Reacting to UCLA Baseball's opening weekend

LOS ANGELES - Through six innings at Jackie Robinson Stadium Friday, the St. John’s Red Storm outplayed the third-ranked UCLA Bruins. Without ace right-hander Ryan Garcia, Head Coach John Savage turned to sophomore Zach Pettway for the team’s season opener. His six innings of nine-strikeout baseball kept the Bruins close, but a fluke catcher’s interference call and a clutch, two-out single pushed the 2018 Big East champions ahead.

In the bottom of the seventh, the Bruins drew two bases-loaded walks, giving them their first lead of 2019 and eventually their first win by a score of 3-2. After the seventh inning Friday, Savage’s club outscored the Red Storm 20-1 on Saturday and Sunday. The Bruins head into Tuesday’s matchup against Loyola Marymount with a pristine 3-0 record.

Pettway’s off-season changes

Zach Pettway: 6 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 9 K (Friday)

The 19-year-old freshman mixed a fastball, curveball and changeup together over 96 ⅔ innings in 2018. Savage and the UCLA coaching staff approached Pettway’s offseason with improvement in mind.

“We thought, you know, this guy is 215 pounds and he’s 84-85 [mph] and he’s got a good arm, and we just thought there might be a little bit more we could go get and there has been,” Savage said. “It’s not like he’s a low-90s guy, but it’s an upper-80s guy with pitchability, with that mentality he could go a long way.”

Savage mentioned multiple tweaks with Pettway, from refinement of his arm path to improved separation to presumably generate more velocity. Pettway kicked up to 89 mph on Friday night as a result, higher than the mid-80s he sat in 2018, according to Savage.

Pettway’s mechanics resemble a modified version of former major league reliever Jordan Waldon. He relies primarily on a strong back-leg drive off the mound for momentum towards the plate, as opposed to having a rotational delivery with limited extension. He is completely off the ground prior to front foot strike at one point in his delivery, with some inefficient momentum as his energy is naturally pushing into the air instead of towards the plate. As a result, you’ll see his weight has to travel down to the ground before he starts shoulder rotation. The admirable part of his sequencing is his ability to command pitches well despite what some might consider loud, aggressive mechanics. On top of that, his front leg engagement is fantastic, a testament to his athleticism. There is no reason to fade more velocity given his build, room for growth and the potential evolution of his mechanics.

Pettway also added a slider in the offseason. His nine strikeouts Friday suggest a strikeout rate uptick over his 7.3 K/9 mark from 2018. The added weapon versus right-handed hitters will help him obtain that mark.

“I tried to use [the slider] as a power pitch, like a harder pitch,” Pettway said after Friday’s start. “So I liked it today,”

The slider gives Pettway a wider velocity band of pitches to work in and provides a horizontal compliment to his vertical curveball. This resembles what pitchers like Trevor Bauer accomplished late in 2017 that led in part to his breakout. With Garcia sidelined through next weekend, Pettway will have a chance to showcase his dynamic improvements against Georgia Tech on Feb. 22.

First-round talents Strumpf, Toglia

Chase Strumpf: 4 for 10, 3 R, 4 BB, 4 RBI, HR, 2B, K

Michael Toglia: 2 for 12, 2 R, 2 BB, RBI, 7 K

Strumpf enters his junior year with draft-day buzz due to a 2018 breakout. He played in the Northwoods League during the summer of 2017 and earned a spot on the United States Collegiate National Team last summer. He did not participate in the latter due to an injury.

Strumpf hit third for Savage in each of the team’s three games against St. John’s, a spot he will likely occupy all season. His follow-through is short, with minimal excess movement. His set-up is simple, with his bat flat on his shoulder before bringing his hands up into his load. When he comes up into his mid-thigh leg kick, his weight is centered well with his lower half subtly engaged. He is exceptionally stable through his swing.

There is a chance he finds a swing plane that will help him to hit more fly balls and project out to above-average power at higher levels. At the moment, his power is more gap to gap with ample line drives and a game-changing hit tool. Even if a fly ball uptick never comes, the blueprint of his attack is structured to push away from a high ground-ball rate. Combine this characteristic with confidence in his ability to hit upper level breaking balls and Strumpf has a case to land in the back half of the first round, even with average defense at second base.

Strumpf’s eye at the plate is exceptional as well, recognizing spin without issue. This developed dramatically from 2016 to 2017 evidenced by the near doubling of his walk rate. He figures to maintain heading this trait through his junior year, working to unlock more power as the season progresses.

“We’ve been working on seeing [breaking balls] up, seeing that spin up, elevated and kind of just taking a swing,” Strumpf said. “Whether you foul it off, swing through it, whatever, putting that idea in the [opposing] coach that [the hitter] might have seen that really well, so let’s not throw that again.

“It’s kind of like a mind game you play. Even if you didn’t see it too well taking that swing and getting back to the fastball usually works in your favor, especially when [the opposing pitcher’s] off-speed isn’t on.”

Strumpf and McLain displayed this ability to make contact with breaking balls and force St. John’s back to fastballs Friday. The issue became catching up to elevated fastballs when they came late in counts on a cold, rainy night after months of no meaningful games. That issue did not extend into the weekend evidenced by their multi-day drubbing of St. John’s.

Toglia’s opening weekend veered in a different direction than Strumpf’s. If his weekend sample is at all predictive--don’t worry, it’s likely too small--his swing and miss is still present. He enters 2019 with a second summer of power and whiffs on the Cape under his belt.

His raw power is second to none on UCLA and his numbers on the Cape with wood bats confirm the continual praise for his bat speed and raw power. He generates an ample amount of bat speed without large hand separation away from his body as his hips come forward. There’s a slight bounce in his hands into his load, but overall it’s a quiet, powerful swing with holes that aren’t filled based on his weekend play.

In a brief look at Toglia from the right side, one can see it’s a less athletic stance with lower hands, a flatter swing plane and more excess movement into his load. He resembles Hunter Pence from the right side, but more for his aesthetics rather than the approach’s effectiveness. His ability to be serviceable against left-handed pitching, however, works wonders to counteract his positional woes if he sticks at first base long term. The trend of his draft stock over the next few months will be attention-worthy as draft day approaches.

McLain’s debut

Matt McLain: 1 for 11, 2 R, BB, 3 RBI, 3B, SB, 5 K

McLain’s stat line deviates from his performance, particularly on Friday night. In the Bruins’ opener, he walked twice, most notably with the bases loaded to force in the game-winning run. He started down 0-2 and battled through a total of nine pitches before beating the St. John’s reliever. Unlike Strumpf, McLain is more susceptible to velocity up. But like Strumpf, McLain is compact with innate bat speed.

His swing is similar in structure to Strumpf’s as well. McLain loads his hands a higher and he is more prone to committing his weight forward early, which could lead to some excess swing and miss until evened out with reps. While McLain can still toy with pitchers by fouling off breaking balls, the raw nature of his swing should make one less confident in his ability to continue to do so against higher level pitching (there are no concerns with Strumpf in this regard). Regardless of these critiques, McLain is a freshman and appeared more than comptent at a premium position on a Pac-12 team that will compete.

He already projects as a high first-round pick in 2021 and early looks at his play in center field could solidify positional versatility on top of a future above average to plus hitter with average game power.

Savage batting McLain fifth in his lineup on three consecutive days inspires even more confidence for the 2018 first-round pick’s future. The California native turned down first-round money from the Diamondbacks to come to UCLA and has wasted no time making an impression.

“He’s just really squaring the ball up much harder now, it took him a while to adapt, I guess you would say,” Savage said about McLain’s improvements since Fall. “He can hit velocity, he can hit breaking balls, there’s not one way to get him out, he’s going to be a special hitter.”

Quick thoughts on potential 2019 draftees

Jeremy Ydens: 5 for 9, 3 R, 3 BB, 2 RBI, 2B, SB, 3 K

Ryan Kreidler: 4 for 12, 5 R, 2 BB, RBI, 2 2B, 3B

Ydens batted .350 with a .415 wOBA last season as a sophomore. The Diamondbacks selected him in the 33rd round in 2018’s First-Year Player Draft, but he chose to play another year with the Bruins.

He starts with his hands stretched back, pre-loaded in his swing. There is almost no bat wrap or movement in his upper body. He engages well with his lower half, striding hard and generating a level swing that is tuned to line drives and ground balls. There’s a chance for improved discipline this season that could project his hit tool up more than the peak average grade most would probably give it. This will be one factor dictating whether he can push up to higher rounds come June’s draft.

Kreidler worked himself into a nice approach improvement from his freshman to sophomore year, boosting his walk rate and strikeout rate up, but failing to generate results to back up the change. He has good hands and mobility with a true fit on the left side of the infield, but is without a stable offensive profile. If this is the season he blossoms offensively, it could mean a stock uptick into a more surefire utility role that teams might be willing to gamble on with a higher pick than they would for a player like Ydens.

Kreidler’s 6-foot-4 frame is slightly underutilized given his short and abrupt swing. He now sets up similar to Strumpf and McLain, but gets his front foot down much earlier and relies on a slight bat wrap to generate some hand separation rather than an upright, one-motion stride towards the pitcher. His strikeout rate sat above a 20 percent in 2018, but I’m predicting it to fall substantially this season given his changes at the plate.

Last season, he started his hands higher, with an upright stance and more of a lunge at the ball. The new version of Kreidler will be a more productive offensive player and his first weekend in the box showed that. Whether more power comes with this approach remains to be seen.

Upcoming games…

Feb. 19 - vs. Loyola Marymount

Feb. 22 - at Georgia Tech

Feb. 23 - at Georgia Tech

Feb. 24 - at Georgia Tech