INTERVIEW: FRESNO GRIZZLIES MANAGER BOB MARIANO

Photo: Steve Cummings/HotStoveHeat.com

Bob Mariano is in his first season as the manager of the AAA Fresno Grizzlies in the San Francisco Giants’ organization. Mariano, who had previously managed in the minors in three different stints, had been the Giants’ minor league hitting coordinator since 2005. As a former minor league infielder, he has insights into how to run a team and keep the entire roster motivated which he combines with his vast experience in teaching pro ballplayers how to hit.

Mariano’s paramount goal as the AAA manager is player development. Getting minor league players ready to perform when they get the call up to the big league club. In his years as a hitting instructor, Mariano has worked with the likes of Buster Posey and Brandon Belt and now has his attention on his current roster.

HotStoveHeat.com had the opportunity to sit down with Bob Mariano and talk about his efforts to provide the San Francisco Giants with the assets they need to win. Whether he’s getting a player ready to contribute at the big league level, or making sure one has the skills to be a valuable trade piece, Mariano is putting his positive-energy approach to work with the ever-changing roster of his Pacific Coast League club.

HOW MUCH DIRECTION AND COMMUNICATION IS THERE FROM THE GIANTS ABOUT WHAT GETS DONE HERE?
There are pitch limits from the minor league pitching coordinator, Bert Bradley, and I rely heavily on my pitching coach Pat Rice. Whatever they (the Giants) want done, I’ll have it done. I have a chart based on who’s available today and how many pitches and if we have a guy that has had three or four days’ rest and we need to pitch him, you know what, we’re going to put him in the situation.

I’m not a guy that believes in win at all cost. I believe in player development. I want to win as much as the next guy but player development comes first. If these guys need to get their innings in and need to get their AB’s, that’s what I do. I play everybody. You look at my club, there are guys on my team that I won’t sit longer than 3 days. I know as a player I have been on clubs where I sat two weeks and I just feel that’s wrong. I feel you create better chemistry, plus you get regulars a day off. It’s a marathon. Your utility guys are a big key to resting the regulars when you need to. I believe in playing them every three to four days. If they’re here in a uniform, I’m gonna use them. I feel you get more out of the players too, you create good chemistry and they know they’re not just going to be sitting on the bench.

FANS WANT TO SEE A WINNING TEAM BUT THE GOAL, AS YOU SAID, IS PLAYER DEVELOPMENT. SOME PLAYERS NEED WORK, THE BEST PLAYERS MAY GET CALLED UP. HOW DO YOU BALANCE THAT?
Sometimes the fans may not understand that I have a pitch limit on a guy and I have to take him out. Or maybe I have to leave him in because the day before I had to use my bullpen up, so I’ve gotta let that starter go as long as he can because we don’t have enough pitchers. And then he’s getting shelled out there. He’s wearing it, and the fans are yelling at me to take him out but I’ve got to leave him in.

So those little things, maybe they don’t understand. If there’s a pitch-count limit and the guy’s throwing good, it might be a one-run game but I’ve got to go get him because this is it, he reached his pitch-limit and we have to let the next guy come in. The whole thing is, what we try to do as a staff, is create a positive atmosphere here and put players in positions so they will have success. That’s our job. We work them, get them ready, put them in a position to have success. That’s what you try to do as a manager. You try not to put a guy in where he’s not going to have success. That’s all we do, and the rest of it, we try to stay out of the way.

Photo:Steve Cummings/HotStoveHeat.com

YOU’RE MANAGING RIGHT AT THE DOORSTEP OF THE BIG LEAGUES, BUT IT IS A BIG STEP. AS A HITTING INSTRUCTOR, YOU HAD GUYS LIKE BRANDON BELT AND BRETT PILL THAT JUST TORE UP THIS LEAGUE AND THEN THEY GET CALLED UP AND IT’S TOUGH. WITH BELT, YOU SEE HIM  SWING AT STUFF THAT HE NEVER WOULD HAVE SWUNG AT HERE.
A lot of it is when you get up there, a lot of times, the manager…, and Bochy knows because he’s been there and he’s been around, but you’ve got to win. The bottom line is winning and results. A lot of times you don’t have the luxury to develop a guy. And part of player development is still developing when you’re at the big-league level. You have to have a staff up there that is going to develop these guys and sometimes you don’t have that luxury. So if they don’t perform when they get in, if Belt gets in one or two days and he doesn’t perform….hey, (gestures the out signal, i.e. he’ll be out of the lineup).

So now, he doesn’t perform and he doesn’t put up the numbers, so he’s sitting on the bench for three or four days and he comes back and plays again. Now he says “hey, I gotta try to put up some numbers.” So what’s he going to do? He’s going to expand the strike zone. He’s not going to take that walk like he did in the minor leagues. He knew he was going to get his at-bats down here.

Other times, it is out of need. If you look at the average major league guy, if you look at a lot of the guys like when I was with the Yankees for five years….I had Jeter, J.T. Snow, Bernie Williams, Deon Sanders, Brad Ausmus, Jim Leyritz, I was in AA with those guys coming through. Bam Bam Muelens was my third baseman. A lot of those guys, if you look at their at-bats in the minor leagues, they had anywhere from 1,800 to 2,000 at-bats in the minor leagues before they got to the majors.

Brandon Belt? 500-600 at bats in the minors.

So that puts it in perspective. Sometimes, out of need, a guy is forced to come up there and he may not be ready, but the organization had a need, maybe somebody got hurt and he had a good spring and we’re looking at him to catch lightning in a bottle. But a lot of those times, like I said, if you look at Jeter and how many at-bats he had in the minor leagues, like Bernie Williams….Pablo Sandoval had around 2,000 at-bats before he got to the big leagues and he was second in the league in hitting in his rookie season in 2009.

So that puts it in perspective, you see. You’re talking about a big difference between 500 at-bats and you’ve never struggled, like Brandon Belt never struggled in the minor leagues. Now he goes up there and he doesn’t have that experience to draw on for how to get out of that hole. It would be hard in the minor leagues, let alone when you’re up in the big leagues and you get in that hole and try to get out of it. And not playing every day. So to find your swing when you’re playing maybe twice a week when you’re a rookie, only 500-600 minor league at-bats, it’s tough.

WITH BELT SPECIFICALLY, I WONDER IF PART OF IT IS JUST THE QUALITY OF PITCHING AT THAT LEVEL, TOUGHER FASTBALLS, TOUGHER BREAKING STUFF AND A BETTER MIX SO IT IS HARD
TO KNOW WHAT’S GOING TO BE COMING.

I was just talking to my brother Jeff in Pittsburgh and he knows I had Belt and we were saying that he went through the minors just like Buster Posey did, the same levels, and he put up better numbers than Posey. So what’s the difference between Belt and Posey?

Well, Posey knew his swing and had a mature, veteran-like mindset in his aptitude and retention. With Belt, you know, we changed his swing in the instructional league. When we first got him we changed his whole mechanics. He was closed off, his hands were trapped back here (gestures to show the grip on the bat back behind his trailing side). We opened him up and created a hitting lane, moved his hands away from his body and he took off. Then he had a knee tuck just like Sandoval and Posey did in the minor leagues.

So now he goes up there and he’s doing something a little bit different mechanically. A toe-tap. Anything you change in your mechanics can affect you. And now his mental approach, you can lose your confidence. Half of hitting is your confidence and once you lose it, it is tough to get it back.

BRANDON CRAWFORD’S GLOVE GOT HIM TO THE BIG LEAGUE CLUB BUT HE DIDN’T HIT MUCH. THEN HE WENT TO THE FALL LEAGUE AND DID FANTASTIC AND IT LOOKED LIKE HE BROUGHT IT TO SPRING TRAINING AND DID WELL THERE TOO. BUT THIS SEASON HE’S STILL HITTING UNDER .250.  WHY WOULDN’T THE GOOD NUMBERS TRANSLATE?
There are a couple of factors. The competition? Yeah, no doubt about it. The pitching up there (majors), you’ve got guys coming out of the bullpen throwing mid-90’s, their stuff is a little bit crisper, the breaking stuff is better. And plus, at AT&T vs. the PCL…..the average hitter in the PCL is hitting .280, it’s a hitter-friendly league. This is one of the easier leagues to hit in. The Eastern League is tougher to hit in than this one. The Arizona Fall League and Spring Training? That’s like the PCL. The ball jumps, you’ve got fast infields.

You go to AT&T and it is like night and day. It is a different animal. So that’s what happens. You’ve got to temper these numbers here and the pitching compared to what you get in the big leagues. AT&T is a pitcher’s park. If you’ve ever been to AT&T in August it is going to be freezing up there. I know, when I was there, the ball doesn’t do anything. It is tough, it’s a tough park to hit in.

So you take those factors, better competition, tougher ballpark and now you’re under a microscope, those are the things you’re looking at. You’re talking about a kid that doesn’t have 1,800-2,000 at-bats and you’re talking about his psyche, too. His confidence. You put all those things together and that is what it boils down to. Guys that can handle it, Sandoval, Posey, they’re able to make adjustments because they’re strong-willed, those
guys.

Going back to Belt, I’m not saying Belt isn’t, I still think he can be a good hitter in the major leagues. I really believe that. I just think he’s lost his confidence and there are maybe some mechanical adjustments that he needs to make to have better at-bats.

YOU SWITCHED ROLES WITH STEVE DECKER, WHO MANAGED SOME OF THESE GUYS HERE IN FRESNO. DOES THE MINOR LEAGUE HITTING COORDINATOR WORK WITH THE HITTERS ONCE THEY’VE MOVED ON TO THE BIG LEAGUES?
No, we have extensive video and player transfers on computer. When a guy moves up to the big leagues, Russ Morman, my hitting guy here, he’ll send a player transfer on what he’s been working on, like when (Brett) Pill gets called up, he’ll call Bam Bam and say “Hey, Bam Bam, this is what we’ve been working with, these are the mechanical changes I made.”

And same thing with Bam Bam. When guys come down he’ll say “Okay, this is what (Justin) Christian needs to do, this is what we saw with him.” So we’re constantly communicating back and forth. We use texting and the video and the computer extensively. All of us do reports, we do a pitching report, a hitting report and a manager’s report at the end of every game. I’m taking notes during the game. It’s in the computer. Everything is so computerized, it takes me about a half-hour or 45 minutes to an hour to do a report after the game before I get out of here. All of that information goes right back to San Francisco no matter where we are. If we’re in New Orleans, we still punch everything in on the computer and we’ve got to put the video in. It is so sophisticated now it is amazing.

YOU JUST GOT ELI WHITESIDE BACK FROM SAN FRANCISCO AND HE’S BLOCKED AT THE BIG LEAGUE LEVEL. AND EMMANUEL BURRISS IS A GUY THAT THEY JUST WENT OUT AND TRADED FOR A GUY THAT DOES WHAT HE DOES (UTILITY MAN MARCO SCUTARO). HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH THAT SITUATION WHEN THEY COME BACK DOWN HERE?
That’s the challenging part as a manager. You’ve got to try to motivate them and, you know, I am honest with them. Burriss came in and he’s got a great attitude. He was on waivers and he wasn’t picked up so that’s telling him that nobody wanted him but I said “Look, we’re here for you and you’ve got four weeks to show what you can do. I’m going to give you the green light and anything we need to do to get you to the big leagues, we will.”

I said, “You know, you need to tell yourself that there are 29 other clubs out there. We want you back in the big leagues with us but don’t only play for the name on the front of jersey, play for the name on the back of your jersey too.”

If we can get someone else interested in him, that’s a feather in our cap. If he can be traded and we can get a valuable piece, just like when John Bowker was here, that’s great. Bowker won a PCL batting title. If it wasn’t for him being developed, we don’t win a World Series. If we didn’t get Javier Lopez from Pittsburgh out of the bullpen to nullify the lefties that Bochy needs, I’ll tell you what, that was a big piece of the puzzle.

It could be one trade from your minor leagues that does it. Like Culberson just went to Colorado for Marco Scutaro to fill a hole, to fill a need. That’s what you try to do. With Manny (Burriss) and Whitey (Whiteside), that’s what my speech was to them. I said, “Hey, we’ve got September callups coming, I’m going to play you and get you your at-bats. Let’s get after it the next four weeks and see what happens.”

They’re like a product, they have to sell themselves. We just get them ready to have success, try to stay positive. It’s tough to do sometimes. Sometimes you’re getting your butt kicked and everybody still has that competitive edge and you want to win. But like I said, it is a challenge. We’ve had a lot of injuries, we’ve had a lot of callups and our starting rotation was just in shambles with (Travis) Blackley going up and then going on waivers. (Andrew) Kown went down. We had (Jason) Stevenson come up from AA and (Shawn) Sanford from A-ball who wasn’t even starting down there. Stevenson’s still here. That’s what you do, you keep working with them and you try to iron out some things that they need to work on and you let them perform.

Photo:Steve Cummings/HotStoveHeat.com

FINALLY, DID YOU WORK WITH JOE PANIK?
Yeah, his first year he went to the Fall League. He had played a full season and he was tired and he hit .300 in the Fall League. He’s going to be a good player. I see him as probably at second base in the future for us. He has a good knowledge of the strike zone, he hangs in tough against lefties. He’s a good hitter. Guys that have a good knowledge of the strike zone like Belt and Posey, those are the kinds of guys that are going to have success. Panik’s got a good head on his shoulders and he’s an above-average fielder. It’s his first full year in A ball. Yeah, I look for him to be a solid major league guy for us.

Thanks to the Fresno Grizzlies for setting the interview up and thanks to Bob Mariano for the detailed answers and all the insight on hitting, getting players ready and the communication with the big league club.

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