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February 22, 2013 at 9:03 AM

Another tool in the intriguing kit of Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders

Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders employs a pool noodle he calls “The lifejacket” to help keep his swing true. Photo Credit: John Lok/Seattle Times

We’ll launch the Cactus League season this afternoon at noon Pacific time when the Mariners take on the San Diego Padres. The starting lineup is posted on the turn page.

If you happened to read my story in today’s paper, you’ll see that Michael Saunders has added a “swiming pool noodle” to the interesting, somewhat unorthodox  list of gadgets he is employing in order to keep his swing more compact and powerful. Saunders spent a second straight winter with Colorado-based private hitting instructor Mike Bard, who is taking on somewhat mythical dimensions around these parts when it comes to how he’s transformed the fate of a Mariners outfielder many had written off this time last year.

Coming on the heels of our Justin Smoak story the other day, in which he worked with his own agent, Hunter Bledsoe, a former college hitting star, I think it’s important to note the similarities between the two approaches.

In Smoak’s case, he and Bledsoe employed “slow practice” their first month together in the batting cage last October. Smoak would take anywhere from 30 seconds up to a full minute in order to take one swing — something that enabled him to focus on the minutae that goes into every part of perfecting the technique.

The idea was for Smoak to develop the muscle memory needed to carry out every part of the swing without having to think about it. Once he and Bledsoe sped things up in the months ahead, it became easier to swing properly and more true.

Saunders and Bard are not doing things exactly that way.

But something Saunders said to me stood out.

“Swinging is all muscle memory,” Saunders said. “And that’s the goal, to critique myself and be hard on myself and keep doing this over and over until I get it right.”

In his case, Saunders is using a plethora of aids conceived and supplied by Bard. Last spring, it was the ultra-weighted bat and two rubber bands he brought to batting practice. The bat was so that Saunders had to stay under control in the cage. Try taking a wild, chasing swing with a bat that heavy — at first, it was said to be 60-ounces, then 48 ounces but now Bard says it’s 52 ounces (all are huge) — and you’ll quickly find it’s a way to look ridiculous. With a bat that heavy, the swing has to be short and true or it will never catch up to the ball.

The rubber bands were to train Saunders to keep his arms in tight with his body and to not “fly open” into a long, loopy swing. Shorten the swing, you’ll catch up to pitches more quickly and avoid striking out on pitches that you should be hitting.

Saunders has kept those tools and brought them back to spring training this year.

But he has added the “noodle” to work on fine-tuning his swing in more specific fashion. As promising as Saunders looked at times last season, he’s still no batting champ. So, he and Bard critically ripped his weak spots to pieces. They specifically zeroed in on what he was doing with his elbows. His back (left) elbow was “stalling out” on the latter portion of his swings by dropping in against his body rather than following through to generate more power.

And his front (right) elbow was still flying open a bit, again on the follow-through.

Enter the pool “noodle” which is exactly what kids use to stay afloat in pools. Imagine taking one of those and cutting it down to a more manageable size of about a foot or so. Then, you bore a small hole through it from end to end with a drill. Take a piece of rubber tubing and run it through the hole, the attach the loose ends together and you pretty much have the contraption Saunders uses.

He takes the device and puts it on over his head — the way you would a lifejacket, hence the nickname for the device — with the “noodle” sliding under the back elbow and the rubber tube strap wrapping around Saunders’ torso. The part of the device without the noodle wraps around the outside of Saunders’ front arm, whch literally traps it against his body to prevent the elbow from flying open.

The noodle winds up under his back armpit and prevents his back elbow from drifting in towards his body. It literally blocks it from doing so, but because the noodle is made of foam, it doesn’t hurt or chaffe like a harder plastic version would. His elbow is thus forced to stay on the correct path and follow-through of the swing, generating a more compact approach through the ball. And more power, one would imagine.

Anyhow, that’s the science behind it.

The similarities between Saunders and Smoak is thatboth spent the off-season training their muscles to remember how to make a more perfect, compact swing. They just went about it in some different ways, with the same end goal in mind.

A little more on Bard, who likes to remain low-profile and in the background on things. I didn’t realize until now that he’d worked as a “hitting assistant” to Colorado Rockies hitting coach Alan Cockrell back in 2007 when that team won the NL pennant. Bard was working in the cages and assisting Cockrell with other stuff on every Rockies homestand.

Cockrell, of course, was hired by the Mariners in 2009, but let go early in 2010 as the early part of a staff-wide purge during what would become a 101-loss campaign. I never thought Cockrell had very much to work with and that his dismissal was unfair and more of a token sacrifice than anything else. It’s interesting to me that part of the reason he was let go was the perceived lack of development by young hitters, including Saunders.

Now, it turns out that the guy getting credit for rescuing Saunders and his career was the very assistant used by Cockrell with that slugging Rockies squad back in 2007.

Small world, this baseball.

Early this morning, I received a tweet from Denver Post beat writer Troy Renck, one of the most well-connected baseball writers in the country, and who I have had dealings with the past 15 years after we both broke in covering MLB about the same time. Renck had read the story about Saunders training at Bard’s academy.

“That’s where my sons have received instruction,” Renck tweeted. “Bard brilliant at teaching.”

Bard, it should be noted, told me about 1,600 ballplayers aged 8-to-18 run through his training facility, in Parker, CO, every week. So, this guy might be known as “Josh Bard’s Brother” in Seattle, but down in Colorado, he’s apparently made quite a name for himself. Last year, when the Mariners let go hitting coach Chris Chambliss, some of you — me as well — suggested tongue-in-cheek that Seattle should hire Bard in his place.

Now, from what I’m hearing about Bard and the size of his private operation, I’d have to wonder whether it would really be worth it for him to become a major league coach — given the hours, the time commitment and, frankly, the money. Sounds like Bard has carved out quite a niche for himself and is doing just fine at the kind of work he’s been used for.

Anyhow, well see what Saunders does this year and whether he does indeed build off his solid 2012.

San Diego Padres (0-0)

No.

Player Pos.  

No.

Player Pos.

55

Michael Saunders (L) CF

2

Everth Cabrera (S) SS

15

Kyle Seager (L) 3B

25

Will Venable (L) CF

8

Kendrys Morales (S) DH

13

Chris Denorfia RF

38

Michael Morse RF

23

Yonder Alonso (L) 1B

28

Raul Ibañez (L) LF

88

Kyle Blanks DH

63

Jesus Montero C

68

Jedd Gyorko 2B

35

Mike Jacobs (L) 1B

27

Travis Buck (L) LF

3

Robert Andino SS

22

James Darnell 3B

1

Carlos Triunfel 2B

44

Rene Rivera C

Starting Pitcher

Starting Pitcher

45 Hector Noesi RHP 59 Sean O’Sullivan RHP

Umpires: Ron Kulpa (46), Paul Schrieber (43), Todd Tichenor (97)

Comments | More in spring training | Topics: Hunter Bledsoe, Justin Smoak, michael saunders


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