Sunday, March 06, 2011

Give Bob Mariano a Long-Term Contract NOW, STAT!

I will admit first that when the Giants hired Bob Mariano as the hitting coordinator for the Giants farm system, my reaction was "Meh, another failed minor league hitter becoming a hitting instructor, he didn't even make the majors, what is he going to teach our hitters?"  Then the great Andy Baggarly wrote an article about the geniuses behind Brandon Belt's transformation and, Frank Viola, I've turned 180 degrees on Bob, give him a long term contract now before another team tries to steal him.
Until recently, it hasn't been hard for a hitter to get ahead in the Giants' system. It's the biggest criticism of Sabean's 15-year tenure: In all that time, the Giants haven't drafted and developed a single position player to represent the club as an All-Star. The dry spell mostly had to do with poor draft position, including an ownership directive to punt the occasional pick and steer bonus savings to the major league payroll during the Barry Bonds era. 
The few decent hitting prospects to enter the Giants' system -- Todd Linden, Dan Ortmeier, Lance Niekro, etc. -- all seemed to wash out, collecting like driftwood in a tide pool. 
Posey, the fifth overall pick in 2008, illustrated the value of drafting high. And Belt is poised to represent a triumph for a rebounding player-development system. 
In just one season, farm director Fred Stanley and hitting coordinator Bob Mariano helped Belt transform himself from a lightly regarded college senior with a crouched, closed stance and metal-bat swing to a hard-hitting force who flew through the system. 
"When I got to (instructional league), I knew something would change with my stance," said Belt, a fifth-round pick in 2009 out of the University of Texas. "I wasn't sure what was going to happen. Bobby Mariano worked with me every day, raised my hands, opened me up a little bit. That completely changed my entire world right there. I was able to see the ball better. I was able to pull the ball, hit it the other way -- pretty much everything. 
"They're doing that with everybody now." 
Mariano uses a subscriber-based video system that can freeze-frame a young player's swing and compare it, point by point, to major league hitters. It's a way to persuade struggling prospects to change a hitting style that might have served them well in college or high school. 
Mariano said he breaks down tape of All-Stars such as Chase Utley, Robinson Cano and Joey Votto to demonstrate "the importance of what we describe as being 'short to long.' Keep that barrel in the zone a little longer so you don't have to be perfect." 
It's a valuable tool. No matter how good a piece of advice might be, it won't do any good if the player doesn't fully buy into it. 
Belt bought in from Day 1. And now Mariano has an even better visual aid to show the kids on the farm. 
He has Belt and Posey right in front of him. 
"Brandon Belt has the best pitch recognition I've seen in my six years here," Mariano said. "Just great aptitude. He's like Buster in that he's able to make adjustments from pitch to pitch, from at-bat to at-bat. He sets up like Posey. The hands and center of gravity are the same."
One of the interesting techniques to teaching that I recall is using visualization, and I've heard of the use of this to help hitters become better.  The idea is that seeing a good hitter or video of when you yourself perform a good swing, over and over, will result in muscle memory recall that will result in better swings when you actually swing in game situation.  I recall one of the A's hitters really behind that technology but I don't see a lot of mention about it in the interviews I read.  Mitchell Boggs is the name that comes to mind, but I think that's the name of a pitcher in the Cards farm system, so maybe it was that first name (oh, Mitchell Page?).  Anyway, I'm a believer in visualization and that is part of the functionality of this subscriber-based video system they are using to freeze-frame and break down swings, which is not mentioned in the article.

Obviously, the main functionality is enabling prospects to see how the good hitters do it.  As noted above, Mariano has broke down the swings of hitters like Chase Utley, Robinson Cano, and Joey Votto, to demonstrate "the importance of what we describe as being 'short to long.' Keep that barrel in the zone a little longer so you don't have to be perfect."  And, of course, now they have Posey and Belt as examples, which will probably drill the point home even stronger for the prospects, as they are people they actually played with and would feel free to talk with them about how they do it.

Of course, it would be even better if they did this with Barry Bonds' swing.

Nick Noonan Excitement

What I  was also really excited about was the start of the article by Baggarly, which noted prospect Nick Noonan:
Nick Noonan hit a wall. Once a top prospect on the fast track, he had a miserable year at Double-A Richmond that included a stubborn hamstring injury and a badly bruised psyche.
He went to the Giants' instructional league in September determined to remake his swing. And he knew what template to use. 
"I watched Brandon Belt," Noonan said. "I raised my hands. I opened up my stance. I started tucking my front knee to get my weight back. It's 180 degrees for me. I think I'll be able to drive the ball this year."
He was one of the prospects I was really high on last season, but he had a really down season.  However, one of the rules Ron Shandler's books have taught me is that once a prospect exhibits a skill, he owns it.  The crucial thing after he owns it is whether he can repeat it again, it is there, but it just needs to be brought out of him.

Noonan exhibited the good discipline of a good hitter in the second half of the 2009 season, taking a lot of walks and not striking out much, and this new tool appears to have helped him.  Hopefully 2011 will be the season I was seeing for Noonan in 2010 before failure and injury ended it.

Other Prospects to Watch

And there is nothing like a guy breaking out like Brandon Belt will do for encouraging the rest of the Giants farm system's hitters to at least try out the system.  Noonan, if he improves as he suggests in his comments, would cement that inclination and motivation, I would think.

Other hitters who have exhibited the ability to avoid strikeouts well, besides Noonan, include Emmanuel Burriss, Ehire Adrianza, and Rafael Rodriguez (EME was good but he went free agent last off-season and I think he signed with the Mariners).  There are others, I'm sure, but these came to mind first and I don't have time to research all the others, maybe another day in a follow-up post.  But these guys are the ones high up the system whereby we might see results this season in terms of breakouts.

It would be great if either Noonan or Burriss breaks out like Belt because that would fill out starting 2B need in 2012 after Sanchez's contract ends.  Basically, from a financial viewpoint, the Giants will have to let go of all their bigger paid veterans in order to be able to afford to keep most of their young stars like Lincecum, Cain, Sanchez, Wilson, Sandoval, Posey beyond their 6 years of control.

Burriss is the closest and the one thing holding him back, well, besides getting injured all the time, is his inability to hit for power.  True, if he could take walks, that would help too, but if that hasn't happened by now, it is probably not going to happen.  However, power is a matter of technique and bringing that out of him.  Carney Lansford tried hard to convert him but failed and went back to the Rox, crying about his experiences here.  But he noted that Burriss has very strong forearms which Burriss was not using at all in his swings, resulting in very little power.

From a hitting perspective, it is the difference between Andres Torres before the Giants and Torres with the Giants.  He was an admitted "slap" hitter because coaches he had didn't know any better, saw a guy with flying speed and taught him to slap at the ball in order to get on base and use his speed.  He realized his time in the pros was nearing an end if he didn't change things.  He sought out the advice of a swing coach, who basically taught him Ted William's methodology from his book, and now, while he does strike out way too much, he gets on base adequately overall and, more importantly, hits with good power.  Burriss should really be bothering Andres all the time and picking his brains, he would be a good template to follow, because he's fast approaching the point at which Torres made his drastic change for the better.

Noonan, however, has exhibited the ability to take walks, part of his difficulties has been that he has been much younger and less experienced than the players he's been playing against.  Nothing wrong with that, many players are like that, probably means he won't be a star, but he can still be a very solid regular if he can put things together and a team can always use players like that.  Contrary to many fans' demands, not every player on a roster has to be a star for the team to win or to win the World Series.

Ehire is perhaps more critical because we will need a shortstop who can hit well enough to go with his superb fielding.  Both Crawford and Adrianza got the glove, but they need to show the hitting.  Ehire has shown the discipline before in an age appropriate league, but he has struggled relatively since, though nothing as bad as Crawford.  If this training can bring his hitting out, we should give Bob a lifetime contract.

Rafael Rodriguez is more of a long term project but he could zoom up fast if he picks up things fast.  5 tool prospect who has shown good ability when playing against guys his age and experience range, he hasn't looked as good in recent seasons facing older competition.  His big minus right now is power, but recall that Sandoval didn't start showing his power until he turned 22.  RafRod is still only 18 and most scouts feel that his power will come with age.

A better hitter than Angel Villalona (how good our system would look today if only...), in terms of avoiding strikeouts, RafRod could zoom up the system if he can use this technology to leapfrog the competition.  His ability to hit was the only tool that scouts really were in disagreement about, not all felt that he would solve that.  It sounds like this system might help him with that.

I guess another this system might help is Conor Gillaspie, who is known for being more of a pure hitter but one who didn't hit for much power.  If he could boost his power, that would make him more of a candidate to move up to 3B in the majors, and particularly 2B, which is the position many feel he would end up at when he was drafted.

Great Giants Accepting of Different Ways of Doing Things

It is very exciting to hear that the Giants are getting into such technology.  Whoever is responsible for this, whether Neukom, Sabean, or Mariano, should get credit for trying bleeding edge stuff like this, which as I noted, is really just improvements on prior technology and techniques, like the A's hitter I noted.  However, visualization is not an accepted technique, there are those who do not believe that this works,

Hopefully the success of Belt will be followed by other successes, maybe Noonan, maybe others, and more prospects will be willing to give this a shot.  It will probably not work for everyone, but being open to different ways of doing things is a good trait to have, you just need to move on to the next thing if that don't work for you.  Still, I'm excited enough that if Mariano is responsible for bringing this into our farm system, I hope the Giants give him security in a long-term contract sooner than later.

Especially before Sheriff Ned, Giants-wannabe, tries to hire Mariano away.


  1. You know, Mariano has been with the club for 6 years and in that time shown that he is more adept at hitting on fans wives than hitting.

    Buster is an extremely talented player. Mariano gets no credit there. With Brandon Belt, perhaps you give Mariano some credit, but how much to the coach and how much to the kid? Does one success make up for 6 years of failure?

    If Mariano is so good, why aren't Schierholtz and Isikawa better hitters. Why is Bocock still a light hitting defensive wizzard? He has had six years and only one success.

    Don't give the man more credit than he is due. And certainly don't give him a long term contract. Let the dodgers have him. He would fit in well there.

  2. OGC,

    I noticed Conor Gillaspie's flurry of HR's in the AFL and immediately thought of Brandon Belt. Was he working on his Brandon Belt swing down there? After the dramatically successful turnarounds by Belt and Andres Torres using essentially the same approach, I would think other struggling prospects would at least give it a try before they fade out of the system.

  3. DrB, I was thinking the same thing but since I had no anectodal evidence of such, I didn't mention his surge in the AFL. Yes, totally agree, hopefully other prospects will at least give it a try.

    Funny how both Baggarly and Schulman both had articles on Belt on Sunday, and how Schulman focused on the scouts and Baggarly on the new technology. Both good in their own way, but Baggarly opened up an additional layer of the onion for us. We are so lucky to have such knowledgeable beatwriters for the Giants.

  4. Anon, I guess you didn't notice, but that is why I couched my terms about Mariano at the end of the article. Whoever is responsible for bringing that system in should get the credit, and if Mariano is that guy, then he's who I would give the long-term contract too. My assumption at the top is that he's the guy responsible, and perhaps I should have made that clearer.

    That is also why I didn't mention anything about improving Posey's swing, I only noted that he would be a good model for other prospects to study.

    You know what, yes one success does make up for 6 years of failure if it leads to multiple successes, like perhaps Noonan, in the coming years. There is a lot of money invested in the prospects, multiple millions of dollars to produce a Buster Posey, a Brandon Belt. As I've written before, the odds are very great against producing good players like them. So maybe Belt was just luck or even a one time event.

    But if this technique does what I think it can, based on what I've ready about Belt's transformation and Noonan's comment, then there will be more successes stepping forward in the coming years, and it would be multiple successes. That would make player development much cheaper for the Giants if they can convert more of their position prospects into major league hitters.

    And as most know, baseball is often about what you have done for me lately, so if Mariano is an integral cog of teaching hitters this process, then he should be kept around long-term.

  5. As to why certain hitters haven't learned yet, there are many reasons. One problem is that many ballpayers come up with a bit of an ego, and by the time they reach the majors and particularly if they've been paid a lot of money already, they might not be willing to change their ways or just feel that what they have done is what got them there, and thus are unwilling to change.

    I'm not saying that the players you listed are like this, but there are many reasons why a player might not listen to Mariano, including what I noted first thing in my post.

    Frankly, most people are not willing to change what they do until they are desperate. That is why revolutions are often needed in human history to make change.

    That is what drove Andres Torres to finally figure out how to be a major league hitter. Maybe the others haven't reached that point yet.

    And Torres is a good example of this advanced technique, even though he didn't go through it. He was desperate to learn how to hit, so he decided he was going to learn how to hit like Albert Pujols. He googled and found someone on the web who broke down Albert Pujols' swing and asked that guy to teach him how to swing like Pujols. That guy helped Torres re-do his swing based on how Pujols does his, which at its base is what Ted Williams taught in his book, Science of Hitting.

    That is basically what this system is doing, but at a much more sophisticated way, helping hitters see how their swing compares with great hitters, and teaching them by demonstrating how the great ones do it.

    And frankly, the saying "you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear" comes up when you note why certain players haven't made it yet, again, not necessarily the players you listed, but you can only do so much with players, they ARE limited by their tools/talents.

    People can be taught how to swing how Ted Williams or Hank Aaron or Willie Mays did, but as Barry Bonds noted many times to the media, they have the talent, you don't, and he can talk until he's blue and you'll still never get it.

  6. Lastly, you clearly have some beef with Mariano and have some bias against him.

    But I agree, if he is not to be credited for this, if anybody can use this system to teach our hitters, then he don't deserve a long-term contract.

    It is not clear from the article who brought this technology into the team. If Mariano is the guy, then I think he deserves the credit.

    If he is just the guy implementing the technology with our players, then I think he still deserves a longer-term contract, if only to keep him out of other team's hands.

    At this point, we don't know if it is his particular teaching ability that gets players to use the tool properly or if any washed-up career minor leager can do it: why risk finding out?

    As I noted, millions of dollars are involved with the prospects. Mariano probably wouldn't make a million if we gave him a 10 year contract at his current salary.

    Why not give him a 2-3 year contract to keep him with us now, while the team's management figures out how integral he is to the success? If he's key to the process, then give him longer contract. If not, then they can move on (or not) depending on how well they think he is doing his job in general.

    In any case, I assume he's not making that much money in his job (not like major league player money), why not prevent him from moving to another team until the Giants are sure whether the success is due his contributions or to the system only.

    Once that is clarified, then the right move will be clear.

    But why risk losing him now if he might be a key part of the teaching process? We all know that each teacher is different. What if there is something about how he handles this system that helps our players.

    And at minimum, at this point, he knows our farm system and if we lost him, the new instructor will need to be brought up on what's working and what's not working with each position prospect. I view the next 2-3 years as critical to the Giants being the team of the 2010's, the pitching will be very expensive, very soon, and the only way the Giants are going to be able to afford that and still make the playoffs regularly is if they can develop good enough hitters to field the whole lineup, for the most part.

    We have a pretty good middle lineup soon with Belt, Posey, Sandoval (probably in that order, 3-4-5), and hopefully Brown or Peguero will be that lead-off hitter. Then we will need the rest of the lineup.

    Most of the hitters are in the upper minors now - Noonan, Crawford, Neal, Gillaspie, Kieschnick, Adrianza, Peguero, and hopefully Brown soon - and it is key that we don't disrupt their progress. If Mariano is having such success with Belt and now apparently Noonan, I would want him around to work on the rest of the guys, any change in instructors could delay development. Why take that risk now?

  7. OGC,

    You are correct in that I have a beef with Mariano. I watched him work for several years and I haven't seen any improvement in our hitters, but I do have an ex-wife now.

    Key point, "Mariano uses a subscriber-based video system". Anyone can use this system. It doesn't have to be Mariano. And yes, replacing him would set the Giants back a few months as they bring in a former Giants hitter to do the task. But I think that would be time and money well spent.

    At some point, the behavior off the field influences what happens on it. As I said before, Mariano would fit well in the dodgers org.

    And as always, my opinions and ideas are worth less than the bits it take to convey them.

  8. No, anon, your opinions and ideas are not worth less than the bits it take to convey them.

    First, let me say that I'm very sorry about your loss. Clearly it hurts deeply. And obviously it biases your view to some extent, but at least now I understand your original comment.

    If he is causing marital problems like this on a wide scale with a lot of fans, this would clearly backfire on the Giants, so they need to be aware of this behavior. Yes, the off-field behavior could influence what happens on it, the prospects will see this behavior and might think that this is normal and condoned. However, if it is an isolated incident, then it won't.

    It is like the joke I heard in the 70's: it is a recession when your neighbor gets laid off, a depression when you get laid off.

    I understand your pain now, and I'm sorry it happened to you. I hope he does not cause such pain to anyone else and if he is, he should be reprimanded by the Giants in some way before it gets out of hand.

    Now, I agree that the video system can be used by anyone. But just like not everyone can be a teacher, not everyone can use this system effectively.

    Clearly, the issue here is whether Mariano can use such a system better than another instructor with our prospects. Unfortunately, we are not in the position to see this.

    What is clear is that Mariano has worked with both Belt and now Noonan, and both swear by the results. And as I noted, the farm system is in a critical period right now where they need a number of their prospects to step forward and take a starting position on the team in 2012-13. I don't really see the Giants wanting to go through such a transition, so I don't know at what point they will feel the need to.

    About not seeing improvement over the years, it is kind of like with Kentucky Fried Chicken. Col. Sanders was a failure for many many years, before he struck it rich with KFC, and he was in his 60's already, if not older. Did his failures for many years matter? Nobody except business historians care that he failed for many many years before he hit it big, most people know him as the KFC dude. If anything, his failures taught him something which helped him finally succeed.

    Now has this happened with Mariano? Don't know, hopefully the Giants are monitoring him (and all other roving instructors) to make sure they are being effective. Neukom appears to be pretty results-oriented, so if Mariano is deemed to not be contributing to the hitter's development, if he is, as you note, just someone who can use the system, and anyeone can, then I would think Neukom would want to replace Mariano at some point (of course, he would not be the one evaluating, he probably ask Sabean to investigate, and Sabean would query guys he trust in baseball operations as to how effective Mariano has been.)

    Good luck to you, anon, in recovering speedily from your loss.

  9. Anon,

    I understand your pain. I'm just not sure an anonymous post on someone else's baseball oriented blog is the right place to air your grievances. Neither Bob Mariano or your ex-wife are here to give their side of the story and we have no idea who you are, and thus have no way to judge the veracity of the accusations you are making. Hopefully you have family, friends and maybe a therapist you can share your pain with.

    Wish you all the best. It does get better!

  10. One size does not fit all when it comes to hitting. Certainly the ability to comfortably mimic some great swings is helpful. While it may work for some it is no guarantee that it will work for others. If this approach does work a decent amount of time, I say the giants immediately teach it to Aaron Rowand. Certainly Nate Schierholtz can use help to get his natural power into his swing.



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