'Marlon Byrd's 2013 Season Left Me With A Haunting Question': Jared Diamond On New Book, 'Swing Kings'

The Wall Street Journal's national MLB writer discusses his new book which details how a few players' desperation to stay in the game led to a hitting revolution.

(CBSNewYork)- “Anything like this, in every instance in something like this it starts with one thing: desperation.”- Jared Diamond

Major League Baseball has been in the midst of a homerun renaissance over the course of the last several years. The league’s home run record has been set twice in each of the last three seasons. The number of home runs we’re seeing each year have rocketed back to levels not seen since the steroid era of the late-90’s and early 2000’s.

The home run surge has left many of us wondering how we got here. That is the exact question that Wall Street Journal’s Jared Diamond takes baseball fans inside of in his new book Swing Kings: The Inside Story of Baseball’s Homerun Revolution.

For Diamond, the itch to answer this question actually began way back in 2013 when he was the Journal’s beat writer covering the New York Mets. Prior to that season, the Mets had signed veteran outfielder Marlon Byrd to a minor league contract. It was a move that teams across the league make year-in, year-out without much notice. Then the season happened.

“Lo and behold Marlon Byrd makes the team. At the beginning of May, he is the Mets cleanup hitter. He was their best hitter that year,” said Diamond. “He was traded to the Pirates and then ends up helping the Pirates get to the playoffs. It was an incredible story.”

At 35 years old, Byrd hit .285 with 21 homers and 71 RBI in 117 games with the Mets. It was his highest home run total since 2009 with the Rangers when he hit 20 over 146 games. The question for Diamond and others was, how did he do it? Byrd was coy about the changes he had made at first, but eventually he gave in and said that he had worked the prior offseason with now well known independent hitting coach Doug Latta. But, at the time, Diamond explains, nobody had any idea who he was.

“He never played pro ball, he was a swimming pool repair man. Now, he owns a batting cage and (Marlon said) he taught him how to swing better than anybody even Major League coaches. That blew my mind. I was haunted by this question of, if there are better coaches out there than the ones working in Major League Baseball, why aren’t they working in Major League Baseball?”

So Diamond spent the last six years working to find the answer. He looked into the stories of other guys who had made changes like Red Sox slugger J.D. Martinez or Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner. And, all of the guys he came across who were at the forefront of the homerun revolution had one thing in common: desperation.

“All these guys, J.D. Martinez, Josh Donaldson, they were going to be out of baseball, their careers were going to be over,” said Diamond. “When you’re in that position, you’re willing to try something different.”

That trying something different has led to a completely different line of thinking about the swing and hitting than was previously accepted. And, as another positive development, has led to a different approach to who teams consider when trying to fill a hitting coach position with teams more willing to look at candidates who didn’t necessarily play pro ball.

However, one thing Diamond makes sure to point out is that these coaches are not teaching the beloved “launch angle” that so many analysts like to point to as a driving force behind more home runs.

“That is not what my book is about and it is not what the characters in my book teach. In fact, it’s one of their big concerns is that they’re conflated with teaching “launch angle” which is not the case with these good independent hitting coaches and MLB coaches,” said Diamond. “They don’t teach launch angle, launch angle is the result, not the goal.”

As with any revolution or innovation in sport, everybody has tagged along for the ride. The question then becomes what’s next? We have seen statistical analysis of players taken to new heights. Mechanics are now being refined. Looking to the future, Diamond sees player health as the next possible place for massive innovation. Though he grants, it may be an unsolvable problem.

“That is the next frontier in baseball is going to be to understand the body and how to try to stop some of these injuries. What we’re doing now with how to protect pitchers is all just guesswork,” said Diamond. “If there is a team or a player that is able to uncover the secrets of how the human body works and how actually to keep players on the field through the rigors of a long season without performance enhancing drugs and the like, it would change the game.”

For any baseball fan missing the sweet smell of the ballpark and watching the boys of summer take the field, Swing Kings offers a perfect way to satiate that desire for the game while we await the new season. You can find Swing Kings through the publisher Harper Collins or wherever books are sold.


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