Pirates hitting coach Jeff Branson is a man of many hats

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Jeff Branson's unofficial office is in the batting cage, or a patch of ground behind home plate where he stands for morning batting practice.

Some days, he might as well have a leather couch.

Branson, players say, serves as part father figure and part psychologist in his new role as Pirates hitting coach this spring.

"We've been through the trenches. We've done it. We couldn't do it anymore and that's why we're here," Branson said in his southern accent. "Personally, these are our sons. We're here to protect them, provide for them. And our job is to pass along knowledge to them. Whether it's off the field or on the field."

The Pirates won 94 games in 2013, but had deficiencies at the plate. They ranked No. 11 in the National League last year in average (.245), ninth in runs scored (634) and ninth in RBIs (603).

There is a general team plan for 2014 in regards to approach at the plate to be more stubborn and drive the ball from gap to gap, trying to correct a tendency to pull the ball too much in 2013.

"We're looking for a ball up and out over the plate. Our game plan has to be up and out over the plate to keep us from the pull side," Branson said. "That was our inconsistency last year. We got too much to the pull side.

"This year's focus is we'll work everything in the middle of the field, back the ball up in the zone, hit the fastball the other way, now you're on the off-speed to hit to the strong-side gap."

Branson, who made a career in the majors coming off the bench to hit, is the club's third hitting coach in three years, following Jay Bell and Gregg Ritchie.

Before joining the major league staff as the assistant hitting coach last year, Branson spent four years as the Class AAA Indianapolis hitting coach and five years as a minor league manager. He is now in his 12th year with the organization.

"I love what he's doing. I love the relationship-building that's taking place. I love the focus. I love the way we're going about our work offensively," manager Clint Hurdle said. "He's been in a major league dugout and he knows the challenges that come with that. I'm actually of the belief that this is going to be one of the guys you'll be talking about as one of the better hitting coaches in the major leagues down the road."

Because Branson has spent so much time in the Pirates system, there has been very little breaking of the ice this spring.

"He knows my swing a little bit. He knows when I'm right, when I'm wrong," shortstop Jordy Mercer said. "He knows the flaws, so when I do struggle he's quick to mention it to me and we can turn it around pretty quick and get things going in the right direction."

Likewise, said Andrew Lambo, whose minor league power has not yet translated to the majors.

"Hitting coaches are your best friend, your father, your therapist, all of the above," Lambo said. "He knows me and knows what to say, what not to say. I'm big on that. He gets you feeling right, gets you thinking positively. That's what you want."

Branson said the key with a player like Lambo is to lessen the pressure.

"What he did last year? That just doesn't happen," Branson said. "It's a clean, crisp swing. We just have to get his confidence back up."

But all hitters tick differently.

Travis Snider said he got to know Branson last year when he was injured. Snider prefers to break down his own video, but trusts Branson's opinion.

"Jeff is a good old southern boy. He definitely knows how to communicate with different walks of life, guys with different personalities," Snider said. "I like to make the joke that we're all prima donnas and they have to babysit us. He's the type of guy who's going to tell you the honest truth. If you ask him a question, he's going to give you the answer whether you want to hear it or not."

Volquez's spot to lose

General manager Neal Huntington said that, barring injury, Edinson Volquez will be in the team's starting rotation as the No. 5 starter when camp breaks because the club believes his mechanics are coming along.

"We believe in his stuff. I'm not going to say he's a lock, but as we came into spring training, we anticipated he would be in our opening-day rotation," Huntington said. "We'd need our fifth starter the fifth or sixth game of the season. We'll clearly have a decision by then. Our expectation is that Edinson will be in the rotation to start the season."

Volquez has an 11.00 ERA this spring, struggling mostly with his fastball command while working on some delivery and release-point adjustments. He has had some success with a deceptive breaking ball and solid changeup, and noted progress in his fastball Saturday in his second start.

Locke watch continues

Huntington said Jeff Locke threw well in his bullpen session Saturday and that it is now a matter of getting him ready in time for the season.

"The clock becomes your enemy when you're a starting pitcher and miss time due to injury," Huntington said. "Jeff is healthy and throwing the ball great. Now it's a matter of getting him stretched out and getting his innings built up."

Huntington said it would be difficult to start Locke on the disabled list to open the season unless something changes, but Locke is a "candidate to probably still make our club. But we'll see where he is in the process. We're still a couple of weeks away from having to make a decision like that."

Jenn Menendez: jmenendez@post-gazette.com and Twitter @JennMenendez.

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