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.