PITTSBURGH — Francisco Cervelli has a new look.

No, the Italian-Venezuelan catcher that’s become at least as well-known for his charm and smile as his OPS, hasn’t changed his “do.”

But he has made some other changes to his game that seem to be paying dividends in 2018. Cervelli hit his fourth home run of the season in the Pirates’ 6-2 win over the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday.

Cervelli has hit more than four home runs in a season in his entire Major League career just twice. He hit seven in 2015 and five in 2017. His pace this season would have him hitting 24 long balls.

What’s the difference? Well, the first thing is that Cervelli is finally healthy again after a terrible stretch from the middle of 2016 that extended through last year. Cervelli said that in particular, the surgery he had in 2016 to remove the broken hook of his hamate bone bothered him far longer than he let on — all the way through the premature end of his 2017 season, when a quad injury ended his season prematurely.

“I’m healthy, that’s the biggest thing,” he said. “I don’t feel it any more. That was like two years. I’m very blessed. It’s responded well and I’m here, playing hard, every day.”

Not only is he in good health, he’s in better physical conditioning thanks to a renewed focus on taking care of his body this offseason.

“I worked four months to put my body the way it was,” Cervelli said. “I did a little bit of everything and I started from the beginning again. Like learning how to play baseball again, catching, offensively, eating, everything. So far, it’s been good.”

But just being in good shape and in good health isn’t enough to make the kind of dramatic change in outcomes that Cervelli has seen from 2017 to 2018. He’s putting the barrel to the ball at a significantly increased rate. According to Statcast, he’s barreled five balls this year compared to nine in all of 2017. He’s also made solid contact eight times compared to 16 in all of 2017.

Francisco Cervelli’s 2017 contact chart.
Francisco Cervelli’s 2018 contact chart.

That change has resulted from a change in Cervelli’s stance, specifically, he’s eliminated a toe-tap and he’s added a leg kick.

“I feel a little more free now,” Cervelli said. “Sean (Rodriguez) told me to do it and I started doing it. That’s it. I’ve been working with (hitting coach Jeff) Branson and trying to make things simple.”

Here’s a few looks at Cervelli’s swing with the new leg lick.

For comparison, here’s some views of Cervelli’s swing from 2017.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said that while it can disrupt timing, he’s seen the addition of a leg kick increase a player’s ability to put his full weight behind the bat. The Pirates aren’t typically big proponents of them, but are more than willing to accept what’s been working for Cervelli.

“That’s why 95 percent of the guys do it,” Hurdle said. “They believe it will increase power. There’s different schools of thought. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks, what you think or what I think. If he thinks it increases power and he goes up and hits and home run, you know what? He’s on to something.”

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