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UCLA Baseball Midseason Roundtable

Bruins Nation takes a look at what the UCLA Bruin baseball team has accomplished in the first half of the season, and where the Bruins are headed before a critical series with Southern Cal.

UCLA Head Coach, John Savage
UCLA Head Coach, John Savage
Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

The UCLA Bruins baseball team has played 29 games of its 56 game regular season schedule. 27 games remain. The baseball team has just passed the halfway point of its season. It is presently 23-6, and 10-2 in the PAC 12 Conference, sitting in first place all by itself. The Bruins are ranked in the top 7 in all major baseball ranking services. At this point, before UCLA’s important series at Southern Cal this weekend, it is an appropriate time to reflect on the season thus far, ask some questions, and get some opinions about what the Bruins have accomplished in their 2015 campaign.

Do you have any opinions or thoughts of your own? If so, jump into the comment section and let us know.

1. Do you think that the Bruins have performed to expectations to this point in the season? Why or why not?

orlandobruin: I believe that the Bruin have performed to expectations. They were picked to win the PAC 12 Conference and are sitting alone in first place. They have won every series that they have played in this season. Do I wish that they would have taken a game or two in the Dodgertown Classic against Vanderbilt, TCU, or even Southern Cal?  Absolutely.  All of those teams are in the top 10 and will be the type of quality that UCLA would see in Omaha, assuming that the Bruins get there. That weekend was the low point of the first half of the season. But, aside, from that weekend, UCLA has performed brilliantly.

uclaluv: I agree with orlando.  I was with Mexi at that game against southern cal and came away feeling quite down about it.  Other than that weekend, however, it seems like the Bruins have been playing consistently well.  They seem to have it all, bats, pitching and defense.  I think this could turn out to be a really good year.  It doesn’t have the same feel as our championship year to me, but there are a lot more games to play and with big games coming up, the energy and momentum could really pick up.

Bruinette88: In terms of results, yes—the Bruins are exactly where I expected them to be at the midpoint of the season. However, I have to say that the pitching so far has exceeded my expectations. I don’t think there’s a single UCLA pitcher that hasn’t improved on last season’s performance. A lot of the credit for that has to go to Coach Savage

JoeBruin15: I think the team is playing good ball. They’ve been getting good pitching. They’ve got guys who are among the Conference leaders in hitting. They’re doing exactly what they were expected to do. It may not feel like a championship year yet, but I am expecting them to make it to Omaha and then they just have to keep winning.

Fox 71: I haven’t been able to see any games this year, and have had to depend on Orlando’s word’s-eye view. Expectations? Well, Coach Savage has done a horrible job managing expectations, because now I expect that somehow, some way, the team will figure out a way to get the run they need.

2. Who do you believe is UCLA’s MVP as an everyday player (non-pitcher) and why?

orlandobruin: Kevin Kramer, the Bruins’ lead-off hitter and shortstop. When he is playing well and getting on base, UCLA is usually scoring runs. And he is getting on base over 48% of the time. Kramer can hit for average, can hit for power (he is second on the team in home runs, with 4, and leads the team in slugging percentage), and leads the team in getting hit by a pitch. His fielding is solid, oftentimes spectacular, although he has made a few critical errors this season. That is going to happen at the shortstop position.

uclaluv: Kramer. Orlando, I really don’t mean to copy but he has been phenomenal with the bat. I mean the guy is getting on base 48% of the time, has a .387 batting average and a .588 slugging percentage.  Goodness gracious sakes alive!

Bruinette88: I think it’s really difficult to make a good argument for anyone other than Kramer, but let me try to make the case for Ty Moore anyway. Moore’s batting average (.378) is just slightly below Kramer’s (.387), and Moore’s on-base percentage (.458) is also close to Kramer’s (.482). But Moore has a much better RBI total (28 to 18),  more walks, and far fewer strikeouts. Of course the difference in RBI has more to do with position in the batting order than anything else, but Moore has the attributes you want in a middle-of-the-order batter. With a runner on second with two outs, who do you want to see coming to the plate? I’ll go with Ty Moore.

JoeBruin15: I’m going to buck the trend and say Chris Keck. Keck is leading the team in runs batted in and home runs. He’s tied with Kramer for the team lead in doubles. His slugging percentage is almost equal to Kramer’s (.579 vs. .588). Kramer is setting the table and Keck is clearing it. Together, they are a great combo, but Keck gets the edge for the runs batted in.

Fox 71: I have to pass, because I have never seen them play. I won’t disagree with Orlando and luv, but as I understand it, the top four guys in the order are playing quite well. If Kramer is the best of the best, then that’s it. (Except I keep thinking – is he going to burst into Jerry Seinfeld’s living room and then do a pratfall?)

3. Who do you believe is UCLA’s best pitcher this season and why?

orlandobruin: I am going to go against the obvious choice(s) here and go with senior, Grant Watson. UCLA’s Saturday starter, Watty is 5-2 with a 1.53 ERA.  This is after a tough junior season in which Watson went 4-9 with a 3.80 ERA. Watson also provides valuable leadership and experience, having been the Sunday starter in UCLA’s 2013 National Championship campaign. Watson doesn’t get as many strikeouts as some of UCLA’s other pitchers, but he is an excellent “contact pitcher,” who can get opposing batters to weakly ground out or fly out to the very solid defense behind him.

uclaluv: I know I should go with a starter, but I am going to go with the closer. David Berg has a 0.00 era in conference play with 17 innings under his belt. He has only allowed 5 runs all season.  Berg is clutch and it’s great to have him to rely on at the end of games.

Bruinette88: It’s an obvious choice for me: James Kaprielian. Besides leading the team in wins, and more importantly, innings pitched, Kaprielian is responsible for winning the all-important series opener week after week. Kaprielian is the guy you want on the mound in a must-win game, and for me, that makes him UCLA’s best pitcher.

JoeBruin15: I’m going to go with the bullpen trio of Forbes, Dyer and Berg. A starter may have an off game here or there, but a strong start can easily get wiped out if the relievers get roughed up. Games are won and lost on the strength of the bullpen. This trio is going to lead the team to the postseason. Forbes and Dyer will be the Bridge to Berg and David will shut the door.

Fox 71: I have to agree with luv. It seems that when Berg comes into the game, Bill Paxton takes over the call. [That’s the “game over, man, game over” from Aliens]

4. What areas of their game do you believe the Bruin must improve upon to heighten their chances in the postseason?

orlandobruin: I believe that there are two choices here, middle relief and the bottom of the lineup. I am going with the bottom of the lineup. Kort Peterson, the usual number 6 hitter, is batting .250, with a .337 on base percentage (OBP). The number 7, 8, and 9, guys, Trent Chatterton, Daryl Miller, Jr., and Christoph Bono, are all hitting below .250, with lower OBP than Peterson. Although UCLA has seen a surge in its offense this season, that surge has come from the top 5 spots, not the bottom 4 spots. Each of these guys has had big games this season (Chatterton most recently in the final game of the Oregon State series), but each needs to put it together offensively on a more consistent basis if UCLA is to grab the brass ring. I would be remiss if I did not point out that each of these guys has been excellent defensively.

uclaluv: I agree with orlando. The first 5 batters have a batting average of .333, the last 4 spots under .250.  UCLA seems to get men on base and can’t get them around.  Whether this is due to the drop off in the second half of the line up I can’t say with any statistical confidence. I can only infer from the averages. But this year the Bruins have left 234 men on base, compared to 170 by their opponents. I’ll have to ask Bruinette88 to run the numbers on this, but I’m thinking it might be a significant difference. That’s just too many runs being left out there.

Bruinette88: I’m with everyone else on this one—the bottom of the batting order has to be more productive. However, I’m going to put some of the responsibility for improving this on Coach Savage. Ideally, the lineup should be built around the strategy that the coach is employing. In this case, a lineup that’s stacked at the top with all of the Bruins’ best hitters isn’t an optimal match for Coach Savage’s propensity to play small ball. The fact that some of our best hitters (Ty Moore, Chris Keck, Luke Persico, and Brett Stephens) have been called on to bunt multiple times suggests to me that the lineup needs to be fine-tuned. What about moving Kort Peterson into the 2-spot in the lineup?  How about moving Trent Chatterton up to sixth in the batting order to give him a bit more protection and to hopefully boost him towards his .291 batting average of last year? I think Coach Savage needs to tweak his batting order to get more from the bottom of the lineup and to increase its effectiveness at scoring runs with his small ball approach.

JoeBruin15: Just like in the MLB playoffs, the team that gets hottest late in the year will win the CWS. If the Bruins can continue to improve and then put up the runs when it matters, they will win. Their bats have been hot most of the season, but, in the games they’ve lost, the bats went cold. So, they need to make sure their bats get hot in the postseason. Otherwise, it may not matter if Forbes, Dyer and Berg shut down opposing teams or not.

Fox 71: (If any of you want to know what a fifth wheel is, just do a Q&A after Orlando and Luv have started it.) I was going to way before I read any of the answers that I thought the team needed to get more productivity out of the bottom part of the lineup. I suppose that’s true of every team (and being a Rays fan, I know what an unproductive bottom of the lineup looks like). Alas, I don’t have a magic hitting pill that will cure everything. I’m sure Coach Savage knows that if a guy can’t hit, then you shouldn’t ask him to do something he can’t do. Have him do something he can do, like bunt or “take one for the team.” Things like that.

5. Do you believe the Head Coach, John Savage, has done a good job with the team this season?  Why or why not?

orlandobruin: I am a huge fan of Coach Savage.  I think he has done a fantastic job with this squad this year.  Last season was a blip or the radar that was derailed before it started due to injuries and inexperience. I am particularly impressed with Coach Savage’s handling of the pitching staff, something for which he has received accolades in the past. It seems like Coach Savage always knows which button to push and when to push it. I am intrigued about the switch from Cody Poteet to Griffin Canning as Sunday starter three weekends ago. Although his last outing was rocky, Canning (a freshman) has pitched well since the switch. Poteet looks more intense and “dialed in” since the switch. Maybe Coach Savage was looking to create some friendly competition. Those Sunday games are HUGE in the postseason.

uclaluv: Yes. Orlando pointed to the pitching staff which is having an outstanding year. In conference play they have a 1.69 ERA, compared to the opponents 5.47.  We knew the Bruins would have some bats this year, but with a freshman in the rotation the pitching was a little less certain.  Right now the Bruins have the 4th best ERA in the nation among D1 teams (2.22).  Of course we still have the toughest Pac-12 competition ahead of us.

Bruinette88: Coach Savage has done a wonderful job this year. I see improvement from his players all over the field, but the pitching staff in particular has been terrific. Coach Savage does things the right way, and it shows up in the team’s performances and results. But this is nothing new. Coach Savage is a great coach, and like orlando, I’m a huge fan.

JoeBruin15: I agree with orlando. The strategic move of the year by Savage so far was that Poteet-Canning swap. It’s been paying huge dividends so far and I think it will continue to do so. I was very impressed by Canning in the first half.

Fox 71: I am impressed. Coaches can’t always win games, but they can lose them by over-coaching. I haven’t seen anything that resembles that from Coach Savage. And someone, maybe Scotty from Oregon State, pointed out that it was apparent that Coach Savage was actually a witch, because he was using some sort of supernatural powers.

6. What has been the biggest surprise (positive or negative) about the UCLA baseball team this season?

orlandobruin: Chris Keck. Almost all of the preseason prognosticators (even islandbruin2) assumed that sophomore Sean Bouchard would leapfrog Keck into the regular third base role. After all, Keck hit .215 last season, with 1 home run, 10 RBI, and a .280 slugging percentage, starting about half of the games.  Not the type of offensive numbers you want out of your third baseman. Instead, Keck, a senior, has led the UCLA power surge. He is hitting .318, with 6 home runs (tops on the team), 29 RBI (tops on the team), and slugging at a clip of .579.  Chris Keck has been a huge positive thus far for the Bruins this season.

uclaluv: I am really impressed with freshman pitcher Griffin Canning.  I never know what to expect when you put a freshman on the mound in college.  Overall he is having a great year going 2-0 in conference play and 5-1 for the season. And while I’m not surprised that Kramer is having a good year, I am pleasantly surprised by just how good of a year he is having.  On the negative side, I was expecting to kick southern cal’s derriere at Dodger stadium, and was negatively surprised at how poor a showing the Bruins had.

Bruinette88: Keck and Canning top my list of surprises too. Forced to choose between them, I have to go with Canning. He’s holding opposing batters to a .210 batting average (lowest among the starters), and his strikeout-to-walk ratio is an astounding 12. Finally, Canning’s WHIP is just .86, which leads the Bruins and ranks 27th nationally. Because of UCLA’s pitching depth, the emergence of Keck may have a bigger impact on the team, but for me, Canning’s dominance has been the biggest surprise.

JoeBruin15: No doubt it was Canning. The guy has been a beast and I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do for the team.

Fox 71: Again, only having “seen” the Bruins by way of the reports I get here, I think the biggest surprise is the team’s ability to put games away. Class of 66 refers to it as the “barn cat” mentality. There is no frittering here. Frittering is bad, and it’s frowned upon, and we don’t have it with this team. Unfortunately, recent experience (not in this sport) suggested that frittering was the norm, but that’s not so with the Bruin horsehiders. (I love that phrase – it came from my high school paper.)

7. Do you think that UCLA will win the PAC 12 Conference?  Why or why not?

orlandobruin: UCLA is 10-2 through 4 series. They have played the #6, 7, 8, and 9 teams in the PAC 12. They still have to play the number 2, 3, 4, and 5 teams, not to mention Oregon (currently 10th) and Stanford (cellar dwellers). The latter two teams were supposed to contend in the PAC 12. So the road does not get any easier. The 2013 winner of the PAC 12 went 24-6 and the 2014 winner went 23-7. Using these numbers, the Bruins would have to go about 14-4 or 13-5 over the final 6 series. They have the horses to do it.  I give them a 50/50 shot based on the gauntlet of teams they still have to face.

uclaluv: I think this weekend is really important against u$c.  If they can win 2 out of the 3 games against the #3 team, that will really help them.  Of course they still have to see ASU.  I think we will learn a lot about the team this weekend and see how they bounce back after their poor showing against justSC a few weekends back.  If we can get 2 wins this weekend, I see the Bruins winning the PAC.

Bruinette88: This is the simplest question of the bunch as far as I’m concerned. I rate the Bruins’ chances of claiming the Pac-12 title at over 50%—pretty close to where orlando puts them. I agree with uclaluv that the weekend set against Southern Cal is awfully important, but I think the series in Phoenix at the start of May is more likely to determine the winner of the Pac-12 title race.

JoeBruin15: I think this weekend is critical. The winner of this series probably controls its own destiny moving forward. Sure, the series in Phoenix will be important. But, to borrow from Coach Mora, this weekend is the most important series of the season right now. Ask me again and my answer will be different. Ultimately, though, I think the team will win the Conference and I’m expecting big things from them in the postseason.

Fox 71: I think the other teams have to watch out for us, rather than vice versa. It seems to me that the team has a lot of confidence, and that they expect to win. I think they’ll win because they have good hitting and good pitching, and as Yogi once said, “Good pitching will always beat good hitting and vice versa.”