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UCLA Baseball 2014: The Year That Wasn't

UCLA Baseball came into 2014 with high hopes as the defending national champions. There were holes to fill, as numerous key players in Omaha were off to the pros. But there were still plenty of returnees. But the injury bug then hit even before the first pitch, and it was all downhill from there. Here is a brief recap of the bright spots (few) and the not-so-bright spots (many), and a look at what might lie ahead in the draft.

We missed you in 2014, Eric
We missed you in 2014, Eric

Here is a link to the preseason preview for UCLA from Baseball America. UCLA was #12 in the preseason poll. The Bruins were seen as having average hitting (compared to other NCAA tourney teams), weak power, slightly above average speed, excellent defense, above average starting pitching, excellent bullpen, and off the charts experience/intangibles as the defending national champs.

And Baseball America in general does pretty well with its preseason picks. Of the 16 top preseason picks, nine are regional hosts in the upcoming tourney, and five more are in the field. Only two of the top 16 preseason picks are not in the field- UCLA and North Carolina State.

When UCLA beat NC State 2-0 on March 1 in North Carolina, the team was considered to be on a roll, as the #19 Bruins had defeated the #6 team in the country in their own backyard. Turns out in hindsight that UCLA was the better of the disappointing teams, but this was clearly not an accurate portent of things to come in the postseason.

UCLA started the season with an opening night loss, then reeled off four wins in a row, followed by three losses in a row, followed by three wins in a row, followed by three losses in a row (I am getting dizzy here), followed by five wins in a row, including a road sweep at Cal to open the conference season. At that point the Bruins were 12-7, and all was seemingly right with the world. After another loss in the opening game of a series, the Bruins reeled off four more wins in a row, taking the second conference series in succession, at home vs. Washington State. UCLA was 16-8, 6-1 in conference play after winning the opening game of the Arizona State series.

But then the season started to turn south, as the Bruins lost seven of their next 10, including two consecutive conference series, home to Arizona State and on the road at Arizona. In the following series, UCLA took two out of three at Utah, which was the last conference series win until the final series of the season in Seattle.

The season went south in a big way after the Utah series, as the Bruins were swept at home by $C, lost a home series to Stanford, were swept on the road at Oregon State, and were swept at home by Oregon. In the process, the 2014 team "achieved" notable "firsts" which will not be repeated for a long time- first time not going to Omaha since 2011, first time not going to the postseason since 2009, first time with a losing record since 2009, and the first time with a losing conference record since 2003 (before Coach Savage arrived).

How did this happen? Let's look back at what the lineup was supposed to be, and what the lineup actually was, thanks to all the injuries.

Catcher was an undoubted bright spot. Shane Zeile jumped from .226/.326/.302 to .324/.401/.421 in his junior season. As a result, Zeile is now projected as the #170 selection (6th round) in the upcoming draft (link here). If this does come to pass, I would guess that we will see Zeile in a pro uniform next. He had a phenomenal season, and put tons of effort into converting to catcher at UCLA. This will be a huge hole to fill.

Pat Gallagher fell through the Mendoza line at first base in his senior season. His stat line went from .274/.368/.331 to .173/.256/.193 in his senior season. The fact that a .173 hitter could still get 150 AB's says quite a bit about the options available post-injuries. The fall-off by Gallagher obviously hurt big time.

Second base was expected to be Kevin Williams, taking over for 2013 starter Cody Regis. Williams had been the DH in 2013 with a shoulder injury, but the expectation was that he would be able to play 2nd this year, and anchor the defense up the middle. Instead, as a result of a preseason injury, Williams missed the start of the 2014 season, and when he returned it was as the DH. So, instead of Williams, freshman Luke Persico had to step into the breach. The fielding percentage at 2nd went down from .988 (three errors) to .943 (14 errors). As we will see, the drop off in the field was a large negative for some of the starting pitchers. Persico batted .246/.286/.335. Hopefully, this will set the stage for strong performances at the plate for Luke in the future.

Third base was Chris Keck, until he also went down for the count in the latter stages of the 2014 season. Keck was taking over for Kevin Kramer, who was going to slide over to short to replace 2013 starter Pat Valaika. Keck went from .186/.306/.300 in limited duty to .215/.301/.280 as a starter in his junior year.

As mentioned, shortstop was expected to be Kevin Kramer. This was a huge loss, as he did not play in 2014. Kramer was expected to provide solid offense, coming off a .278/.382/.376 junior season. And he was expected to anchor the middle defense. Instead, sophomore Trent Chatterton was called on to fill the void. Chatterton had a solid season at the plate, with a .291/.371/.339 line. But, the fielding percentage slipped, as was the case at second. The 2013 fielding percentage of .978 (six errors) became .949 (12 errors) in 2014.

Left field was expected to be Christoph Bono. With the injury to Eric Filia, Bono slid over to right. Bono started off very hot at the plate, and then went into a prolonged slump, ending with a stat line of .228/.289/.291. This was a drop from the 2013 starter Brenton Allen (.250/.339/.352). It was also a drop for Bono in terms of on-base and slugging percentage, as his sophomore line was .216/.337/.324. Ty Moore took over in left, instead of being the DH as expected. Moore had an excellent season at the plate, jumping from .219/.301/.301 to .294/.375/.417. Moore's offense was another high point this year.

Center field was Brian Carroll, until he also went down for the count in the latter stages of the 2014 season. Carroll basically repeated his junior season at the plate, with a .258/.380/.287 mark in 2013 and a .252/.357/297 mark in 2014. But the Bruins really missed his defense late in the season. Bono is a solid corner outfielder who had to cover for Carroll in center post-injury, but Carroll was an excellent centerfielder.

Right field was expected to be Eric Filia. This turned out to be a massive hole, as Filia missed the entire season with a torn labrum. Filia caught fire in the postseason on the run to the 2013 national title, and was seen as having considerable upside coming into 2014 at the plate. He had finished 2013 batting .281/.387/.360. Filia was also seen as a solid corner outfielder. Because of the injury, Ty Moore came into the outfield from his expected DH spot, and Kevin Williams (thanks to his injury) was the DH instead of playing 2B.

Baseball is an interesting sport for several reasons, not the least of which is that is the only sport where you score without the ball (think about it). But it is also interesting because it depends a lot on 1 on 1 matchups, between the pitcher and the batter. But it is most definitely a team sport, as you see the ripple effect of players fill in all over the diamond due to injuries.

In terms of starting pitching, the rotation remained the same throughout the season- James Kaprielian on Friday, Grant Watson on Saturday, Cody Poteet on Sunday, and Grant Dyer on Tuesday. Kaprielian moved from his setup role as a freshman to fill the Friday hole vacated by 2013 starter Adam Plutko. And did he ever. This was the other absolute high point this season. Kaprielian's win-loss record of 7-6 doesn't do justice to his performance this season. He limited batters to a .201 batting average against, struck out 108 in 106 innings (vs. 35 walks) and had a 2.29 ERA. Plutko in 2013 had similar or lesser stats- .207 batting average against, 81 strikeouts in 124 innings (vs. 30 walks) and a 2.25 ERA. But Plutko wound up 10-3, not 7-6. And Kaprielian was lights out while pitching the Friday night game, where the Bruins would be facing the opposing team's ace, and therefore scoring few if any runs. In this situation, every run scored or allowed was magnified. And Kaprielian did his job.

Grant Watson moved from the Sunday starter to take over the Saturday role vacated by Nick Vander Tuig. Watson had a solid 2013 season, with a 9-3 record and a 3.01 ERA. But Watson as a contact pitcher was apparently very much impacted by the shifts on defense with the injuries. He slipped to a mark of 4-9 with a 3.80 ERA this season, and a .270 batting average against. This was obviously a huge disappointment, both in comparison to his own stats from the prior year, but also in comparison to Vander Tuig in 2013 (14-4, 2.16, .229 batting average against).

Cody Poteet moved from the midweek starter to the Sunday role. And just as Watson could not match Vander Tuig, Poteet could not match Watson's 2013 mark. Poteet wound up 3-5, with a 4.46 ERA and a .263 batting average against. In 2013, Poteet had been 4-6, with a 4.84 ERA and a .227 batting average against. So although Poteet improved from his freshman season, his 2014 stats were not what you want to see from a weekend starter. He was also hurt as a contact pitcher from the defensive shuffle.

The midweek starter, Grant Dyer, was 6-5, with a 4.13 ERA as he started 11 games, and pitched in 13 more games on the weekend in relief. This was a solid effort, and hopefully will be a stepping stone to a solid 2015.

The bullpen, which was supposed to be a strength, turned out to be an issue, due to injury problems down the stretch for All-American closer David Berg. Berg slipped from his remarkable 2013 mark of 7-0, 24 saves, 0.92 ERA, 51 games, .198 batting average against. In 2014, Berg was 3-2, 11 saves, 1.50 ERA, 31 games, .202 batting average against. These 2014 stats would be fine in almost any context, except in comparison to 2013.

But, more importantly, the rest of the bullpen slipped in comparison to 2013. Kaprieilian as the setup man had a 1.55 ERA and a .141 batting average against in 34 games. Zach Weiss had a 2.25 ERA and a .243 batting average against in 43 games. This season, Max Schuh was solid with a 1.55 ERA and a .214 batting average against in 37 games, but Nick Kern struggled with a 4.98 ERA and a .262 batting average against.

And, finally, in terms of intangibles, the Bruins lost two projected leaders in Eric Filia and Kevin Kramer. These players had been in Omaha, and they knew the way to the finish line. Their replacements were young players, learning on the fly. So the benefits of veteran leadership were dlluted by injuries.

Hopefully, this was a once-in-a-decade perfect storm of injuries and other factors. But the Bruins will still have holes to fill next year. And the pipeline will probably not be filled by a huge incoming freshman class. UCLA has nine incoming freshmen from the fall recruiting period. But look again at the list of 200 top prospects ((link here).

The first name on the list, pitcher Brady Aiken, is one of the nine incoming UCLA freshmen. If you are the top overall pick, the odds of turning down the pros must be next to zero. There are four more names on the list who are in the fall 2014 recruiting class- third baseman Sean Bouchard, pitcher Grant Hockin, shortstop Josh Morgan and pitcher Jacob Nix. Hockin is the lowest ranked draft prospect on this list, at #111, but that still is 4th round.

We will most definitely not have all nine of the fall 2014 recruits on campus this September. It could be as low as four. If that is the case, the existing players will need to step up big time. Throwing players into the deep end, as happened this year, will hopefully pay dividends in the future. Let's hope the pay comes quickly.

So enough about 2014. I would be happy not seeing a year like that for a long time. We will know a lot more about the future after the draft, which begins June 5. And we will know even more after the signing period expires.

Go Bruins !!