The UCLA baseball program entered a new era following the 2004 season. After 30 years at the helm, head baseball coach Gary Adams stepped down, opening the door for John Savage. Savage, who had previously won a national title as the pitching coach at USC, came to UCLA from UC Irvine, a dormant program that he took over and led to a Regional in just three years. With the Bruins, Savage had a rough first year as he rebuilt the program. In his second season, with a stellar group of freshmen, Savage led the Bruins to a Regional, then won a Regional and advanced to the Super Regionals the following year. Savage's fourth year with UCLA was disappointing as the program wasn't able to make it out of the Regionals despite entering the year #1 in the country. This past season, the Bruins missed the postseason for the first time since Savage's first year. The program, which I've written about extensively, now sits at a crossroads.
Last Thursday, Coach Savage was kind enough to sit down with me and talk about the program. The interview, which lasted nearly 30 minutes, was only made possible due to the hard work of the UCLA Athletic Department, specifically SID Marc Dellins and Assistant SID Alex Timiraos. Of course, the interview also required the cooperation and thoughtful answers of Coach Savage himself.
I arrived at Jackie Robinson Stadium on a sunny day in the late morning, where a couple Bruins could be found beyond right field, working out in the Jack and Rhodine Gifford Hitting Facility. After meeting Coach Savage in his office, he discussed a number of topics related to his program. This first part of the interview touches upon the Bruins' standing following the MLB Draft, the difficulties of the 2009 season and his two new assistant coaches. So here you go, UCLA head baseball coach John Savage.
BN: Good morning, Coach. On behalf of Bruinsnation.com, I’d like to thank you for meeting with me today.
Coach: My pleasure.
BN: We’re one week past the MLB Draft, at this point, where do you think the program stands personnel wise? I know there’s been some talk as to whether or not three of your more highly touted signees, Max Stassi, Trayce Thompson and David Nick will sign with the teams that drafted them or come to UCLA, but whether or not they do, how do you feel about your recruiting class as well as the guys coming back next year?
Coach: Yeah, I think the draft went as well as we could expect. I was happy for Casey Haerther, Charles Brewer, Gavin Brooks, [Brendan] Lafferty, [Cody] Decker, [Gabe] Cohen, [Garett] Claypool and [Jason] Novak. I think it was a good representation in the Major League Draft. I always, as a coach, selfishly hope some of them could have gone a little higher. I’m happy for them. In that regard, it looks like all those guys will sign with the exception of Claypool. We’re hoping that Claypool decides to come back. It looks like that will happen. Blair Dunlap, we were expecting him to get drafted. He did not so he still has a year of eligibility left, as you know. We could be getting two really good players back with Claypool and Dunlap. Really, expectations were for those other guys to sign so nothing was really surprising there.
Of the incoming class, I think it probably went as well as we could expect there. Trayce [Thompson], second round to the White Sox, we anticipate him signing. David Nick has already signed with the Diamondbacks. Catcher Max Stassi is probably going to be an August 17th deadline guy. It’s good that he went in the fourth round. The A’s have Grant Green as a first pick, they have no sandwich pick, they have no second round pick. They have the left-hander from Louisville with the third pick. They have drafted the catcher [Ryan] Ortiz from Oregon State in the sixth round They have drafted Zunino, who is a high-profile catcher from Florida so we’re in the game. There’s no question that he’s a Gerrit Cole or Trevor Bauer type of player. I mean, he’s a game changer, he’s a program changer. He’s a guy that would solidify our catching position for the next three years and he’s a guy on the west coast who normally doesn’t go to school. For whatever reason he fell and kept on falling and didn’t go in the first day, which I think surprised everybody and we were wondering what was going on, as they did and then he pops up in the first round of the second day. I think Keefer and Gelalich and Griggs and Amaral went where we want them to go. We want very good players to show up on campus. We want guys who value the Pac-10, value UCLA, value the chance of going to Omaha and value the education part of it. A lot of those guys, as you know, get down-drafted because of their signability and there you go. We want 30-50th rounders, but realistically, if they were signable they’d go much higher. I think if we can hold onto Stassi and everybody else and have Claypool and Blair [Dunlap] come back, I think it’s the nucleus of an exciting team with some good young players. We feel good about it on June 18th, we’ll see where we stand on the 17th of August (the deadline for players to sign with the teams that drafted them).
BN: I don’t think anyone would argue that the 2009 season wasn’t a disappointing one. Admittedly, expectations may have been too high with two new coaches coming in, three infield positions to fill, a new catcher and replacing an ace. Do you feel a regional appearance was a reasonable expectation for that team and to what would you attribute the disappointing season?
Coach: Well, that’s a good question. I think that you make all good points. We did lose a bulk of our offense - catching, third base, shortstop, second base. You throw in [Tim] Murphy, our Friday night guy. We did lose quite a bit, but going to Regionals for three years, you kind of get into reload mode, you don’t get into start-over mode. It was disappointing. The bottom line is you cannot start off 2-10. You cannot lose 10 in a row when you only play 56 games. Even though we played a very difficult schedule, at the end of the day it’s all about wins. It’s all about putting yourself in position to get yourself a regional bid and we were close, but we fell short. I think that the uneasiness of our bullpen early hurt us. We really could not close out games. It seemed like one thing after another defensively. We didn’t make the play, we didn’t make the pitches and I think that created a little bit of an uneasiness within the program in terms of finishing games. We could play anyone for six or seven innings, you know, who do you attribute that to? I think on paper our pitching was good. I would say above average. We struck out a ton of people, right there near the most in the country. With our schedule, it shows you the ability we have on the mound. I think that offensively we were not tough enough. We did not knock in runs when we had to. It seemed we were the kind of team that would roll you or we’d hang around and get beat at the end, and that was frustrating. We did not execute enough. We left too many guys on base. In terms of a personnel issue, I wish we had been more left-handed [offensively]. We were extremely right-handed. As you know, we faced a ton of right-handers and you’re talking about Decker and Haerther and Cohen, you’re going to see a lot of breaking balls. The middle of the lineup did not produce the way we’d have thought, with the exception of Cody [Decker].
BN: The team went 2-14 in one-run games and 0-5 in extra innings. Is there anything, maybe dealing with pressure in late game situations or even inexperience that you would pinpoint as the reason for those numbers?
Coach: Well, it’s hard to say. We lost some games that we didn’t execute at the end in terms of pitches. I thought that our execution at the end of games seemed to be lacking. We need to do a better job creating pressure in practice. Creating those moments in practice where a guy comes in and gets a hitter out. A left on left situation. A closer comes in the game and we’re up a run and needs to get three outs. It snowballs, no question about it. Gavin [Brooks] did a good job in the middle of the season closing out some games, but we really were not consistent with our execution of hitting. We didn’t close out games. We didn’t put a complete game together consistently. We’re going to have to evaluate that and really, from a pitching perspective, I think I need to do a better job of really locking in roles. Roles change, as everybody knows, and roles are only as good as how well you do, but if you can stay in that role I think we’ll be better off. If we can really say, here’s Cole and Bauer and another starter and here’s our set-up and here’s our middle reliever and here’s our closer. If you can script it like that, that’s the best way. Like that one season , as you know, I think [Hector] Ambriz, [David] Huff and [Tyson] Brummett never missed a start. I think that was the only program in the country that went Friday, Saturday, Sunday like that. We’re very capable of doing that, of being consistent, and we need to learn from this season and not let it happen again.
BN: You brought in two new coaches prior to last season, Rick Vanderhook and Steve Pearse. What do you think are the biggest things they brought to the program last season and what things do you think they’ll bring to the table going forward?
Coach: I think mentality. Rick has been to Omaha, I think 10 times. He’s won several national championships. His history of development is as good as any assistant out there. He took a year off. I think 2009 was kind of a transition year for him - transition of knowing the Pac-10, getting to know our players, getting to know what the hot buttons are, and knowing what he can do in terms of information. I didn’t see that coming. With the experience that both Steve and Rick have, I didn’t see that transition year being as difficult as it was. I think they’re much more comfortable now. We have a lot more speed coming in. We’re much more left-handed coming in. I think we’re up to nine left-handers next year so that’s going to change the whole complexion of the offense and Rick’s offense is a speed game. It’s a pressure game. We kind of try to push that envelope. We really didn’t have the personnel to do that. We were a little right-handed. We weren’t that fast. We were kind of a three-run homer team. It was a transition year for both those guys, but they’re outstanding assistants. Their track record says it. I think they’re an Omaha staff.
That's some fantastic stuff from Coach Savage. His candid answers, especially regarding the 2009 season, were illuminating and I think he made it clear what expectations are for the program. In part two, Savage will outline exactly what the expectations should be for the program and he will also address his scheduling philosophy, what he expects from the players this summer, the struggle for fans and the need to improve Jackie Robinson Stadium so keep an eye out for that.
For now, what do you think of part one? Do you like Savage's answers or were you hoping for a different answer to a question? Are you confident Coach Savage is the man for the job, do you have some concerns or are you not sure? Let's hear it.