Pittsburgh Pirates

Season of change for Wilson

BRADENTON — Three feet.

That’s the difference in Jack Wilson’s batting stance this spring.

Three feet. That’s 36 inches. One yard.

But according to Wilson, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ veteran shortstop, this is a change that transcends numbers.

“It’s like a starting pitcher throwing overhand,” he said, “and then becoming a side-armer.”

There’s footage of Wilson as a Little Leaguer taking at-bats with the bat held high above his head, a trait he has carried through a big-league career that began in 2001.

Even Wilson’s 6-year-old son, Jacob, hits like that.

But in the offseason, Wilson and Pirates hitting coach Don Long decided to make a change. Wilson was to lower his hands three feet, putting them chest level, to better his bat path through the strike zone.

“At first, obviously, it didn’t feel that good,” Wilson said.

Nor did it look that good — Wilson had three hits in his first 33 at-bats this spring, an average of .091. But as the spring has progressed, he has felt better about the alteration, and he stroked two doubles Monday against the Tampa Bay Rays.

“Everything is different — where you start your swing and all that stuff,” he said. “It is what it is. We looked at tape and realized we had to make a change. My bat path wasn’t where I wanted it to be.”

In the past, Wilson found himself swinging down on the ball, and if his timing was off, he’d beat the ball into the ground.

Harmless grounders ensued.

By lowering his hands, Wilson minimizes the movement in his swing. He also doesn’t have to start his swing so soon, allowing him to get a better look at the pitch.

“You think of the best hitters in the game — (Albert) Pujols and those guys,” he said, “and their bat barrels stay through the hitting zone so long that even if you’re a little bit late or a little bit off in your timing, you still have a good chance of hitting a line drive. When you’re in and out of the zone like I was, it’s really tough to get a break when your timing’s off.”

Monday was a bit of a breakthrough for Wilson, though he had been hitting the ball harder as the spring rolled along. Helping his cause was the World Baseball Classic, which has extended spring training into early April and arms Wilson with extra time to deal with such a drastic change in approach.

“In his mind and Donnie’s mind, I really believe they felt it was coming,” manager John Russell said. “The last place it always shows is in the game usually. Jack’s made a lot of progress, I like his approach now, and I think he really likes it, as well.”

Russell remembered how much Xavier Nady and Ryan Doumit struggled last spring.

Both wound up having the best years of their careers.

“They kept working on their approach,” Russell said, “and it paid off for them.”

Old habits die hard, and every so often, Wilson feels his hands drifting upward toward his helmet.

Then he’ll peer into the Pirates dugout to find Long, motioning for him to lower them back down.

It’s a work in progress.

But as Wilson knows, that’s the point of spring training.

“I’ve been feeling great the last three or four games,” he said. “You take it in stride. ... You work on it every day to make sure we can find consistency.

“If it doesn’t work out, you just go back to what you were doing before. But hopefully, it works out.”