was a couple of inches behind where the ball actually was.
"It caused a lot of swings and misses. The pitches I was swinging at, I was swinging at a ball that really wasn't there," Branyan said. "I was two or three inches behind it. When I was hitting, those were actually my misses. And when I thought I was right on it I was missing."
The exercises -- which include high-tech devices like 3-D computer programs and simpler tasks like focusing at beads on a string -- have helped Branyan correct his focus gap. He also adjusted his batting stance to be more open and square toward the pitcher, and often fights himself to make sure his head remains level so that his focus on the pitcher's release point isn't off plane.
He hit .359 in the minors last year before getting called up by the Milwaukee Brewers. He was then a target in the offseason by new Mariners' general manager Jack Zduriencik, who had seen Branyan's progression last year when both were with the Brewers organization.
The improved vision, combined with the opportunity to play every day and not just against right-handed pitching, is bolstering Branyan's transformation. The light-hitting Mariners, who finally crawled above the .500 mark Sunday for the first time since early May, need Branyan's bat to remain hot if they hope to keep up with Texas and the Los Angeles Angels in the AL West.
"I don't believe in quick fixes, things of that nature. But I believe in these exercises," Branyan said. "I believe over the long haul it helps me see the ball and track the ball."
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.