Pirates outfield back in the swing of things

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BRADENTON, Fla. — From a season of playing through pain and compensating as a result, Travis Snider learned a few things.

Watching video of himself last season illustrated the mechanical alterations he used to compensate for a toe injury that pained him for more than a year. Surgery on the toe forced him to work out differently this winter and helped him change the way he ate as a result. As the first week of spring training proceeds, Snider has joined his teammates in almost every activity as he completes the final stages of rehabilitation.

“It’s going to help him all over,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “Balance in the box, outfield, first-step quickness, on the bases, running. Everything that he does, when you can do it without having to think about a certain way to do it, it’ll free him up to play to his best capabilities.”

Spring Training Report: Pitcher Duke Welker

Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Duke Welker talks to the media from the Pirates' spring training camp in Bradenton, Fla. (Video by Peter Diana; 2/21/2014)

A healthy toe should aid Snider as he competes this spring for playing time in right field. With Andrew Lambo working almost exclusively at first base, Snider, Jose Tabata and Jaff Decker are the three right-field candidates.

The big toe on Snider’s left foot hurt since the end of the 2012 season. Early last season, the pain was manageable. The training staff could tape it in a way that reduced the pain and kept Snider on the field. He hit .300 with a .799 on-base plus slugging percentage in April.

“As the season progressed, it got harder and harder to actually go to the cage and have a productive session without walking out of there and feeling like I just beat it up,” Snider said.

The Pirates finally put him on the disabled list at the end of July, and he didn’t return until September. By that time, the Pirates had traded for Marlon Byrd to man right field and Snider’s playing time decreased.

“In a bench role for a while there, especially at the end of the season, was almost like a relief because I wasn’t on my feet for nine innings a day while I was doing things,” Snider said.

In a 10-game rehab assignment before his return, Snider worked on erasing the muscle memory created while he was compensating for pain in his toe. The left big toe is a pivot point for a left-handed hitter and absorbs a good deal of torque and pressure during a swing.

“Going into the offseason, it was a much clearer picture as far as some of the breakdowns and compensations that were created from trying to generate power when most of that power is generated from the ground up,” Snider said. “That back foot’s what you drive off of.”

When Snider’s swing is at its best, he stays on is left (back) leg rather than shifting his weight forward, trusting his back leg and knee to drive the bat through the hitting zone.

He said he was pleased with the strides he made in that area near the end of last season. But during recovery, and after his surgery in the fall, he learned something else about himself: how to avoid compensating for weaknesses and instead address those weaknesses ahead of time.

“I come from a blue-collar football mentality type atmosphere,” he said. “That was a balance for me as a young player where, OK, I had to reduce some of the risk in the ways that I was training and change the mindset on maintenance programs, pre-hab versus rehab, and trying to stay ahead of the curve.

“That’s something that I take a lot of pride in now, what I do away from the field to prepare myself each and every day to come here.”

Because he spent the offseason rehabbing from surgery, Snider couldn’t work out the same way as in the past. To improve his fitness, he changed the way he ate, relying on a book called “The Perfect Health Diet.” Rather than eliminate carbohydrates, as he had in the past when trying to slim down, he adopted healthy carb options. Lean meat, non-processed foods and healthy fat became key.

“I don’t need to go spend an hour on the elliptical every day for extra conditioning just because I’m trying to lose 10 pounds before I get to spring training,” Snider said. “It was amazing just to watch [weight] fall off.”

The healthy toe and thinner body don’t guarantee that Snider can improve on a season in which he hit .189 from May 1 onward. Nor will health alone stave off Tabata, Decker or the eventual arrival of top prospect Gregory Polanco.

It will merely level the playing field, which after a year of playing through pain, Snider will take.

Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com and Twitter @BrinkPG.

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