Entering play Tuesday, the Grizzlies sport the best record in the league at 35-16, a .686 win percent that has the team 3.5 games ahead of Sacramento in the PCL’s Southern Division.
Before the season, first-year manager Bob Mariano said he didn’t want to chase wins. He said his primary jobs as manager is getting his players ready for a potential call-up to the big leagues. Here’s what Mariano said in April:
“At triple-A you are trying to get guys ready for the major leagues. Obviously you want to win, but I think winning will come with good effort and if you work hard every day and do the right things, the wins will follow you. I think if you start chasing wins as a manager, then you’re going to be in for a long year. You just have to show faith in the guys and good things will happen.”
It’s clear at this point that that mentality, his influence as a positive manager, has paid dividends for this club. However, that is easy to say when hard work is producing tangible results.
The most dramatic turnaround for this team has been on offense. Last season, the Grizzlies finished 13th in the PCL with 735 runs scored and a .277 team batting average.
Entering play Tuesday, the Grizzlies are third in the PCL with a .297 team average. The team is second in the league with 309 runs scored. A huge reason for that has been the emergence of outfielder Roger Kieschnick.
Key 1: Riding Kieschnick’s breakout year
A third-round pick in 2008, Kieschnick appeared ready for stardom after 23 homers and 110 RBI during his 2009 campaign at high-A San Jose. However, two mediocre seasons at double-A Richmond later, and it looked like he would be another low-level washout.
Given a chance to turn his career around in Fresno this year, Kieschnick has responded in a big way. His 14 home runs are by far the most on the team.
The jacks complement a .320 average, 16 more extra-base hits and a .392 OBP.
Key 2: Christian also leading offensive surge
Kieschnick’s turnaround hasn’t been the only remarkable story on this team.
Justin Christian, a 32-year old outfielder, has also been a prolific member of the outfield. After bouncing around the minor leagues for seven years, he stuck in the Giants organization last season, hitting .338 in 64 games for Fresno. That was good enough to earn him an 18-game stint in San Francisco, where he hit .255 in 47 at-bats.
This season, he is hitting .370 with six home runs, eight steals and a .442 on-base percent -- all of those numbers coming primarily out of the leadoff spot.
Christian’s 2012 campaign could prove to be the feel good story of the year.
Spreading the praise
Manager Mariano is quick to point the success of the team’s improved offense to the system’s overall structure and the work the hitters have put in throughout the past few seasons.
“A lot of it is the hard work that everyone has done,” Mariano said. “I remember [Charlie] Culberson in A-ball, Kieschnick, you could go around the whole infield. But all of us, the managers at every level, the hitting guys, it’s a culminations of day-in and day-out, year after year camps and instructional leagues where these guys are learning to draw on their experiences where they have good at-bats.
“And that’s what we have now, is a bunch of guys grinding out at-bats.”
Key 3: Better pitching
On the other side of the ball, the Grizzlies pitching has also been much improved this season.
The team ranked eighth in the PCL in 2011 with a 5.01 team ERA, a respectable mark in the hitter-friendly league. Still, the high ERA became troublesome with the team’s lack of hitting.
This season, the Grizzlies rank third in the league with a 4.00 ERA. Fresno pitchers have issued the fifth fewest walks in the league, but also have the lowest strikeout totals.
The pitching success starts with the starting rotation. Eric Hacker, re-acquired in the offseason after spending a year in the Minnesota system, leads the PCL with eight wins. Hacker was also sporting a tidy 3.09 ERA -- before being called up by the Giants.
The team’s pitching success has also carried over into the bullpen. Prior to a big league call-up, Shane Loux had a 0.43 ERA in 13 appearances. George Kontos, who leads the team with 20 appearances, has a 1.95 ERA and has walked only four batters in 27 2/3 innings. Closer Heath Hembree leads the team with eight saves, nearly halfway to the league-leading 20 saves that Marc Kroon posted last season.