Another season, another five-part preview as we look ahead to the 2011 UCLA baseball season, which will get underway on February 18th when the Bruins take on San Francisco at Jackie Robinson Stadium. Prior to last season I wrote up College Baseball 101 for those of you who want the basics of the game, specifically the things that differ from the pro game. As we look to 2011, we started with Part 1, a general 2010 review and 2011 preview with a look at the schedule and key notes. Part 2 will look at the pitchers and Part 3, the position players. Part 4 will preview the Pac-10 and Part 5 will be a look at the country and where UCLA fits in the national scene.
In 2010, UCLA led the entire country in strikeouts with 10.2 per nine innings, nearly an entire strikeout more than the next closest team and they did it while finishing in the top 10% in the nation in walks per nine innings. The Bruins also finished second in the nation in hits allowed per nine innings. When you strike guys out, don't walk guys and don't allow many hits you are going to have success and in 2010 the UCLA pitching staff had a ton of success. The pitching staff was the backbone to the Bruins' run to Omaha and finished the season second in the country in ERA.
An incredible season now in the past, UCLA is going to have to figure out how to get guys out again. There are two very known quantities on the pitching staff and those two form what many agree is the best one-two punch in the nation, but what about after them? The Bruins have to replace 54% of the innings pitched from a year ago and going into the season they will have freshmen starting on Sundays, Tuesdays and closing. As talented as they are, that is a scary proposition, but it is always what makes the season so intriguing.
Is it Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer or Trevor Bauer and Gerrit Cole? Last season the two spent the entire season jumping each other in strikeout totals before Bauer finished with 165, the most in the country. Cole wasn't too shabby either, ranking third nationally with 153 strikeouts. Both right-handers and both juniors, Cole is considered a sure-fire top five pick in the MLB Draft and Bauer isn't far behind him as he is also considered a first round pick. Cole is a massive, 6'4'', 220 lbs. and armed with a fastball that can hit the upper 90's and a power slider in the high 80's. Bauer is on the smaller side at 6'2'', 180 lbs. and he comes armed with seemingly a dozen pitches that dip, dart and curve in every direction. Oh, he's also added a bit of velocity this offseason and can touch 96 mph.
Whatever their methods, Cole and Bauer form the best one-two punch in the country. Even after going through a postseason where they were charged with getting outs against the best offenses that college baseball had to offer, Bauer finished the season with a 3.02 ERA and Cole a 3.37 ERA. Bauer led the Bruins with 12 wins and Cole came in right behind him with 11 wins, while Bauer held opponents to a .244 batting average and Cole a miniscule .205 batting average. Regardless of the offense or bullpen, the Bruins go into every single Friday and Saturday games with a huge leg up on their opponents with Cole and Bauer alone.
One of the unsung heroes for most of the regular season who finally got his due with a tremendous complete game performance to seal up the Super Regionals last season was Rob Rasmussen. In the regular season last year, the Bruins went 13-2 in games that Rasmussen started and in Sunday games where the series was on the line after having split the first two games, UCLA was 3-0 with Rasmussen on the hill. Having a pitcher as good as Rasmussen was an unbelievable luxury for the Bruins and one they no longer have.
With Cole and Bauer on Friday and Saturday, the series isn't expected to be on the line too regularly on Sunday, but when it is, the Bruins will turn to freshman Adam Plutko. As a senior at Glendora High, Plutko went 10-1 with a 1.36 ERA, 97 strikeouts and 18 walks in 67.0 innings. That type of performance is what got the 6'3'', 190 lbs. right-hander drafted in the sixth round by the Houston Astros, but he spurned the pros and has beaten out a handful of contenders in the fall to win the Sunday starter spot. A heady pitcher who has a good feel for the game, Plutko brings a low 90's fastball, but backs it up with a good change up and curveball, all three of which he commands well. As far as freshman pitchers go, Plutko is about as advanced as they come and even if he doesn't have eye-popping stuff, it's still more than enough to get outs.
The Tuesday starting spot looks like it will go to another freshman, Zack Weiss, although sophomore Scott Griggs is still in the mix to snatch it away. Weiss is not quite as tall as Plutko and is a little thicker, but his stuff is pretty comparable. Also a right-hander, Weiss has a low 90's fastball and change up/curveball offspeed repertoire, but he doesn't have the polish of Plutko. On the plus side, Weiss probably has a higher ceiling, but in 2011, he will likely have his hands full on Tuesday to tighten things up and nail down the command he needs to get collegiate hitters out. If he can, and he showed improvement all fall and winter, he can be a handful.
Just because Weiss looks like the leader to grab the Tuesday spot doesn't mean it is his and that's because Griggs is giving him a run at the spot. As a freshman, Griggs was used sparingly and gave up six runs in eight innings. He did strike out 10 in those eight innings so he has the stuff to get guys out, but he lacked the command to throw strikes consistently. He walked eight in his eight innings and got behind in counts regularly. A summer in the West Coast League showed more of the same problems as he walked 19 in 21 innings, but once again he also struck guys out and didn't get hit. If he can find the plate, Griggs can get the job done and then some, but he hasn't shown the ability to do that yet.
For all the talk about the Bruins' starting pitching last season, they had three relievers with a sub-3.20 ERA and another who swung between starting Tuesdays and relieving on weekends. Assuming Weiss earns the Tuesday starting job and Griggs works out of the bullpen, UCLA will have a grand total of 31.1 innings returning from a year ago. There's some massive rebuilding to be done in the UCLA bullpen.
Shouldering the most stressful spot in the bullpen with the most pressure is a freshman, Nick Vander Tuig. The right-hander hasn't pitched in a live game in almost two years after undergoing Tommy John surgery and missing his senior year of high school. That injury knocked him from being a possible top three round pick all the way down to the 39th round, a stroke of luck for the Bruins who now have themselves a closer. Vander Tuig is a guy that head coach John Savage has compared to last year's closer Dan Klein and brings a fastball in the 90's with a lot of dive in every one of his pitches. Even early in his high school career Vander Tuig was praised for his poise and competitiveness so putting him in the closer's role doesn't appear to be much of a concern, especially now that he has spent much of the fall and winter throwing on back-to-back days and multiple innings to make sure his elbow is ready to handle the stress.
The primary set-up man for Vander Tuig will be Mitchell Beacom, whose 17.2 innings last year makes him the most experienced Bruin in the bullpen. Standing 6'8'' Beacom is plenty tall and he throws from a low three-quarters arm slot, making hitters try to pick up the ball from a spot they rarely, if ever see, and then hit the ball coming in at a different angle than they're used to. It is for that reason that opponents hit only .191 against him last year and has looked downright dominant in some innings. What Beacom will be asked to do is take on a greater role and fine the consistency he needs to get outs. A strong fall has established him as one of the linchpins of the bullpen and as one of only two left-handers on the pitching staff, he will have to go multiple innings when asked as well.
Eric Jaffe is a late addition to the UCLA bullpen who will give the Bruins a power arm in the middle innings. A 19th round pick of the Red Sox and considered one of the best freshmen in the country, Jaffe enrolled at Cal in the fall, but when they announced that they would end their program after the 2011 season, Jaffe transferred to UCLA and got a NCAA waiver to play immediately. A big and strong player at 6'4'' 230 lbs., Jaffe throws in the mid 90's easily and will split time between coming out of the bullpen and providing the Bruins with big power bat at first base and off of the bench.
After Vander Tuig, Beacom, Jaffe and Griggs, the Bruins are going to turn to a host of pitchers neither experienced nor very highly touted coming out of high school. That is not to say that they are untalented and the pros had no interest, but they were not on the same level as many other UCLA pitchers. That said, they will be counted upon in 2011 and the Bruins' success could very well hinge on their ability to get outs.
One pitcher that has impressed in the fall after a strong summer is redshirt freshman Ryan Deeter. In the New England Collegiate League, Deeter had a 1.93 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 23.1 innings thanks to good command and several pitchers that dive down. A good fall has put Deeter in the mix for important innings this spring and Savage has singled him out multiple times as someone who has come along well.
Brandon Lodge entered UCLA as a middle infielder, but never got the chance to swing the bat and instead was converted to a pitcher. Now, he's going to hope his seven appearances in 2010 are something he can build upon as he will be counted upon. Dennis Holt is both a hitter and pitcher and as a freshman in 2010 did not pitch a single inning, but he may be leaned upon more than he ideally would because he is one of only two left-handers on the pitching staff. Chase Brewer hasn't gotten much of a chance for the Bruins, but had a good stint this summer in the West Coast League and will need to carry that over. Jordan Haver made inroads towards playing time prior to the 2010 season, but an injury forced him to redshirt and now he'll have to work his way back into the mix as well.
The lack of left-handed pitching is the Bruins' biggest issue, although Savage downplayed those concerns by noting how well his pitching staffs have always done against left-handers. He attributes that success to the emphasis on the right-handed pitchers' change ups, which are a menace to lefties. Beacom will be counted on to get multiple batters out so he won't be available for single batter lefty-lefty match-ups and Holt is a work in progress so the right-handers will have to get left-handers out, which means a lot of change ups.
The Bruins have safety with their pitching thanks to Cole and Bauer. That pair alone means they're going to have a good pitching staff because they will not only be dominant, but eat up innings. The question is what Savage has made of the young and inexperienced, but talented group after those two. However it plays out, it is undoubtedly the team's success will hinge largely on the success or failures of the Bruin bullpen.