Modesto Nuts pitching coach Rob Marcello set a lofty goal in his first season in professional baseball.
The 28-year-old immediately set his sights on the single-season California League strikeout record of 1,423, set by the Bakersfield Dodgers in 1970. Marcello told Modesto manager Denny Hocking at the beginning of Spring Training, "Hey man, I want to break this record."
"We talked about it for 30 days in Spring Training and then, sure enough, we started in Lancaster and I think we struck out 30 or 40 the first few games and we were like, 'We've got a shot,'" Marcello recalled.
Going into Sunday's game, the Nuts had 1,290 strikeouts with 21 games to go. It's a number every pitcher on the team knows.
"Our pitchers get daily updates," Marcello said. "I think our staff knows how many strikeouts we have every day. We're getting closer and closer and I think the pitchers, I think our whole team will go crazy once it happens."
Every new pitcher who joins the team knows immediately he must contribute to the cause.
"He's preached strikeouts since day one," right-handed reliever Kyle Wilcox said. "Strikeouts are the best thing you can do as a pitcher. We love strikeouts, so it's not a hard thing to get behind. But it's been a lot of fun kind of keeping track of it and working together as a team to build that number up."
The race is not just to 1,424 but also against the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, who are also on pace to break the record. The Quakes are just behind the Nuts with 1,286 punchouts.
"In the beginning, it seemed out there because teams weren't close," Marcello said of the record. "Now you have us and Rancho, who are in the same league and have a chance to break it. That's the fun battle, too, having another team that's close. They're right behind us and our pitchers know.
"It's fun and it doesn't take away from them going out and winning."
Marcello always makes his pitchers work hard, but he also always adds a little fun. He started "Shirtless Sundays" for workouts before Sunday games and rewards his staff with batting practice when they record a certain number of strikeouts in a game.
"At the end of the day, he's really good at his job with the quirkiness or the outside-the-box thinking that he does, and it works," Hocking said.
Marcello was taken by the Phillies out of Appalachian State in the 17th round of the 2013 Draft. He played 18 games for Class A Short Season Williamsport and went 2-0 with a 5.55 ERA. A triceps injury gave him some pause, and he said he realized he probably wouldn't make it to the Majors and knew coaching would be in his future. So he retired from playing.
"I threw a baseball one day and it was like a knife was stabbing me," he said. "I knew throughout playing that I wanted to coach. I get a lot of enjoyment of guys getting promoted, guys going out there and putting up a zero. I'm probably just as depressed if they give up a walk-off compared to them."
Marcello coached at Indian River State College, St. Petersburg College and Rollins College before starting his own training facility last year and getting the job with the Mariners.
About four years ago, he was introduced to analytics through a company called Prospect Wire. He started immersing himself in everything analytic and taught himself how to incorporate the data into coaching pitchers. A couple of years back, he got to meet Brent Strom, the Astros pitching coach known for combining analytics with an old-school baseball mentality. Strom introduced Marcello to Mariners pitching coach Paul Davis.
"We had ongoing conversations about [analytics]," Marcello said. "One thing led to another and I just kind of fell in love with it more and more."
Marcello is getting his staff to fall in love with the technology, using programs like Rapsodo and TrackMan to track and improve their pitching. The Mariners analytic department sends out player plans and provides suggestions on what to change to make a pitcher ready for the Majors. Then it's Marcello's job to get the players to understand the changes.
"It's my job to try to translate that to the player and make them understand and make them buy in," he said. "We've had a lot of success with that. When a pitcher sees one guy get better, they're like, 'OK, I want to try it now.'"
Seven Nuts pitchers have advanced to Double-A Arkansas, which also has helped Marcello get players to buy in to the program. And, more than that, they can see he truly cares about their progress.
"He's more than just a pitching coach," Wilcox said. "He's kind of a friend to all of us as well. He's helped all of us get better throughout the season and his No. 1 priority every single day is to help us get better.
"If you see somebody that cares like that, you're going to buy in right away."
Hocking wasn't sure what to make of Marcello when he first met him, but after watching him in action on the first day of the season, he was all-in.
"I have watched him really grow in his first year of coaching," Hocking said. "At his desk, he's got like these two pieces of paper … and it's basically his format to coaching. What's on it, I'm not really sure, but I do know that it's, 'Be honest and open,' 'Hold people accountable' and 'Be true to who you are.'
"He lives by those three things every single day. In my opinion, it's why he gets players that aren't performing very well to perform better."
2019 MiLB include
And for Marcello, that's the most important part.
Wilcox said Marcello can be "brutally honest," but he knows it comes from a place of love for his players.
"For me, it's to get guys better every day," Marcello said. "I come into work and I try to get guys better. I don't care who they are, I don't care if they're the worst pitcher. It's try to get guys better. I can't throw a pitch again, they can. If I'm getting them better and they're going out and performing, that's what matters to me.
"It's the most enjoyable job I've had in a while."
Giant score: The San Jose Giants set a franchise record for runs scored in a home game in Friday's 20-5 victory over Modesto. The previous mark of 19 runs was set on Aug. 21, 1994 against the High Desert Mavericks. The Giants were two runs shy of their overall record of 22 runs, set on July 27, 1988 at Modesto.
Walk it off: The Lancaster JetHawks won their ninth contest in walk-off fashion on Saturday with a 10-inning, 9-8 victory over Visalia. It was the seventh time this season the JetHawks have overcome a deficit of at least four runs. Lancaster also has won 10 games when trailing after eight innings.
Merisa Jensen is a contributor to MiLB.com.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.