Adam Plutko is the new leader of the UCLA staff (Photo Credit: Scott Wu)
Another season, another five-part preview as we look ahead to the 2012 UCLA baseball season, which will get underway on February 17th when the Bruins take on Maryland at Jackie Robinson Stadium. As we look to the season, we started with Part 1, a general 2011 review and 2012 preview with a look at the state of the program. This Part 2 takes a look at the pitchers and Part 3, the position players. Part 4 will preview the Pac-12 and Part 5 will be a look at the country and where UCLA fits in the national scene.
UCLA head coach John Savage has built a reputation as one of the top pitching coaches in the country. This started as an assistant coach, where he tutored future pro after future pro, and then continues to his time as a head coach. Since take over in Westwood, he's continued to build that reputation and with that reputation comes talent. Talented arms from around the Southland and even from other states bypass the pros to spend three years learning from Savage.
Two of those talented arms are just a little more talented than your average pitchers. They combined for 19 wins, 251 innings and 322 strikeouts in 32 starts last year. They won conference and national awards with regularity and gave the Bruins one of the best pitching staffs for three years. The problem is that Trevor Bauer and Gerrit Cole are now gone and Savage has to find the pitchers to make up for 48% of the team's innings pitched from just two players.
That 48% number might be the most important one of all too. As good as Bauer and Cole were, and they were as good as there was, it wasn't the strikeouts or ERA that helped the Bruins out most. It was that they were so good they could go deep into every game and hide a thin, unproven bullpen every Friday and Saturday. They're playing for money now though and there is no more hiding that bullpen. Savage has an entire staff to build, from front to back, and this year it is going to have to go much further back than last year.
Leading the staff will be Adam Plutko, who really shouldn't have any problems stepping into the Friday night role. It's a big jump to go to Friday nights, but so is the jump from high school to the weekend rotation in college and that's what Plutko did as a freshman last year. It started with six scoreless innings in his first appearance and by the end of the year Plutko was 7-4 with a 2.01 ERA and a .193 batting average against. In the Regionals, Plutko tossed 7.2 scoreless, one-hit innings. I think it's safe to say that Friday nights won't be too big for Plutko to handle.
Whereas Cole and Bauer made opponents take notice with their incredible stuff, Plutko doesn't really do that. It's not that his stuff isn't good. A low-90's fastball, plus slider and fantastic change-up is more than good enough stuff, but where Plutko thrives is in his ability to throw any of his pitches in any count exactly where he wants it. Add that to an extremely poised pitcher and you have yourself a bonafide ace, not that last season's freshman performance didn't prove that already.
Filling out the Bruins' all-sophomore weekend rotation are Nick Vander Tuig and Zack Weiss. Neither was in the weekend rotation last year so stepping into their new roles will be a bit of adjustment. Last season, Vander Tuig was the Bruins' closer and he picked up nine saves in 31 innings and struck out nine per nine innings, but starting will be a whole other issue for him. He missed his senior year of high school after elbow surgery and worked only an inning or two at a time last year so when he starts this season, it will be the first time since 2009 that he's been stretched out and worked as a starter for a full season.
Vander Tuig won't be making the move to starter without the requisite talent though. He was an effective freshman closer thanks to a low-90's fastball and good change-up, but it's his slider that does the most damage. When he can command his fastball and get ahead early, he's able to use both his change-up and slider to give opposing batters fits. Most important as he transitions to a starter's role though is his easy delivery that doesn't overly tax his arm so maintaining his stuff deep into games shouldn't be a major problem.
Staying strong through a full game isn't the slightest bit of an issue for Weiss. Big and strong, Weiss has the kind of frame that typically earns pitchers the label "workhorse." He used that and a low-90's fastball, plus a developing slider that could turn out fantastic to put together a 5-3 record, 2.86 ERA and .191 opponents' batting average as the midweek starter last year. Most impressive though was in the Regionals, when he went eight innings and allowed three runs in front of depleted bullpen to give the Bruins a chance to stay alive in an elimination game.
With the three sophomores leading things, the weekend rotation should be fantastic, but what about after that? The midweek starter spot could end up being rotated around if no one grabs a hold of it early on with the way no one has stepped up so far.
Scott Griggs has gotten good reviews for his strides in the offseason, but this is hardly the first time that's happened. He remains a good talent with fantastic stuff, but inconsistent mechanics makes it tough to depend on him. Every offseason the Bruins like to say that he's turned a corner and to be fair, most around the program seem more convinced of it this year than ever before, but until he proves it, that will be tough to believe. If he really does have it together though, he can work as a midweek starter, or even more likely as the closer. A mid-90's and killer curveball make him an ideal closer if he can find the plate.
Another from the talented, but can't find the plate crop is Eric Jaffe. A redshirt freshman, Jaffe is big, strong and has as live an arm as there is, but didn't even get a look last year because he had no command whatsoever. He did make strides in practice as time went on though and had simplified his mechanics some by the fall, giving him a fighting chance, but the Bruins are going to be operating on some faith that he's ready to pitch crucial innings this year.
Ryan Deeter is another guy the Bruins are hoping has turned a corner. A right-hander who looked good in the fall before last season, but didn't get much work during the season will have to come good this year as a redshirt sophomore. He has good run on his fastball and if he can continue to strike zone, he can be a key, dependable innings eater in the Bruin bullpen.
Grant Watson is the staff's only left-hander, which is its own problem. The fact that he's a developing freshman is a whole other issue, but he has a great arm and four possible plus pitches. That's not so easy to find, especially in a freshman, but most impressive is his feel. With that, he can give the midweek spot a run, but whether he does get the midweek spot or not, the Bruins will need him to be effective out of the bullpen for them to have any chance of getting good work out of the 'pen.
More freshmen are going to be depended upon as well. Zack Ortiz is another freshman that is going to get some innings out of the bullpen and while he won't overwhelm anyone with power, he's another one of those guys with several good pitches and a good feel for them all. Jacob Ehret is a guy to keep an eye on too. A 37th round pick of the Marlins, Ehret is a more advanced pitcher than a lot of other freshman and while he hasn't lit things up since getting to campus, he has the mold of a guy who can turn one or two good appearances into a long string of them.
JC transfer Michael Kerman is another guy who is going to be asked to step in and eat up innings from day one. He was dominant in his freshman season at Long Beach CC before battling some injuries last season, but as a guy coming in as a junior, Savage obviously thinks he is a guy who can contribute right away. Like many of his other newcomers, he'll have to.
Cole and Bauer aren't around to hide the bullpen anymore. The trio of sophomores on the weekend can match up with anyone, but after that, who knows? Savage preaches getting guys into roles and he'll have to do that early because without two guys who will eat up almost half of the team's innings, that bullpen will be called upon more than they have in the past and this time around, it's a bunch of newcomers and unproven guys. Not that that's a problem, but it could become one, just like it was last year.