MILWAUKEE -- A couple of times a week, one of Russell Branyan's teammates will put down his PSP or his iPhone -- gifts from the owner over the last couple of years -- and peer at Branyan sitting at a laptop computer in the training room, playing what looks like an old school arcade game. Think 1982's Q*bert, but not as high-tech.
Branyan is working, not playing games.
"Guys ask questions about it," Branyan said. "But I don't know if anyone else has committed to it." Nope. "I've gotten plenty of questions," said Chris Joyner, the Brewers' strength and conditioning specialist. "But no one has jumped in." Branyan jumped in this spring when he decided to commit more regularly to the "Vizual Edge Performance Trainer," a computer program billed as weight training for the eyes, developed by the Visual Fitness Institute out of Vernon Hills, Ill. The software includes a number of exercises tailored to a variety of sports, that according to its developer, Dr. Barry Seiller, can help athletes improve their visual alignment, flexibility, recognition and tracking, as well as their depth perception. Branyan is interested in the depth perception drill. He says his work with the Vizual Edge software -- two or three times a week for as little as 10 minutes per session -- is certainly not the only reason for his resurgence this season with the Brewers. But Branyan believes it has helped. "It makes sense that you train the muscles in your eyes, just like you train the muscles in the rest of your body," he said. "You might think you're focused on the ball as it's coming at you, when really you're focused just behind it. That can be the difference between a swing and a miss and making good, hard contact. "I know how this game is," Branyan said. "I know I could have come up and landed flat on my face, then been back in the situation I've always been in, sitting on the bench and wondering when I'm going to play again. I'm fortunate to have been able to come up swinging the bat well in Triple-A and continue it here." The 32-year-old was jobless when Brewers pitchers and catchers reported for Spring Training in February, but he convinced Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin to give him a Minor League opportunity. It made sense for both sides -- the Brewers didn't have a third baseman lined up at Triple-A Nashville, which happened to be Branyan's current hometown. A hot start for the Sounds -- a .359 average and 12 home runs over 45 games -- earned Branyan a promotion to Milwaukee, where he became the left-handed half of a third-base platoon with Bill Hall. Hall remains unhappy, hitting .182 in June despite playing mostly against left-handed pitching, but Branyan has found success. He was just 1-for-7 in two starts against the Braves, but is batting .286 in 25 games with 10 home runs and 17 RBIs. Branyan hit his 10 homers in his first 59 at-bats. "He's always been a guy I wanted to spend time with," Brewers hitting coach Jim Skaalen said. "But I'm not taking any credit for what he's done. He came to us with a great setup, taking quality swings. There's just so much natural ability there, so much easy power." Branyan's problem has always been getting the most of that "easy power." He has struck out 784 times in 1,945 career big league at-bats, and this season is only slightly better than that pace, with 29 whiffs in 77 at-bats this season. But when Branyan has made contact this year, he has done damage. Part of that has to do with seeing the baseball better, which in turn has to do with the Vizual Edge software. In the depth perception drill, Branyan looks at a box on-screen with four quadrants -- up, down, left and right. One of those quadrants appears three-dimensional, appearing to "pop" off the screen or "sink" into it. Using the arrows on a laptop or a joystick, he has to identify which box is affected and the computer keeps his score. There are five levels of difficulty; Branyan gets up to Level 4. "And that's pretty difficult," he said. He was introduced to the program in the Cleveland organization, and has used it off and on since, including during his 2004-2005 stint with Milwaukee. The Brewers run their Minor Leaguers through its various exercises, and Brewers scouts have used it as part of their evaluations of potential Draft picks. When he was looking for a job this spring, Branyan decided to commit. "I said, 'What the heck. I'm going to stick with it,'" he recalled. "I had it at the house, and in the mornings I would wake up before the rest of the family and spend 10 minutes working on it." He believes it can be especially effective for hitters coming off the bench or players who start only a few days per week. "I think this program is really beneficial for that," Branyan said. "When you're not in there every single day, seeing live pitching come at you at that speed, [the program] is a real benefit to help bench players stay sharp. "That's basically what I'm doing. I'm coming off the bench, platooning with Billy and not playing every day. I think it's more of a benefit to me now than when I was playing every day at Triple-A." He's been a boost to the Brewers, who are 20-11 since Branyan's May 25 big league season debut, and 14-8 with him in the starting lineup. With right-hander Nick Blackburn starting for the Twins on Friday night, Branyan should be in the starting lineup at the start of a three-game Interleague Series. It was pointed out that he debuted at third base one year to the date from Ryan Braun's first game with the Brewers in 2007. The similarities end there, Branyan said with a laugh. "I'm a little different that he is," Branyan said. "I'm just happy to be in the big leagues and I'm going to work to keep it going."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.