Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE
The Bruins have one of their deepest staffs in recent years, which they will have to lean on as they undergo some changes offensively.
As the baseball season creeps up on us, it is time for another five-part season preview, which will take us all the way up to February 15th when the Bruins take on Minnesota at Jackie Robinson Stadium. To get ready, we started with a general 2012 review and 2013 preview in Part 1. Part 2 will 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.
If you can count on one thing at UCLA, it is good pitching. Even in disappointing years, John Savage's teams have been excellent on the mound and that is thanks to their head coach, who doubles as the team's pitching coach. Savage made his mark in the college game as a pitching coach and was widely regarded as one of the best in the nation so when he got his first head coaching gig at UC Irvine, it was no surprise that his teams pitched well, but his UCLA teams are on a whole other level.
UCLA's pitching staffs will long be remembered for Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer, who phenomenal pitchers who gave the Bruins a one-two punch unlike anything they had ever had before, but it is important to remember that one reason both went to college instead of straight to the pros was Savage. It is equally important to remember just how good the UCLA pitching staffs have been aside from those two.
When Savage took the Bruins to the Regionals in his second season, it was due in large part to the arms. With David Huff and Hector Ambriz leading the way on the weekend, and a deep, effective bullpen behind them, the Bruins made the postseason despite a freshman-heavy lineup.
In the following seasons, pitchers like Tyson Brummett and Tim Murphy anchored the rotation with tremendous seasons. Even when Cole and Bauer did come along, they hardly did it alone. The Bruins' run to the College World Series Championship Series in 2010 was due in large part to Rob Rasmussen and Garett Claypool's emergences as the top Sunday and Tuesday starters in the country, respectively, while Dan Klein, Erik Goeddel and Matt Grace gave UCLA an incredible bullpen.
Year after year, Savage's teams pitch with the best in the nation and 2013 should be no different. If it is, it will be that the Bruins have the best staff in the country, not one of them, because Savage has never had as much depth as he does this season.
The Bruins return six of their top seven pitchers from a year ago, and arguably their six most valuable pitchers. Joining them are three top flight freshmen, all of whom were drafted, giving Savage an enviable nine excellent pitchers at his disposal.
Adam Plutko will once again lead the staff as UCLA's Friday starter. The junior went 12-3 with a 2.48 ERA in the role a year ago and continued his penchant for pitching best in big games, winning all three of his postseason starts to push his career postseason to 4-0 with a 0.88 ERA in four starts. A second-team All-American a year ago, Plutko went 7-0 with a 0.89 ERA in his last seven starts of the regular season to help the Bruins capture a share of the Pac-12 crown. In a pitching rich conference, Plutko is as good as they come.
As was the case a year ago, Nick Vaner Tuig will get the nod on Saturdays. Also a junior, Vander Tuig moved from the closer's role into the rotation last season, essentially completing his comeback from Tommy John surgery. And while it took the right-hander a while to get comfortable and show the consistency needed to make his excellent stuff work game in, game out, he turned it on late in the season. Vander Tuig took a no-hitter into the eighth in the Regionals and allowed just one run in the Super Regionals as he pitched into the seventh inning. If Vander Tuig can pitch the way he did down the stretch, he can be as good as any Saturday pitcher in the country, but he did go 10-4 with an unspectacular 4.43 ERA last season so whether he can put it together for four months is still a question.
It looks like Grant Watson will round out the Bruins' weekend rotation after winning the job in the fall. A freshman All-American last season, Watson showed that he was much more adept to starting than he was out of the bullpen. The southpaw went 9-2 with a 4.45 ERA overall, but 8-1 with a 3.76 ERA as a starter and 6-0 with a 2.67 ERA in midweek starts. Watson's greatest strength is his ability to throw four high quality pitches in any count, a rarity at the college level. The only concern with Watson is his high number of walks (34 in 89 innings last season), but his command was been sharper in the fall.
With Watson moving into the Sunday role, last year's Sunday starter, Zack Weiss, has been left to fight for a spot elsewhere. Weiss went 3-3 with a 4.28 ERA in 2012, but he had serious command issues, walking more than five batters per nine innings. Those problems came to a head in the postseason when Weiss lasted just five innings and walked three in a high wire Regionals start and walked three more in the College World Series before being pulled after retiring just one batter. Weiss would get a chance in midweek contests, but it looks like that will go to one of the freshmen, pushing Weiss to the bullpen, where the Bruins hope he can regain his command.
If Weiss can't grab the midweek role, it will likely go to either Cody Poteet or Hunter Virant, two of the Bruins' highly touted freshmen. Poteet is a classic power pitcher, using a fastball that touches 94 mph and hard breaking pitches effectively to get his fair share of swings and misses. A 27th round pick by the Nationals, Poteet is projectable so while he can walk into the rotation on day one, he should only get better.
The same is true of Virant, a tall and lanky left-hander who was drafted in the 11th round by the Astros. Virant doesn't blow anyone away his fastball, which sits at 88-90 mph, but he has four pitches and the ability to command all four. Some considered Virant the second best high school left-handed pitcher in the draft and he only dropped to the 11th round because of the likelihood that he would pass on the pros for college, which he did.
As good as the Bruins' starters look, the strength of the UCLA staff will be in the bullpen, which is headlined by David Berg. The rubber-armed submariner, Berg came out of nowhere last season to have one of the best years by a freshman relieve in recent memory. He made a mind-boggling 50 appearances, tossing 74 innings and limiting opponents to a .165 batting average against. There may not be a more valuable reliever in the country than Berg, who is not only excellent and has the ability to pitch day after day, but he can come in early in a game to get out of a jam, close or work anywhere in the middle. That versatility is amazing and Savage loves to use it.
Joining Berg as a returnee from last season's bullpen is Ryan Deeter, who was the ace set up man for the Bruins a year ago The redshirt junior rarely worked more than an inning, and sometimes not even an inning, totaling just 30.1 innings in 36 appearances, but he locking things down and turned it over to the closer whenever he got a chance. He had a miniscule 0.89 ERA on the season and allowed just four extra base hits, none of them home runs, as opponents hit just .196 off of him in a dominating year as the Bruins' set up man.
Deeter will be back in his role as set up man this year, but this season he'll be setting up for a new closer. Scott Griggs was a good, if heart attack inducing closer last season, but he is gone. That isn't necessarily a terrible thing either because as the season wore on, and Berg's role grew, Griggs was used less and less so if anyone is going to exit the program, it's best that is is Griggs.
Replacing Griggs in the ninth inning role this season will be James Kaprielian, the third freshman expected to get work this season. Praised for his maturity, Kaprielian may have the most upside of any of the freshman trio, bringing a fastball that touches 94 mph, an outstanding curveball and an improving changeup to the mound. The last time Savage turned a freshman to close was two years ago when Vander Tuig racked up nine saves and before that it was when Bauer manned the post for half a season so he has a pretty good track record with freshman closers.
The only concern for the Bruins' bullpen is that there aren't a ton of left-handers. Virant is expected to be the only southpaw available in relief on weekends, which isn't ideal, but it isn't terrible either. Both Berg and Deeter were excellent against lefties a year ago so match-ups be damned, the Bruins have two relievers, and their two most important relievers at that, who have no problem dealing with left-handed hitters.
UCLA has not just arguably the best starting pitcher in the Pac-12, but arguably the best reliever. That alone is enough to make for a strong staff, but when they are backed up with the kind of talent the Bruins have behind Plutko and Berg, things get special.
Once again, UCLA should have an outstanding pitching staff, and an incredibly deep one at that. Normally, that would be cause of celebration, but that has become the norm in Westwood under Savage. Pitching rules.