The UCLA Bruin Baseball team is four games into its 2016 season and, although the team had some significant holes to fill due to departing players (and one key injury), the consensus of the national rankings was that UCLA was still a top ten team. With the Bruins sitting at 1-3 going into this weekend’s series against Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, there appear to be more questions than answers at this point regarding the 2016 iteration of Bruin baseball. Bruins Nation’s front pagers and a special guest, 77Bruinlaw, a mainstay in the comments section during games, discuss some of the issues that this team is facing.
UCLA lost three of its four top hitters from last year’s team. Through four games, the Bruins are hitting .165 as a team, have a total of 21 hits and have struck out 49 times in 127 at bats. Kort Peterson had a nice game in a losing effort against Long Beach State, raising his average to .400. Eric Filia has done well in his comeback season, hitting .273 and getting the game-winning, walk-off single in UCLA’s sole win. After that, UCLA hitters check in with batting averages of .214 or below. UCLA’s leadoff hitter, Brett Stephens, is hitless in 12 at bats (although he has drawn 6 walks). Is this team going to be offensively challenged? Or is this a statistical aberration and guys like Stephens, Persico, and Bouchard will step up their game?
77Bruinlaw: It seems way too early to declare any sort of trend, but there is no doubt something has to change. What seems to be missing is a sparkplug; someone to get it started or keep it going. That role moves around of course, but at least in the first four games, no one was interested in taking it. My gut tells me these guys will grow together as a team and work it out, but it was pretty darn awful these last four games
orlandobruin: I do not believe that this team will have the offensive pop of last year’s team. Both from a power standpoint and an average standpoint. Losing Kevin Kramer, Ty Moore, and Chris Keck is a big blow, even with Filia coming back. That being said, .165 will never get it done. I think that the "sparkplug" mentioned by 77Bruinlaw needs to be Brett Stephens. North Carolina’s leadoff hitter killed the Bruins last weekend. UCLA’s leadoff hitter needs to do the same. Stephens hit leadoff some last season when Kramer went into a mini slump, so we know that he can do it. Luke Persico and Sean Bouchard need to step up and be the RBI guys (along with Peterson). If guys like Christoph Bono, Trent Chatterton, and whomever is catching can get their averages around .250 or above, UCLA should be OK.
Bruinette88: I’m confident that the Bruins’ hitting will pick up soon, but there have to be some serious concerns about their inability to put the ball in play. It’s hard to score runs playing small ball when a big chunk of the team’s outs are whiffs. Unfortunately, based on what we’ve seen so far, Coach Savage isn’t likely to do any better if he ditches small ball. In fact, the Bruins are likely to do worse as evidenced by their dreadful .228 slugging percentage. On a positive note, the Bruins are doing a decent job of finding other ways to get runners on base. Brett Stephens is hitting .000 but has a .333 on base percentage. Eric Filia—one of only two Bruins hitting over .250—has an OBP of .556. Overall the Bruins on base percentage is .293, which isn’t fantastic, but considering the fact that it’s built on top of a .165 team batting average, it’s definitely a positive.
Joe Piechowski: The season just started. I agree with 77BruinLaw that it’s too early to spot a trend. That said, there is definitely an opportunity there for someone to step up and be a leader on this team.
Even in seasons in which UCLA didn’t hit the ball particularly well, including the 2013 National Championship season in which Eric Filia led the team in batting at .281 and the team collectively hit .250, UCLA under Head Coach John Savage has always been able to win games with pitching. Molding a pitching staff has always been the trademark of John Savage coached baseball teams. With James Kaprielian, Grant Watson, and Cody Poteet (three of UCLA’s four starters last season) moving on to the pros, and with all-world closer David Berg doing the same, it appears that UCLA has a lot of holes to fill in the starting rotation and in late inning situations. Each of UCLA’s starters (Grant Dyer, Griffin Canning, Kyle Molnar, and Hunter Virant) has started one game. Not one has notched a victory. Not one has lasted more than five innings. The best of the lot (Canning) has a 5.40 ERA. The worst (Virant) has an ERA of 15.43. UCLA’s stopper, Tucker Forbes, who pitched so well last season, has an ERA of 7.36 and gave up three runs in one inning to The Beach. UCLA’s team ERA is 7.00. Can Bruin fans expect more frustration with this staff going forward? Will Coach Savage shuffle his rotation? Is this an aberration or do the Bruins just not have the arms they have had in the past?
77Bruinlaw: There’s that word again: aberration. Let’s hope so. I mean Bruin pitching is supposed to be our signature strength. It wasn’t that long ago that I felt okay (not great, but not nervous) going into the 7th inning with a one run lead, and comfortable going into the 8th leading by one. My guess is that the Bruins have the talent (maybe not like the last 4 or 5 years, but still pretty good) and Coach Savage will figure out how to use it. So the short answer is: I don’t think they have the arms they have had in the past, but they will get the job done, assuming we can score.
orlandobruin: Grant Dyer has great stuff. The question is whether he can do it as a Friday starter rather than for one inning. Griffin Canning is going to be fine, I think. The freshman, Kyle Molnar, pitched the best of the weekend starters, except for the one pitch that UNC’s Ramirez bashed over the wall. Virant was serviceable last season, and should do fine in the midweek role. So, in summary, I think the pitching will improve, especially as the season wears on a guys get used to their roles. We’ll see about the bullpen. It is impossible to replace Berg. Forbes should be very good and freshman, Nathan Hadley has thrown four scoreless innings. If certain players don’t get the job done in the next couple of weeks, I could see Coach Savage making appropriate changes. I am less worried about the pitching than the hitting, although this staff does not appear to be the pitching juggernaut of 2015.
Bruinette88: In my opinion, pitching is the least of the Bruins’ problems. Canning, Dyer, and Forbes all pitched well last season, so at this point there’s no reason to think that one poor performance in 2016 is a better guide than last year’s results in projecting how each will pitch this season. While it’s true that Forbes and Dyer are in different roles this season, I’m confident that they’ll settle in and pitch well. I’m less confident about Hunter Virant, though. Although he had a decent ERA last year (3.45), his secondary statistics weren’t great. I’ll need to see more from him before I’m convinced that he’s the answer as the midweek starter. Finally, I agree with orlando about Hadley—he’s easily been the most impressive of the UCLA hurlers so far.
Joe Piechowski: I think the arms are there. Savage may need to shuffle things around a little, just like he did last season, but, ultimately, I trust that Coach Savage will get things figured out quick. That said, I think the Bruins have the arms to have a very good season. Last season, we saw great promise from underclass pitchers. It’s time for those guys to step up.
Another trademark of Coach Savage’s teams has been defense. This season, not so much, as UCLA has committed nine errors in four games, including five errors in the rubber match against North Carolina. Is this an abnormality, or will UCLA’s defense turn out to be inferior to UCLA teams of the past?
77Bruinlaw: Well you didn’t say "aberration," but I am not sure "abnormality" is better. I don’t count the errors on the catchers; they are young and were dropped in to play just in the last couple weeks. That said, our infield was a bit porous over the weekend. Again, I expect that will improve as they learn to work together (is my theme showing?)
orlandobruin: I think that it is an abnormality. Throw out the series finale against UNC, and UCLA has four errors in three games. Not great, but better. Also, four of the nine errors were committed by pitchers, not everyday players. Of the everyday players who have errors, only one (Persico) has a fielding percentage less than .955. And Persico is adjusting to a new position, third base, so I am willing to cut him some slack. I think that UCLA settles down defensively as the season goes on.
Bruinette88: The Bruins’ nine errors reflect just how poorly they’ve played in the past four games. Teams built to play small ball simply can’t afford to gift their opponents extra baserunners and additional outs. The margin of error is very thin for small ball teams. With so many new players in new roles and new positions, it’s not surprising that the Bruins committed more errors than usual. That said, the errors didn’t prove to be particularly costly. Last season about 24% of the runs UCLA gave up were unearned. So far this season, about 15% of runs allowed are unearned. So yeah, I expect the defense to improve, but so far the defensive lapses in the field haven’t been particularly costly.
Joe Piechowski: Again, it’s too soon to tell. But, Bruinette had two very good points. 1. A lower percentage of unearned runs have been given up so far this season. That could become a trend (but, again, it’s too soon to tell). 2. The errors which were made did not prove costly. This gives Coach Savage some time to fix those problems before they start costing the Bruins runs.
UCLA lost Darrell Miller, Jr. for the season due to a torn labrum. His 2015 backup. Justin Hazard transferred to Nevada as a graduate, leaving UCLA very thin at catcher. Daniel Rosica and Jake Hirabayashi, one a redshirt freshman the other a true freshman, have split time behind the dish, with one hit between them. Collectively, they have allowed ten stolen bases on eleven attempts and Hirabayashi has allowed four past balls. Miller was a solid hitter but he was outstanding on defense, framing pitches, knocking down balls in the dirt, and throwing out baserunners. How much does Miller’s absence this season affect UCLA? Will either Rosica or Hirabayashi (or someone else) be able to fill the void left by Miller?
77Bruinlaw: Miller’s loss is huge. We have had a string of tough blue collar types behind the plate, and that helped keep the team focused on doing their job one pitch at a time. I am concerned that these youngsters may not have the gravitas to carry it off. Someone has too though.
orlandobruin: I love Kramer, Moore, Keck, Kaprielian, Watson, and Berg. All of those losses are significant. I think that losing Darrell Miller, Jr. for the season to injury is more important to this team than losing any individual one of those players, which is saying a lot. Miller, Jr. is so solid defensively and would have been a calming force with UCLA’s rebuilt pitching rotation and staff. Nothing against Rosica or Hirabayashi (I certainly want both to become great Bruins), but neither of them had a whit of college experience a week ago. So, the Bruins have an inexperienced (but talented) staff and inexperienced (but talented) backstops. There are going to be growing pains.
Bruinette88: The loss of Miller is a substantial blow to the 2016 Bruins. It’s hard for me to estimate how much it will affect UCLA this season because I haven’t seen enough of Rosica or Hirabayashi to be able to gauge how much each might be able to contribute in the next few months. My gut feeling is that both are in over their heads at the moment.
Joe Piechowski: There’s no doubt that losing Miller is a big blow. Catching is the most difficult position to play in baseball. I’d argue it’s the baseball equivalent to quarterback in football. To go from Darrell Miller, Jr. to a platoon of inexperienced guys really hurts. Let’s hope these guys gain experience quickly enough that it is not a problem come the postseason.
5. Nick Valaika.
Shortstop Nick Valaika is recovering from an injured hand right now, but it appears that he could return to action as early as the Dodgertown Classic the first weekend in March. Until then, Trent Chatterton will start at shortstop and Brett Urabe will play second. How will Valaika’s return affect the team? Will Chatty move back to second, pushing Urabe into a utility role? Will it depend on the production of Chatty and Urabe? Urabe is hitting .214; Chatty is hitting .063.
77Bruinlaw: Jeesh I have no idea what makes sense up the middle. We need to get this thing fixed and maybe changing things up almost game by game could help the team work on that. The short answer again: I dunno.
orlandobruin: I think Valaika’s return will give UCLA a bit of a boost. The kid is only a sophomore and didn’t exactly hit the cover off the ball in limited action last season. He was, however, error free. I expect that he’ll give the infield some defensive stability and his offense will grow with playing time. As for second base, I’d like to say that Chatterton will slide over to the position he played in 2015. He can’t do that hitting .065 though. Chatty’s offense will improve, as he hit .280 and .291 while starting most of the time in 2015 and 2014, respectively.
Bruinette88: I guess I’d be a little surprised if Valaika forces Chatterton to second. Urabe has a better bat than Valaika, and given how much trouble UCLA has had producing runs so far, I don’t think Coach Savage can afford to add a defensive specialist to the lineup. Even though Urabe is hitting just .214 and leads the team with 8 strikeouts, he’s second on the team in slugging percentage. Of course, if Urabe slumps at the plate, Valaika could easily take his spot in the lineup.
Joe Piechowski: Once Valaika gets back and Chatterton moves back to second, I expect Chatterton’s offense to pick up. I’m willing to explain his .063 BA on his need to focus on playing an unfamiliar position for now, but he needs to improve offensively.
6. Chime in with your final thoughts regarding UCLA baseball at this juncture of the season.
77Bruinlaw: Okay, after 4 games, the Bruins are 1-3 and are not looking good in any aspect of the game. But this is baseball. They play in a great ballpark, I love listening to Tim Wilhelm and John Ramey, the hot dogs are great and the uniforms look spiffy. Odds are good that the Bruins will win their share of games, lose some they shouldn’t, but in the end it will be all good. It doesn’t get any better than this.
orlandobruin: The first four games were very disappointing. That being said, it would be naive to think that there would not be some growing pains this season. I just didn’t think that UCLA would slump in all three aspects of the game (pitching, hitting, and defense) at the same time. I still think that this is a team that hits its stride in the second half of the season, as players settle into their roles.
Bruinette88: When the preseason rankings had UCLA in or around the top-10; that seemed too optimistic to me. After a week of baseball, the Bruins are now ranked 15th in the NCBWA Poll, which still seems a bit high. I agree with orlando that there will undoubtedly be growing pains this season, and that the Bruins will be playing better baseball in April and May.
Joe Piechowski: Head Coach John Savage is the coach I probably trust the most of any of UCLA’s head coaches. So, I’m not concerned that the team is 1-3 after four games. They just need to keep working on some things until conference play rolls around and, once it does, they just need to win 2 out of every 3 and they will be fine.
If they were coached by Steve Alford, that may be tough to do. But, they aren’t. Savage will get them on the right track.
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That is a wrap for the UCLA Baseball roundtable. Let us know your thoughts in the comment section. And, as always, Go Bruins!!!