If the talk about the UCLA's opening four games, all wins, was the pitching then the talk about the Bruins' series loss to San Jose St. that followed was what happened to the offense. Nobody expected UCLA to have an incredibly powerful offense that put crooked numbers up on the scoreboard every other inning, but there was an expectation that they improved on last season after returning so much of their offense. Thus far, that has not been the case.
In the opening four games of the season, UCLA didn't hit the ball all too well, but it was masked by the team's great pitching. Through four games, UCLA pitchers allowed only one unearned run on 17 hits and have struck out 44. Not surprisingly, UCLA won all four of those games, but in the following three games the pitching wasn't quite as good. Gerrit Cole lost his ability to throw a strike in the sixth inning and San Jose St. put up five runs in the inning before totaling eight in the game and then Trevor Bauer has a rough outing in a game where the Bruins gave up five runs. Both of those games UCLA lost before Adam Plutko threw a great game and the offense came alive in the series finale.
The problem is that UCLA is now 0-2 in games where they've allowed more than three runs. The Bruins are averaging just five runs per game, whereas last season they averaged almost seven runs per game. This season the Bruins are hitting .275 as opposed to last season's .304. Even more concerning, the quality of pitching that UCLA has faced thus far doesn't compare with that pitching they saw through the entire 2010 season. UCLA hit much better in the opening weeks last season than their seven runs and .304 batting average, but the tougher pitching they faced in the Pac-10 and then postseason brought the batting numbers down to where they were. So what's going on with the UCLA offense?
The first thing that people want to point to when considering any dip in offense this season is the bats. Taking a look at the new bats is always prudent considering the big difference they have had around the entire country this season. Sure, if you really catch one on the sweet spot with this year's new bats the ball can travel as far as they did with last year's bats, but the sweet spot on the new bats is 77% smaller. That is most definitely going to lead to a decrease in offense.
The biggest part of the game that the new bats have had an effect on is the power numbers and it's not just UCLA who is feeling the crunch. On opening day in 2009, 2.8% of balls hit in play around the country were home runs. On opening day in 2010, that number went up to 2.9%, but this season on opening day that number was down to 1.9%. The numbers in the following games have pretty much held steady so yes, around the country power numbers are down, but that alone cannot explain UCLA's offensive malaise.
For all the optimism about UCLA's offense last year, there was one huge issue. Yes, despite an infusion of youth and inexperience, the Bruins' offense took a major step forward in 2010 and performed much better than expected, but they struck out 467 times. That's an alarmingly high number and this season the Bruins are on pace to cut down on that number, but not by much. For a team that can no longer lay claim to extreme youth and inexperience, the number of strikeouts is much higher than it should be. It doesn't matter what bat the Bruins are swinging if they're not going to hit the ball.
Additionally, one of the hallmarks of the UCLA offense in 2010 was their ability to use the whole field. It was commonplace to see left-handed hitters hit the ball to left field and right-handed hitters hit the ball to right field. That hasn't quite been the case this season until the series finale against San Jose St. when the whole field was in play. Unsurprisingly, when UCLA did that against the Spartans they totaled 12 runs and 22 hits in the ballgame.
What makes UCLA's offensive struggles even more alarming is their clear improvement on the base paths. A year ago any base stealing attempts outside of Niko Gallego was a 50/50 proposition and base running mistakes were not as rare as they should have been. This season, the base running mistakes have been few and far between while they've stolen 18 bases on 21 attempts, a fantastic team percentage that is also more stolen bases than they were totaling a year ago. Theoretically, that exemplary base running should result in more runs, but it hasn't.
Again, all of this comes against pitchers who on the whole are not as good as the pitchers that the Bruins' faced over the entire course of last season. That's not to say that the pitchers UCLA have faced aren't good because they are, but they don't match the staffs that UCLA saw last season against Oregon, Stanford, Cal St. Fullerton or TCU, among others.
With so many returning offensive players it's not a matter of having players that can't hit. They proved a year ago that they can hit and they all put in a great deal of work in the offseason to improve so what can the offensive struggles be attributed to?
One is the obvious answer and something that must be kept in mind. It's been seven games, which in baseball isn't a big sample size so a seven game slump would not be the biggest of worries. Another issue is the expectations, which are vastly different now that the Bruins are a top five team. The last one is a simple issue of mental approach and executing the game plan. The Bruins' game plan isn't very different from a year ago, but it's not being executed the same way as evidenced by their struggles to hit the ball to the opposite field.
Whatever the issue is, and it's likely a matter of several issues, it is only seven games into the season. UCLA isn't going to be one of the best offenses in the country, but they should be good and thus far they haven't. Of course, thus far means all of seven games and the talent is there. While there are no guarantees the offense will pick it up, there are reasons to believe that they will and in all likelihood it starts with what's going on upstairs and simplifying things.