Where does the UCLA baseball program go from here? That's the question many fans and observers of the program are asking and it's a fair one. Taking a look at John Savage's tenure as head coach at UCLA, you see a program that has certainly taken a step forward in results, stature and potential, but also one that has fallen short of expectations. The Bruins sit in a region chock full of talent and they've done a good job reeling in that talent, but why hasn't that translated into success?
Savage came to UCLA from UC Irvine, where Dan Guerrero hired him to revive a dormant Anteaters program. At Irvine, Savage had his team in the top 5 of the ultra-competitive Big West in all three years and qualified for a regional in that third year.
After that, Savage moved to Westwood, where he had some major issues in his first year. Savage, dealing with an empty cupboard and trying to rebuild the program his way went 15-41, but the team showed signs of improvement at the tail end of the year.
In his second year, Savage brought in a freshman class full of top-level recruits. Those freshmen played from the get-go and struggled early on, but made massive improvement as the year went on and qualified for the Malibu Regional, where they won a game before being eliminated.
That season was seen as a stepping stone for Savage's program and many expected the Bruins to challenge for the conference crown the following season. It wasn't to be though as UCLA finished third in the Pac-10 for the second consecutive year, but they caught fire in the Long Beach Regional, which they won, before being eliminated by Cal St. Fullerton in the Super Regionals.
The following season, UCLA's stellar freshman class had grown into juniors and they were considered by most one of the nation's top teams and were even ranked #1 in the Baseball American preseason poll. The Bruins got off to an awful start though as they struggled to deal with the pressure. Eventually, they battled their way into the postseason and won their first two games there, but needing only one win, they lost their last two to Cal St. Fullerton to end their season.
This most recent season was the most frustrating for UCLA fans. As I described in full detail in my season review, the Bruins struggled to execute when it mattered most. While their fielding percentage was in the middle of the Pac-10, they made those errors in late, close games and it was often the difference in winning and losing. By the end of the season, the Bruins were third in the Pac-10 for a fourth consecutive year, but 0-5 in extra inning games and 2-14 in one-run ballgames, which kept them out of the postseason for the first time since 2005.
Now John Savage's UCLA program sits at a crossroads. For how much longer is early season struggles, a third place Pac-10 finish, a postseason win or two and an utter lack of consistency acceptable? Really, that question is asking what are the expectations for the Bruins' baseball program. Is it a program that is content doing what it's done for decades now, having decent seasons, producing a lot of pro talent and having the occasional strong postseason run? Is the UCLA program one that is aiming to finish towards the top of the Pac-10 year after year, win that conference sometimes and challenge for a spot in the College World Series? That would make them one of the better programs in the country so is that a reasonable expectation or should we find other expectations?
While we can sit here and talk about the program's expectations, the Morgan Center needs to decide on expectations for the program themselves. Right now, they treat the program like it's a mediocre program, which is what it's been. If the Morgan Center wants to raise expectations for the program, fine, but they need to raise their expectations of themselves at the same time. For a program to be one of the better ones in the country, it needs to be able to host regionals and Super Regionals. As of now, the Morgan Center claims it can host in the postseason, but it would be a very poorly hosted regional if they were granted one and many question whether or not it can actually host a regional. A program among the best in the country needs a fan base too, something UCLA lacks and something the Morgan Center has made little to no effort to improve. A program among the best needs facilities that can attract recruits and allow the team to train and practice in the best of facilities to better improve themselves. Right now, the UCLA baseball program lacks all of that so if the Morgan Center wants to raise expectations for the program, they need to raise expectations of themselves because a program can only be one of the best if it's one of the best in all aspects, administration included.
So let's jump ahead and assume that the Morgan Center has raised expectations of the program and have made good on their end. They've worked to improve the program's fan base and have either improved the facilities or have put plans in motion to improve the facilities. If that were to happen, the onus would be on John Savage, his coaching staff and the players to take the program to the next level. What are the program's biggest issues right now and how can they best be solved.
One of the program's major issues right now is their slow starts. Under Savage, the Bruins have made a habit of getting off to poor starts. Now, is it a training issue and an issue with their preseason practicing? There could be something to that, but a lot of other people like to blame the Bruins' schedule. Savage has preached time and time again the benefits a difficult schedule, but it also makes it tough on UCLA to win games. This past year, the Bruins had the nation's second-toughest schedule and had a stretch where they played four consecutive weekends on the road. Those four weekends were a trip to Houston to play in the nation's premier tournament, a trip to play an Oklahoma who went on to be a regional host, a trip to play an East Carolina team who went on to be a regional host and a trip crosstown to open up Pac-10 play versus USC. With such a schedule, even the nation's top teams would have trouble getting off to a good start. In 2010, the Bruins will have a much easier schedule (one I'll get into next week) so we'll get some of an idea as to how much of a part UCLA's schedule plays on their slow starts.
Another issue the program has had is their inability to execute at the plate. Under Savage, the Bruins haven't played traditional West Coast baseball with a lot of bunting, moving runners along and good situation hitting. They do get into such things sometimes, but for the most part, they like to sit back and wait for the big hit and big inning. Now, that is fine if you have the hitters to get it done. Teams like LSU have built national powerhouses with big-time hitters who waited around for the big hit, but the Bruins have had just one 20 home run season from a player during Savage's tenure (Cody Decker this year) and haven't had a heart of the order, three or four people deep, that strikes fear in opponents' hearts. So, beause they don't hit for amazing power, it's necesary for the Bruins to move guys along, hit behind runners and hit the ground ball or deep fly ball when called for. It's something UCLA hasn't done though, instead striking out at a high rate and not getting their athletes flying around on the basepaths in a smart manner. Rick Vanderhook, brought in before this season and one of the better assistant coaches in the country, has been handed the keys to the UCLA offense and if he follows the template he put together at Fullerton, will start playing more small ball. Doing so requires the right types of players though, the types of players that UCLA will have to start bringing in now. Can Vanderhook get the right guys in the program and turn the offense around? The success of the program may hinge on it.
The biggest problem for the Bruins to figure out is how to handle pressure. Some have said that the Bruins' inability to handle pressure is really an inability for Savage's teams to handle pressure, dating back all the way to his time at Irvine. Whether or not that is true, what is true is that the Bruins have had major problems with pressure. Taking a look at this season, you see a team that had major issues in extra innings (0-5) and in one-run games (2-14). When the games got close and the pressure was on, the Bruins didn't execute. It was in those moments that the Bruins left even more runners on base than normal, made crucial errors and mental mistakes. Taking a look to last season, you saw a team that couldn't handle the pressure of the high expectations heaped upon them in the preseason. Only once the preseason #1 Bruins had disappeared from every poll did they start playing well and make a run into the postseason. Once they got to the regionals, they were underdogs who won their first two games, but at that point became the regional favorites before promptly losing their next two games. Those two losses came to Cal St. Fullerton, a team that has cause UCLA fits. In fairness, the Titans are a powerhouse who beats up on a lot of teams, but under Savage, the Bruins are only 3-16 verus Fullerton. When you play Fullerton, it's playing the West Coast's premier program in a big-time game. Why have the Bruins had so many issues against the Titans? Could it be the pressure that goes along with games against Fullerton?
So those are the program's three major issues. Can they be corrected? They surely can, but whether or not they will is up for debate. Some blame Savage and others blame the administration, while others blame luck. I blame all three, but see the possibility of all three turning around. That's not to say I expect all three to turn around though. I've spoken to some in the administration and have not gotten even an inkling of an indication that the Morgan Center will make a commitment to the program. Instead, they plan on going ahead with their master plan, which will take too long and accomplish too little. I think that Savage can get the program going on the right track and the hires of Vanderhook and another assistant coach, Steve Pearse, prior to the 2009 season are an indication that he understands the program's issues. It also shows me that he's working towards fixing those issues, although it certainly didn't pan out this year.
That is why I consider the 2010 season to be one of the biggest in the history of the program. The upcoming season will tell us a lot about the future of the program from what changes have been made to the program and whether or not the direction the program is going in is the correct one. That's not to say that I expect a trip to Omaha, but the team can't go into the final three or four weeks of the season without a realistic shot at the Pac-10 title and it needs to show progress in the trouble issues I outlined above. Are last season's changes to the coaching staff enough to change the attitude of the program and cure the program's ills? 2010 should bring us awfully close to an answer.
So what do you think the program's expectations should be? Is the direction the program's going good enough for you or do they need to start working towards the upper echelon of college baseball? Maybe you think the expectations should be somewhere in the middle. Do you think the Morgan Center is doing enough for the program and should the baseball program and Jackie Robinson Stadium be a priority (although obviously below the Pauley renovation)? Do you think Savage is the guy to get the job done in Westwood or are you unsure right now? Do you make your way out to the stadium to check out games or if not, why not and what can they be doing a better job of to draw you and other Bruins in? Whatever your thoughts are on the UCLA baseball program going forward, let's hear it.