With a capacity crowd of more than 9,600 at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park on the 4th of July, UCLA righthander James Kaprielian turned in what has been the signature performance so far for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team.
Kaprielian threw six shutout innings against Chinese Taipei in a 2-0 victory for the College National Team. He struck out 12, nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of the hitters he faced, without allowing a walk and facing one more than the minimum while garnering 13 swinging strikes on 83 pitches.
Kaprielian showed pitchability and commanded his four-pitch mix, primarily relying on his fastball-curveball combination while throwing strikes on 69 percent of his pitches. The 20-year-old showed tremendous ability to command manipulate his 75-79 mph curveball with considerable depth that ranged from above-average to at least plus. He can throw his curveball with three different shapes: 11-5 tilt (which he used most often), 12-6 tilt and more three-quarter break.
“There are definitely a couple different variations and there is a time and place for all of them,” Kaprelian said. “The curveball got up to 85 last year and this year during the season and at times it will be 78. It changes depending on the count. (On an) 0-0 (count) it is a glove strike and trying to get it across the plate and keeping it low still. One of the things that I preach and I have preached my whole life with my breaking ball is throwing it hard. I think having a breaking ball with some velocity behind it makes it sharper, harder and harder to pick up and read. All three of those have a different place and different count that is best to use.”
He threw 10 of his first 12 breaking balls for strikes in the first three innings of the game. After the first time through the order the coaching staff began using his breaking balls to get ahead of hitters early in the count, throwing breakers more than half the time after the third inning. Kaprielian threw first-pitch breaking balls to six of the nine hitters the second time through the order.
“It was easy to call pitches for him because he has great presence on the mound with an ability to pitch backwards and locate his fastball to both sides of the plate,” coach Rob Childress (Texas A&M) said. “He can throw his curveball in hitter’s counts. His second time through the order we were able to establish the fact that he could throw his breaking ball for strikes."
The rising junior complemented his curveball by mixing in a slider that shows at least average potential at 79-82 mph.
Kaprielian, who touched 93 in the first inning of his previous outing before sitting 88-91 in the third inning of his first time in game action in more than a month, maintained his velocity throughout his outing, largely sitting 90-91 while touching 92, with a few 89s mixed in. He showed the ability to throw fastball strikes to both sides of the plate and pumped his fastball for strikes 78 percent of the time.
“Improving my fastball command, to be honest,” Kaprielian said of his goals for the summer. “It was something I struggled with coming into college. Being able to go inside on guys especially. Anybody can go away on guys but being able to go inside on guys and staying hard. Being able to control the fastball has been big because, in as humble a way as I can say this, I feel extremely confident with my curveball, slider and changeup. As long as I am jumping ahead with the fastball that is the biggest thing, which is something I have really worked on, in order to be able to get into leverage counts.”
He cut his walk rate by more than two full walks per nine from his freshman (5.31) to his sophomore (2.97) season, when he led the Pac-12 in strikeouts (108) while averaging 9.2 per-nine. His fastball also flashed above-average life with sink when working to his arm side along with occasional cutting life to his glove side without a reduction in velocity.
“That was something I noticed today when I was pitching to be honest,” Kaprielian said. “There were a couple that I was cutting on accident. I like breaking a bat every now and again.”
After retiring 15 straight hitters from the first through six innings, Kaprielian allowed a single when his 91 mph fastball with late cutting action broke the bat of the lefthanded hitter, who sent a flare into shallow right.
Kaprielian leveraged the ball downhill and when he missed his spot with his fastball it was often down in the zone.
“One of the things we preach at UCLA is that to be an effective pitcher you have to downhill angle,” Kaprielian said. “Especially when I am going away on guys I want to have that downhill angle. I was talking with (Cal State Fullerton righthander) Thomas Eshelman, who pitched a few days ago, and he told me if you are going to miss, miss low because it is a good team and they will knock it.”
Although his mid-80s changeup was only used twice in the game, it shows at least average potential, flashing better with significant tumble and causing many scouts to think the offering was a splitter.
“I love my changeup,” Kaprielian said. “My coach asked me if I had a girlfriend when I went in to UCLA and I said no. He said good because that is your changeup from now on. The changeup has been a big pitch for me and we preach that at UCLA. My changeup has different movement than a most guys. If you ask one of the catchers at UCLA they will tell you it is a splitter. It is definitely a different pitch and I have loved throwing it. I have hopefully proved to the coaches out here that I can throw it behind or even ahead of the count.”
The 6-foot-4, 200-pound Kaprielian has a large frame and an athletic pitcher’s build with broad, sloped shoulders with significant room to get stronger.
“For next season I want to try to put on as much weight as possible,” Kaprielian said. “I have a lot of room in my legs to pack on some extra weight. I need to continue to stay flexible, which I work on every night and keep up with the cardio. My biggest thing is eating as much as I can.”
One of the standout elements of his outing was that Kaprielian was almost always the first player out of the dugout and on the mound ready to throw his warmup pitches before most players were out of the dugout.
“You can talk about all the things that he does physically but his competitiveness is at the top of his list of attributes,” Childress said. “He is an extremely competitive kid. The pitchers on this team are not just great pitchers, they are great people that are great teammates. James is obviously at the top of that list.”
“That was an impressive outing and he was going really good,” a National League crosschecker said. “What you saw gives you promise that he will be able to bring similar stuff and pitchability every fifth day in pro ball. You just want to see his fastball velocity take another step forward because he has the delivery, body, strike-throwing ability and command of the breaking stuff.”