Three Strikes: New-look Lineup Remains Strong At UCLA
Three Strikes is a weekly deeper dive into some of college baseball's most intriguing stories. This week's edition focuses on the strength of UCLA's new-look lineup, the latest pitcher from Northwestern State's Canadian pipeline, as well as some of the nation's most-improved teams from 2019.
Strike One: Lineup Depth Powers UCLA
Coming into the season, it was expected that Preseason All-American outfielder Garrett Mitchell would need to do some heavy lifting in the lineup if UCLA was going to reach its potential.
Gone from a very good offense in 2019 were first baseman Michael Toglia, second baseman Chase Strumpf, third baseman Ryan Kreidler, outfielders Jeremy Ydens and Jake Pries, and utility man Jack Stronach.
There was also uncertainty about how much of a step forward Matt McLain would take as a sophomore. He had scuffled offensively last season as a freshman after opting not to sign as a first-rounder coming out of high school. He turned it around over the summer in the Cape Cod League with an all-star performance, but now he’d be asked to shoulder a bigger load and take over at shortstop.
Mitchell, for his part, has done heavy lifting out of the leadoff spot in the lineup. He’s hitting .355/.425/.484 with a team-leading six doubles and five stolen bases (in six tries), and he’s struck out just three times in 62 at-bats.
He handles the bat well, has the speed to be an effective base stealer and center fielder, and he even shows occasional pop. In a game against Texas Christian on March 7, he missed a home run in the right-center gap by a matter of inches and ended up with a two-RBI triple instead.
So far, he’s been the complete package.
"The upside and the potential is so high for him,” coach John Savage said. "We’ve seen so many good things from him. His future is just so bright. The guy can really just take over a game defensively and offensively, and he’s played well this season.”
And if you’re looking for a reason the rest of the Pac-12 should be a little bit nervous about having to continue facing Mitchell the rest of the season, look no further than his self-assessment of where he is at the plate through four weeks.
"Truthfully, to me, I don’t even feel like I’m at a hot start,” Mitchell said. "I feel like I’m still trying to figure it out at the plate, and every day is a grind.
"Obviously, hitting is not easy, so I just don’t feel like I’ve got the right balance in the box yet. What Coach (Rex) Peters likes to say is I’m kind of in spring training mode, where it’s still trying to figure it out and not completely all the way up to myself yet, but I’m getting there, little by little.”
With all that said, the UCLA lineup isn’t as reliant on Mitchell as one might have anticipated.
Perhaps the biggest part of that is the emergence of McLain as the type of player that most knew he could be when he arrived on campus.
He’s hitting .397/.422/.621, which is good for the team lead in average and slugging percentage, and his three homers and 19 RBI also lead the way. At this rate, he will surpass most of his statistical totals from last season just a few weeks into conference play.
The key, according to McLain, has been going to the plate with a plan and sticking with it throughout his plate appearances, which you can imagine is easier to do with a year of experience to draw on.
"Just going up there with a plan, just trying to hit,” McLain said. "Commit to my plan 100 percent and just go try and win every pitch, (and) be in every single pitch.”
To top it off, he looks right at home at shortstop, which helps the Bruins put their best defensive lineup on the field.
On Sunday, in UCLA’s 15-3 win at rival Southern California, McLain showed everything he has to offer. He had a clean defensive day at shortstop, even going into the hole on one occasion to make a play, showcasing his quickness and arm strength. At the plate, he put a jolt into a ball late in the game and banged it off of the wall in the left-center gap.
"He’s really evolving into a legitimate shortstop,” Savage said. "Last year was difficult. He kind of took one for the club last year when he played the outfield, he played a little third base, and I think it threw his offense off a little bit, to be honest with you. He went to the Cape and kind of re-found it, and clearly, he’s our guy at shortstop.”
Beyond those two, the offense has gotten help from all different angles, and that’s helped round out a lineup that is hitting .308/.390/.416 as a group.
Several players who have been in the program waiting for their chances at starring roles are seizing opportunities.
Senior outfielder Kyle Cuellar is getting consistent full-time reps and he’s responded by hitting .341/.451/.537. Sophomore third baseman Jake Moberg had just 14 at-bats as a freshman last year. This season, he’s started every game and leads the team with ten walks, which has contributed to his .391 on-base percentage.
Sophomore infielder Mikey Perez, meanwhile, started just two games last season. This season, he’s started nine and appeared in 13, filling in for the injured Kevin Kendall and hitting .333/.476/.455. Crucially, he’s also shown the ability to handle shortstop in addition to second and third base, as he spent some time last weekend in the lineup for McLain, who was out with a nasty sinus infection.
"Kendall went down and Mikey was thrown in there with Michael (Curialle) and they both have played exceptionally well,” Savage said. "As you can tell, Perez can play short, he can play second, he can play third. He can play a lot of different positions.”
Contributions have also come from some new faces, including the freshman Curialle, who is hitting .325/.357/.525. Redshirt freshman first baseman J.T. Schwartz is in that group as well. Schwartz was a key piece of the recruiting class that arrived prior to the 2019 season, but missed all of last season with an injury. So far this season, he is hitting .328/.380/.391. Junior college transfer outfielder Pat Caulfield has ten hits in his last 24 at-bats and went 4-for-5 against USC on March 8.
Under Savage, UCLA will always be closely associated with outstanding pitching, and with a team ERA under 2.00 so far this season, that’s not changing. But with elite position player talent at the top in Mitchell and McLain, and enviable lineup depth, the 2020 Bruins rival what last year’s team brought to the table.
Strike Two: Hofmann Dealing for the Demons
There’s just something about Canadian pitchers and the Northwestern State program.
Go back to the 2005 team, the last Demons team to get to a regional prior to 2018, and you’ll find Daniel Desclouds, a Stittsville, Ont., native who had a 2.70 ERA and 10 saves as the team’s closer.
A year later, Fraser Robinson of North Gower, Ont., was 5-5 with a 3.27 ERA over 107.1 innings. More recently, Jose Vasquez from Cambridge, Ont., had a 2.90 ERA in 40.1 relief innings as one of the top arms on the 2018 regional squad.
“We’ve done pretty well with them,” coach Bobby Barbier said. “They’re normally underused, I guess. Obviously, they can’t play as much as we can play down here. So it’s a little fresher arm. If they’re coming to the States to play baseball, they want to play. They really want to play.”
Based on what he’s done already, it’s not hard to imagine righthander Logan Hofmann, a native of Muenster, Sask., being the best of them all.
He arrived on campus last fall and immediately started to dominate. He didn’t allow a hit or a walk in any of his fall outings, which was a first for Barbier. Hofmann was so dominant, in fact, that his head coach was hesitant to be upfront with people outside the program about just how good he had been.
“You don’t want to oversell, but at the same time, you’re going ‘If I tell you what I really think, you’re going to think I’m crazy,’” Barbier said.
So far this season, Hofmann has proven that his dominance isn’t limited to inter-squad action. Through four weekends, he’s 4-0, 0.00, with a 38-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a .141 opponent batting average in 28 innings of work.
“Man, he’s just been really good,” Barbier said. “He’s everything you want in an arm. He is little. He’s 5-foot-8, 5-foot-9, but he’s competitive, man. The way he goes about his work every day is unlike anybody we’ve ever had. He’s the first one here (and) the last one to leave after the game. Last Sunday, he’s walking around picking up trash at the yard when everybody’s gone, and I mean, he’s got great stuff.”
Indeed he does. Hofmann sits 90-93 mph with his fastball, and Barbier says the offering grades very well in terms of metrics like vertical break, which helps it play up. Additionally, he commands three secondary offerings—a curveball, slider and changeup—really well.
But before he could settle in and use that stuff as the team’s Friday starter, he had to settle in to life in Natchitoches, La., which is a long way from Saskatchewan. Luckily, its not so different than Colby, Kan., where he played junior college baseball for Colby JC.
“In the fall of my sophomore year at junior college, I took a visit here, and it really just felt like a bigger version of my junior college, and I absolutely loved my two years at Colby,” Hofmann said.
The righthander arrived at NSU with an impressive resume already in tow.
At Colby, where his pitching coach was former NSU pitcher Josh Oller, Hoffman’s 128 strikeouts as a sophomore were good for fourth in the NJCAA and he broke the conference’s career record for strikeouts while he was at it.
He was drafted in June in the 35th round by the Cardinals, but chose to attend Northwestern State and play in the Cape Cod League, where he earned all-star honors.
That success on the Cape actually went a long way toward showing Hofmann that he was meant to pitch at this level.
“I think the biggest step for me to transfer to D-I, to face good hitters, was this summer in the Cape Cod League,” Hofmann said. “You’re facing the best hitters in the country there, so I feel like that really was a big stepping stone in order to face better hitters and really become acclimated to the type of hitters I’m seeing at the Division I level compared to junior college.”
Northwestern State is no stranger to having talented pitching staffs, but pitchers with Hofmann’s pedigree are rare not just in this program, but at this level of college baseball in general. In that way, having the connection to Colby helped Barbier and his staff have the inside track.
“We were lucky. He pitched for a guy that played for me,” Barbier said. “So (we were) very fortunate there that we knew about him really early, and got on him really early. And we’ve put up some pretty good pitching numbers over the years, and I think that intrigued him.”
It’s one thing to have success over the course of a month and quite another to stay consistent all the way through May. But Barbier has reason to believe Hofmann is up to that challenge.
“It’s about the consistency and the work, which makes me believe that this is not an aberration,” Barbier said. “It’s not something that (he’s) a flash-in-the-pan kind of guy, because I see the work every day.”
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Strike Three: Who’s on the Path to a Turnaround in 2020?
Long Beach State, now the No. 12 team in the nation, is the most impressive turnaround story of the 2020 season so far. At 10-5, the Dirtbags are just five wins away from eclipsing their total from all of last season, and they’ve already begun to build a solid postseason resume.
That story is appealing for reasons greater than just the numbers, given Beach’s standing as a historical power in the sport and the curiosity surrounding the program’s steep decline after a super regional appearance in 2017.
But there are other turnaround stories happening around the country that deserve some notice.
One is up the Pacific Northwest, where first-year coach Brian Green has led Washington State to a 9-7 start after the Cougars finished 11-42-1 a year ago.
How WSU fares in the Pac-12 will determine the degree to which this becomes a turnaround worth celebrating in 2020, but at the very least, there’s reason to believe that Green is in the process of doing in Pullman what he did at New Mexico State.
That situation is a little bit different in that Green’s first season was an 11-win campaign at NMSU, rather than the year prior to his arrival, as is the case now. But it was still a quick turnaround there, as the Aggies went from 11 to 34 wins in one season and then never dipped back below 34 wins in Green’s tenure.
In a Pac-12 that looks like it might lack a defined middle class, perhaps there’s an opportunity for Wazzu to climb back to respectability sooner than anyone would have thought.
Meanwhile, in Northern California, Santa Clara has already equaled its win total from a 12-40 2019 season with a 12-5 start.
What the Broncos have done is even more impressive when you consider they haven’t played a soft slate. They played four games against Georgia, winning one out of four, and split four games with Western Athletic Conference favorite Sacramento State. They’ve won every other game on their schedule.
The West Coast Conference is set up nicely to get multiple teams into regionals this season, thanks in large part to improvement from teams that typically finish near the bottom of the standings.
Santa Clara has as much to do with that as anyone, and if it can pile up wins in WCC play, some of this early success means it’s not inconceivable that the Broncos could be one of those teams reaping the rewards.