Hart transforms hitting technique
Outfielder learns to go opposite way, hopes to avoid slump
MILWAUKEE -- Corey Hart hopes his new hairstyle helps shake the Brewers out of their early-season doldrums, but his new hitting style will probably have the bigger impact.Hart, who showed up Sunday morning along with shortstop J.J. Hardy with jet-black hair, is a right-handed hitter, and he has been spraying baseballs to right field so far this season thanks to a tip from hitting coach Dale Sveum. All three of Hart's homers have gone to the opposite field, along with his lone triple of the season. He hit a sacrifice fly to right during Sunday's 4-2, sweep-averting win over the Mets. The result is that Hart has been one of the steady forces in a slumping lineup. Among the regulars, only center fielder Mike Cameron has a better on-base percentage (.422 to Hart's .385) and batting average (.316 to .279). And only Cameron and leadoff hitter Rickie Weeks have scored more runs (nine apiece, to Hart's eight) entering the Brewers' tough three-game series in Philadelphia that begins Tuesday night. "That's one of the things me and Dale have obviously emphasized right out of the gate, to make sure I have the right-field approach," said Hart, 27. "That way, I can stay on some of the off-speed pitches that most of the guys throw up there. It's been helping me to see the ball a little longer and be able to adjust a little quicker." Hart struggled to adjust during the second half of the 2008 season, when opposing pitchers threw him a steady diet of breaking balls away because he couldn't lay off them. Hart won the National League's final All-Star Game roster spot after hitting .289 before the break with 15 home runs and 58 RBIs. But he hit just .239 after the break with five homers and 33 RBIs, and his average in September was .173 without a single home run. Hart struck out once every five plate appearances over the final month of the regular season. During the rest of the year, he whiffed once every 6.27 plate appearances. Enter Sveum, who finished last season as Milwaukee's interim manager, but was back this spring as the hitting coach under new manager Ken Macha. It's difficult enough to square up a round baseball with a round bat, but Sveum has Hart trying to hit a specific point on the baseball. "He wants me to hit the bottom, inside part of the ball," Hart said. "I've never really done that before, but it makes it so there are a lot of pitches you can't even think about swinging at. Like the low-away slider, I don't even think about trying to swing at that, because I can't hit my spot. "I've never even thought about looking at any specific part of the baseball. It makes the outlook a little different. If I can't hit it, it means I can't swing at it, and that means I'm not swinging at pitches that I was before. Any time you can change something for the better, that feels good. And when you see the results, that's even more cool." His manager hopes the results keep coming. "This might be a great eye-opener to him," Macha said during Milwaukee's homestand. "If he gets balls to hit, he smokes them." It's not necessarily that opposing pitchers are working Hart any differently. "Every at-bat I've had this spring, it feels like the first two pitchers are sliders," Hart said. "I'm still going to guess and look really bad sometimes, but I'm able to get past that on the next pitch instead of worrying about it like last year. I had no approach. Now, at least I have an approach." Or, more simply: "The difference is, I'm not swinging at everything," said Hart. With Hart hitting in the two-hole and Weeks off to a respectable start in the leadoff spot (.271 average, .327 on-base percentage), Sveum's next task is getting the heart of the order back in gear. No. 3 hitter Ryan Braun is batting .222 and has driven in just two runs outside of his three-run home run on Friday night. Cleanup hitter Prince Fielder is batting .175, though four of his seven hits have gone for extra bases, and he's tied for the team lead with seven RBIs. However, No. 5 hitter Hardy is struggling, batting .114 (5-for-44) with a .130 on-base percentage. Those numbers have led to this one: Milwaukee ranked 24th of the 30 Major League teams entering Monday's games, with 49 runs scored. Hart will do his part to stay hot. "There's no doubt that when you're feeling pretty good at the plate, you don't want to take anything for granted," he said. "You don't want to ease off, and then all of a sudden you lose it. It's hard to find anything once something goes wrong."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.