In contrast to 2018 when almost everyone predicted Florida to repeat as National Champions (except this publication; we named Oregon State to win it all), this year is more wide open, with as many as 7-10 teams capable of winning the 2019 National Title.
There's no question LSU and Vanderbilt have deep, talented & experienced rosters. Strong arguments can be made for both those teams. Stanford looks formidable, as does Louisville & Texas Tech. Florida, Ole Miss & North Carolina should all be in the mix & even defending champion Oregon State, which loses a ton of MLB-caliber talent, won't fall terribly far.
However, we're on UCLA to win the 2019 National Championship for three simple reasons. An elite Offense, sound Pitching & a stingy Defense driven by experienced, proven, high-end talent.
We've talked to many coaches & scouts, closely watched several key Bruins over the Cape summer & conversed with Head Coach John Savage (click for podcast) after Fall Ball. Taken together, we predict UCLA will win their second National Title in the last seven years. Our rationale is below.
The John Savage File: (15th year at UCLA; 487-349-1)
Playing Days: Pitcher at Santa Clara (16th round draft choice, 1986, Reds)
Assistant Coach: Nevada (1992-1996); USC (1997-2000)
Head Coach: UC Irvine (2002-2004; 88-84-1)
2018 UCLA Recap
Record: 38-21 (19-11 in Pac-12)
Finish: Lost in Minnesota Regional (2-2): beat Gonzaga twice, lost to Minnesota twice
National Rank: Scoring (26); ERA (6); Fielding % (3)
Five Year Trend (2014; 2015; 2016; 2017; 2018)
Scoring (285; 80; 210; 199; 26)
ERA (63; 1; 155; 14; 6)
Fielding (82; 18; 63; 13; 3)
1) An elite offense featuring depth & versatility
Back in 2013 when UCLA won their last national title, pitching (6th nationally in ERA) & defense (5th in fielding percentage) carried an offense which ranked just 211th in scoring. In fact, since that season the Bruins have never ranked higher than 80th in scoring. However, last year the bats busted out and the offense came together, jumping all the way to 26th nationally in scoring.
This year’s offense has the potential to be even more potent, as seven regulars return, including the three top run producers from a year ago.
It starts with the best infield in America, anchored by slugging 2nd baseman Chase Strumpf. “He’s somewhat of an old school 2nd baseman, in the mold of Jeff Kent or Bobby Grich, and one of the best hitters in the country” said Savage. The 6-1, 200-pounder slashed .363/.475/.633, including 23 doubles and 12 homers. He offers excellent plate discipline (45BB/53K in 226 at-bats) and led the team with 59 runs scored. Now fully recovered from a slight fracture in his heel that shelved him for the 2018 summer season, Strumpf is poised to breakout into the National conversation as a legitimate Golden Spikes Award candidate.
Next to Strumpf at 1B is fellow junior Michael Toglia, a legitimate Golden Spikes candidate in his own right. At 6-5, 210-pounds, the former prep basketball star from the state of Washington oozes elite projection. The switch hitter’s calling card is a plus hit tool from both sides of the plate. After some success as a freshman in 2017, Toglia blew up last year, slashing .336/.449/.588 with 24 doubles and 58 RBI.
One at-bat last summer in the Cape told us all we needed to know about Toglia’s bat. Duke’s 6-5, 250-pound beastly left-hander Graeme Stinson, projected by many as the top college arm in the 2019 MLB draft, blew every Cotuit hitter away over a 5-inning, 12-strikeout, no-walk performance. Except Toglia, who from the right side jumped on a high, 95-mph heater, drilling a line drive base hit to center field that left an army of scouts buzzing behind home plate.
In addition to an advanced hit tool, Toglia displays impressive athleticism in a big body. “There is physicality there. He runs well and can play RF as well as 1B. Even playing CF down the road isn’t out of the question. Michael can be very, very good and he’s just touched the tip of the iceberg in terms of his development”.
Sophomore shortstop Kevin Kendall didn’t blink under bright lights, hitting a solid .278, stealing 13-15 bags and fielding .951 in his debut season. Securing the shortstop position in March, Kendall improved throughout the season, hitting .311 in Pac-12 play. Savage believe Kendall is a future MLB shortstop.
Kendall is so good he pushed fellow shortstop Ryan Kreidler over to 3B. A strapping, athletic 6-4, 210-pounder, his hit tool has lagged thus far (.222, 7 doubles, 34 RBI 31BB/49K in 162 at-bats). However Savage is optimistic & encouraged after Fall when Kreidler really “grew up offensively”. If he proves he can drive the ball with consistency while reducing some swing & miss he will undoubtedly zoom up draft boards come June.
One other versatile piece for Savage is 2018 1st round draft choice (Arizona,) Matt McLain, a high school shortstop who turned down $2.6M from the Diamondbacks to join the Bruins. On what stood out to the Diamondbacks before the draft, Scouting Director Deric Ladnier said, "First and foremost, the bat. He has a short compact swing. He'll end up having some power. Everyone in our organization from top to bottom felt like this young man was going to hit".
Then there’s All Pac-12 outfielder Jeremy Ydens, one of the most under-appreciated talents in the nation. All he did was lead the conference in hitting at a blistering .406 clip, including 10 doubles and 5 homers in just 101 at-bats. Ydens was a Cape League All-Star and key cog within Wareham’s Championship run. Said Gatemen manager Don Sneddon, “he plays the game with respect, can handle all the OF positions, has a sweet stroke. He’ll be a big part of the UCLA offense next season”. At 6-2, 200 pounds & a good runner (stole 13-19 bases last year), Ydens has all the physical tools for the next level.
Sophomore Garrett Mitchell, who arrived on campus as one of the top recruits in the nation, is looking to put it all together after a solid, if unspectacular, freshman campaign (.280/.337/.331, 11BB/40K in 157 at-bats). Savages believes Mitchell is a future MLB centerfielder who is “as toolsy as you can get in college, a 3.9 runner from the left side, big strong guy 6-3, 210, who can really glide & move in the outfield, with a plus arm and the ability to drive the baseball. We want him to better connect those tools to the game, to use his serious speed & ability to drive the ball to impact the game”. Leveraging those tools into commensurate production would turbo-charge the Bruin offense and strike fear in opposing pitching staffs.
One unanswered question for Savage is who will replace Daniel Rosica behind the plate. The good news is this position won’t be pressured to hit, and instead can focus on defense, controlling the running game and handling the pitching staff. Junior Will McInerney (29 starts, .238 in 63 at-bats) returns while redshirt-sophomore Ty Hasselman provides another viable option.
However, it looks like true freshman Noah Cardenas will be the guy, sooner if not later, based solely on his defenses prowess (see below).
If that’s not all, the bench is deep with experience in lefty swinging junior Jack Stronach (39 starts; .290 in Pac-12 play over 100 conference at-bats), 6-4, 230-pound senior outfielder Jake Pries (30 starts; .403 OBA) & senior infielder Jake Hirabayashi (28 starts; .280/.430/.410).
The Bruins 2018 offensive trend break coincided with assistant coach Bryant Ward assuming the role of hitting coach. In previous stops as hitting coach at Loyola Marymount and South Florida, Ward's hitters posted some of the best seasons in their recent school histories.
Should McLain hit as expected and Mitchell & Kreidler find more barrels, this offense can carry the Bruins for longer stretches while taking pressure off the pitching staff.
2) A deep & experienced pitching staff returning a huge wild card
Despite losing three key arms from 2017 either before (Justin Hooper) or early in the year (Kyle Molnar & Jon Olsen) the staff still finished #6 nationally in team ERA (3.08) and loses only Friday starter Jake Bird (5th round, Rockies). While some assert the Bruin arms don’t blow you away, they simply get good hitters out consistently through advanced pitchability, competitiveness and allowing the superb Bruin defense to do the rest.
Moving into that Friday slot is junior right-hander Ryan Garcia, who worked on Sunday’s a year ago (8-1, 2.23 ERA, .188 OBA, 76K/23BB over 76.2 innings) before flourishing on the Cape for CCBL champion Wareham. Says Savage, “He really grew last summer (in Wareham) under Don Sneddon & Jim Lawlor. They did a great job with him. He was kind of our little secret last year. We’d throw him on Sunday’s and say ‘wow, this guy’s a potential Friday guy’.
Sneddon adds that Garcia “is a coach’s dream. He’s a bulldog with real composure on the mound, someone who throws four pitches for strikes, preventing hitters from sitting on anything. The only thing he doesn’t have is a 6-5 frame”. True, Garcia stands a modest 6-0 at 180 pounds, but he’s athletic (former prep SS) with a an easy, repeatable “silent” delivery. We remarked last summer that Garcia reminded us a bit of Greg Maddox in size, delivery & pitchability. Should his command tick up just a bit across his plus offerings, Savage will have a bona fide Friday guy capable of beating any lineup in the country.
The other returning weekend starter is sophomore RHP Zach Pettway, a consensus Freshman All-American (8-4, 3.35 ERA, .235 OBA, 78K/19BB over 96.2 innings) in 2018. A powerfully built 6-1, 2015 pounder, Pettway opened eyes early in his second career start, blanking Baylor (an eventual 37-win Regional team) over 8 shutout, 3-hit innings without yielding a walk. Another multi-pitch guy, Pettway commands both sides of the plate with a fast ball, curve and tumbling change.
The third weekend starting role is currently up for grabs, but isn’t without high-end options. The most intriguing is 6-8 lefty Justin Hooper, a consensus top-10 high school recruit in 2016. Hooper made 9 starts as a sophomore then earned 2017 Cape League All-Star honors that summer before blowing out his elbow, necessitating Tommy John surgery and shelving him for all of 2018. Late word from UCLA is that Hooper is ready and will start the 2019 season at 100%. Should he regain his form toward seasons end, UCLA will have a totally different, and intimidating, look in a Regional setting.
Another option is freshman right-hander Nick Nastrini. A high-school outfielder relatively new to pitching, the 6-3, 205-pound right-hander cut his teeth against college talent last summer, earning All-West Coast League status after nine impressive starts (1.88 ERA).
Another proven, versatile arm with command is 6-3 righty Kyle Mora (6-3, 1.89 ERA, .170 OBA, 41K/12BB over 52.1 innings). Kyle can start, relieve or close, can get both right-handed and left-handed hitters out and offers a plus change-up”. Mora made three Cape League starts for Harwich (2.13 ERA) and impressed Head Coach Steve Englert, “he really knows how to pitch. He’s not going to wow you on the radar gun. He just throws outs”.
Back end options include returning Freshman All-American RHP Holden Powell (29 appearances, 3.51 ERA, 6 saves) & junior Nick Scheidler, a work-horse (37 appearances, 3rd most nationally, 3.97 ERA, 32K/18BB in 34 innings) who posted a 2.00 ERA over 8 Cape League appearances last summer.
3) An air-tight defense which adds an elite freshman catcher
One of the hallmarks of UCLA in the Savage era are fundamentally sound defenses, consistently making routine plays and limiting opponent’s opportunities. Last year the Bruins fielded .982 to rank 3rd in America.
The addition of freshman catcher Noah Cardenas may offer even more upside to team defense. Savage believes Cardenas to be an "elite catch & throw guy, a sub 2.0 pop time, a tremendous receiver who’s learning how to block pitches in the dirt. He could be that X-factor for us”.
In addition to Cardenas, UCLA is special up the middle. Second baseman Strumpf fielded .992, handling 266 chances with only 2 errors. Shortstop Kendall made 29 Pac-12 starts and committed only four miscues. McLain takes his shortstop glove to CF, covering plenty of ground with speed while closing difficult catches in gaps.
At the corner infield slots, the Bruins are in great hands with Kreidler & Toglia.
Over the Cape Summer, Kreidler opened eyes as an elite shortstop prospect. Brewster manager Jamie Shevchik remarked "I haven't seen anyone as gifted defensively as this kid. He is really, really good and could be one of the first players of this Cape class to reach the big leagues". Savage concurs, believing Kreidler has what it takes to excel in the big leagues as a shortstop.
At first base, Toglia offers a huge target for infielders. In 30 Pac-12 starts, Toglia handled 238 chances flawlessly.
It should also be noted that assistant coach Ward is widely respected as a developer of elite infield defenses. We believe this Bruin unit is the best in America.
2019 Schedule: The non-conference slate is challenging, and that's a good thing. The Bruins open at home vs. always rugged St. John’s followed by a cross-country trip to Atlanta to face talented & hungry Georgia Tech. Single dates vs. Michigan, Oklahoma State , UCI & Fullerton State along with a mid-season home series against formidable East Carolina will test the Bruins, hike their RPI & get them ready for a grueling 30-game Pac-12 run.
Conference play opens with a bang (!), as defending national champ Oregon State visits Jackie Robinson Stadium March 15-17. That, coupled with a trip to Palo Alto to face heavyweight Stanford (April 5-7) will let Savage know exactly what kind of club he has, allowing lineup and pitching staff tweaking well in advance of post season play.
Intangibles: John Savage is widely respected, a proven winner with one national championship already in hand. He knows what it takes.The players tasted success last year, turned the corner offensively but remain hungry after their season ended in the Minnesota Regional. Garcia, Ydens & Kreidler stayed on the Cape all summer, leading Wareham to a Cape League title.
Finally, the Pac-12 looks to be very strong this season, with potentially 6 or even 7 Regional bids. Facing such competition weak-after-week will only harden this club, raise their RPI, improve post-season seeding and make them battle-tested for an Omaha run.
Your 2019 National Champions: The UCLA Bruins