Before the season began, it was easy to assume that the Bruins would be relying almost exclusively on their pitching to return to Omaha. With season-ending injuries to Erik Filia and Kevin Kramer, two key members of the offense, and a delayed entry into the lineup due to injury for Kevin Williams, the assumption was that UCLA would not have much offense. But on the other hand, the pitching was in good hands with James Kaprielian leading a weekend rotation that included two other starting pitchers who had started numerous games leading up to Omaha. All would be well provided the Bruins could scratch out a few runs every game, and the pitching would take care of the rest. At least that's what UCLA fans have come to know in recent years under Coach Savage, including last year's title winning squad that did it mostly on the backs of a solid pitching staff.
As we head into the final four weekends of the regular season, the Bruins are sitting at 9-9 in conference play, and 22-19-1 overall. In 2013, UCLA finished the regular season with a 21-9 conference record, 39-17 overall. The Bruins could run the table and replicate last season’s conference mark. That is a mathematical possibility. But it is clearly not a realistic possibility. At this point, finishing above .500 would be a major feat, given that the remaining four series including three games at #2-ranked Oregon State and three games at #7-ranked Washington.
So, how did we get to this spot? Was the hitting even worse than expected, such that even the expected lights-out pitching was not enough?
It turns out that the single biggest statistical difference this year is the inability to win games when UCLA scores at least five runs. In 2013, UCLA played 56 regular season games. The Bruins scored at least five runs 26 times, which means that UCLA scored at least five runs in 46% of the games. This season, UCLA has played 42 games. The Bruins have scored at least five runs 19 times, which means that UCLA has scored at least five runs in 45% of the games. So basically, the offense is scoring five or more runs at about the same pace as last season.
How about on defense? In 2013, UCLA allowed at least five runs 15 times during the regular season. That is a rate of 27%. This season, the Bruins have allowed at least five runs 15 times, the same number as the entire 2013 season. The Bruins are allowing at least five runs 36% of the time this season. So the problem seems to be more on the pitching/defense side of the equation.
The inability to hold down opponents shows up in the record in games where The Bruins score at least five runs. In 2013, when the Bruins scored at least five runs, the record was 25-1 (96% winning percentage). In 2014, when the Bruins score at least five runs, the record is 12-6-1 (67% winning percentage). That is a huge drop.
When the Bruins pitchers are throwing lights out, like on most Friday nights, the Bruins don’t score much. When the Bruin bats come alive against Saturday and Sunday pitchers, the UCLA pitchers give up runs. The result is basically a .500 season, way below expectations even with the injuries. And it can not all be laid at the feet of the offense.
Further evidence of the problem shows up in the overall team stats. In 2013, UCLA batted .250. This year the team is batting .254. But this higher average is translating into fewer runs. Last year, the Bruins scored on average 4.7 runs per game. This year, the Bruins are scoring 3.9 runs per game. That is clearly a big drop, so the hits are not coming at the right time in clutch situations. But still, scoring almost four runs per game should be enough for more than a basically .500 winning percentage.
In 2013, UCLA pitchers had a combined ERA of 2.55. This year, the combined ERA is 3.11. Last year, the Bruins gave up on average 3 runs per game (including unearned runs). This year, the Bruins are giving up on average 3.6 runs per game.
During last week’s telecast. J.T. Snow made the observation that the UCLA pitchers (other than Kaprielian) are contact pitchers. And with the injuries, the Bruins can’t put their best fielding group on the field, which translates into more runs allowed. There could be something to that. In 2013, the weekend starting rotation of Adam Plutko, Nick Vander Tuig and Grant Watson had an average ERA of 2.47. And none of those three was a real strikeout pitcher. This year’s weekend starting rotation of James Kaprielian, Watson and Cody Poteet has an average ERA of 3.37. That is almost a run per game higher. Take out Kaprielian, who is a strikeout pitcher, and the average ERA jumps to 3.79.
We need more clutch hitting. But an even more critical need is more stinginess from our pitching and defense. We have four series to get this right, or we can watch other teams progress deep into the postseason.