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New swing has Pirates first baseman Ishikawa in a better place at plate

| Monday, April 7, 2014, 9:30 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates first baseman Travis Ishikawa breaks his bat during the second inning against the Cardinals on Friday, April 4, 2014, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates first baseman Travis Ishikawa watches his solo homer against the Cardinals on Friday, April 4, 2014, at PNC Park.

Travis Ishikawa came to spring camp with no guarantees.

He was a nonroster invite with scratch-off lottery ticket odds of making the 25-man roster. The only reason he was invited at all was the Pirates failed to find a left-handed platoon partner for Gaby Sanchez via trade or free agency.

What he did have was a new swing.

The altered approach helped Ishikawa make a Cinderella run to a roster spot in March, beating out Andrew Lambo to become an unlikely platoon fit for Sanchez. Ishikawa is off to a strong start, batting .308 with a home run in the first week of the season. He has started five of the first six games at first base as the Pirates have faced all right-handed starters to begin the season. The Pirates return to play against another right-hander in the Cubs' Edwin Jackson at 8:05 p.m. Tuesday at Wrigley Field in Chicago.

Ishikawa's swing adjustment was born in a nondescript warehouse-type structure near Ishikawa's offseason home in Southern California. It is there that private hitting instructor Craig Wallenbrock has studied the swings of nearly every successful major league hitter over the last 25 years. Ishikawa was introduced to Wallenbrock by his agent when Ishikawa was drafted by the Giants the 21st round in 2002 out of a Seattle-area high school.

“He's watched so much film. He has seen all the similarities in big league hitters, what they do well, what they do differently than guys who don't have as much success,” said Ishikawa, who previously played for the Giants, Orioles, Yankees and Brewers. “He's been watching film for, well, I don't even know how long it's been. He knows what a big league swing looks like inside and out.”

Wallenbrock, a former college coach and major league scout, found Ishikawa could better use the lower half of his body. Ishikawa batted just .105 in just seven big league games last year, spending most of the year in Triple-A.

“He made a little observation in regard to my lower half,” Ishikawa said. “In the last few years I feel like I kind of came off of my legs, like I'm almost drifting toward the pitcher. Now I feel like I have a better stable base. I'm using the ground force in my legs. It's allowing me to hit the ball a little bit harder. ... Maybe it's just a confidence thing, a placebo.”

The Pirates signed Ishikawa to a non-guaranteed deal Dec. 18 after the club had fallen short in signing free agent James Loney.

Ishikawa — who has a career .739 OPS against right-handed pitching — hit with more authority this spring. He posted a .968 OPS and belted three home runs in 31 at bats.

Despite the strong spring, Clint Hurdle has said Ishikawa will not be part of a “cookie-cutter” platoon with Sanchez, meaning Ishikawa will not simply bat against right-handed pitching and Sanchez will not bat exclusively against left-handers. Sanchez was expected to receive the lion's share of playing time entering the season.

“We'll look at a bunch of different numbers — hard numbers, past history, analysis, projections and go from there,” Hurdle said.

Rather than a strict platoon, the Pirates will use a proprietary system that looks at comparable starting pitchers and Sanchez's and Ishikawa's production against certain pitchers to determine the most favorable matchup. Hurdle indicated there also is a subjective aspect to filling out the lineup card. But what also will have a say is Ishikawa and his new swing.

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

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