New Baseball Manager John Savage on Pitching

UCLA's new baseball manager, <b>John Savage</b>, is also the pitching coach, and he gives us a pre-season tutorial on pitching, and a rundown on UCLA's pitching staff this season...

The idea was to write a season preview for the UCLA baseball team. After all, the John Savage era commences with the alumni game this Saturday and, well, that's what you're supposed to do: sit down with the coach and let him pile on the platitudes.

Then we thought, why do what everyone else is going to do anyway? There is a solid season preview at UCLABruins.com and the Daily Bruin is working on a version as well. Why reinvent the wheel?

Instead, we decided to sit down with Coach Savage and talk a little pitching. Savage is not only the manager of the Bruins; he's also the pitching coach. His expertise in that area is unquestioned and if they weren't (ahem) Trojans, we might even be excited by the fact that his pupils include Mark Prior and Barry Zito, ace major leaguers who pitched for him when he was coaching at that school across town.

John Savage wraps up one interview and greets us over by the bullpen. As we walk to the dugout to sit, talk and watch batting practice, we mention that most of our readers are football and basketball fans, recruiting junkies even. He gets it and is more than willing to not only tell us about his pitching staff, but also do a bit of a tutorial on the ins and outs of assembling a college baseball staff.

Q. Most of our readers are more familiar with big league baseball and how a pitching staff works at that level. But many of us are unfamiliar with how a college staff should look. If you don't mind, start at the beginning and tell us your approach with your pitchers.

A. Ideally, you'd like to a four-man rotation. College baseball is played on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday. You like to throw your number-one starter on Friday, matched up with their number-one guy, then go with number-two on Saturday, number-three on Sunday and your fourth starter on Tuesday.

Then you like a mix of four or five long and short relief pitchers and one closer. That's nine guys and that's what a good, Omaha-type team looks like, eight or nine guys that carry you through the season.

Early in the season, we'll be looking at pitch counts, looking for 75-80 pitches. February and March are for getting ready for April when Arizona rolls in and you want your top guys ready. We'll use the early part of the season to figure things out then go full steam ahead when Pac-Ten play starts.

What's a starting pitcher's routine like?

Let's take your Friday guy, you're number one pitcher as an example. He makes his start on Friday night, then the next day is cardio-day. He'll maybe ride the bike for 30-45 minutes, but won't throw a baseball at all. Then on Sunday, he'll do sprint work and abs training.

Monday he'll start throwing again. We do long toss for 15 minutes, throwing at different distances for a two or three minutes at a time, always making sure to keep the ball at a short angle. We want to work on arm angle and such, keeping the ball low. Then we'll do a 20-pitch bullpen (a simulated inning from the mound).

We only like to have our pitchers on the mound two times in between starts, so the next time they're out their throwing is Wednesday, when they do a 45-pitch bullpen.

For your other starters, it's the same routine and it just varies by what day they pitched.

So you never get a day off?

No, the pitchers get a day off …

No, you don't get a day off?

(Laughs) No, I don't get a day off.

Senior Bryan Beck.
Didn't mean to interrupt...

You'd like to have your four starters in place at the beginning of the season and you have the same four guys in place in mid-May and June, then you're a good team. If not, if guys are moving in and out of the rotation … eventually we'll install that program and that's when you have a serious, productive, quality pitching staff.

Who do you have penciled in at the moment for the rotation?

[Sophomore] Hector Ambriz is the Friday starter, [senior] Bryan Beck is Saturday, [sophomore] Brant Rustich is Sunday and it's between [junior] Daniel Miltenberger, [junior] Adam Simon and [sophomore] Brian Schroeder for Tuesday.

Tell us about Hector Ambriz...

Hector Ambriz has been hurt. In fact, Hector and Bryan Beck did not throw all fall. Ambriz had surgery. You'd like to start your routine in the fall and we're starting in January.

[Right-handed] Ambriz has a good, Division 1 fastball, about 88-92 miles an hour. He's got a curveball, slider and change so he's a four-pitch pitcher and if he can throw all four for strikes, he'll keep us in games. Beck [also a righty] doesn't throw as hard, maybe 85-88 miles per hour. He has a good curve and a solid change-up. He throws a lot of strikes. Rustich [a 6-6 righty] has a power arm. He's got a major league fastball, about 90-93 miles an hour and a hard slider.

Our top three guys have good stuff. The thing is - we don't have a lot of experience in the bullpen; we'll learn a lot in February and March.

From the stands, the one thing I always wondered about the past few seasons is how the manager is deciding when to make a pitching change. We seemed to make the move after allowing a few runs, instead of going to the bullpen before the damage is done.

Well, I call all the pitches from the dugout. One thing you know when you're calling pitches is how effective your pitcher is, you can see if he's tired, if he's lost focus and you can then decide if there is a better guy to get us out of the situation.

How exactly does calling pitches help?

When you're calling the pitches, you ask yourself "Is he executing the pitches called?" If he fails to execute on 8 or 10 pitches a red flag goes up.

Is pitch execution the only thing you look for or does the situation dictate certain strategy? I do like match-ups, left on left, right on right. But a pitcher's effectiveness on the mound is the most important thing. At this level of baseball, a lefty should be able to get both righties and lefties out. We'll play percentages, but whether or not a guy is executing his pitches is the key.

Indulge us in one "season preview" type question.

Sure.

In a word or maybe two, how would you describe the team going into the first month?

Two things: Competition within the team and a positive atmosphere. To get everyone on the same page, you need competition and you need to create a positive atmosphere, a learning environment where the players can grow as people and grow as players. I think we've got that here at this point.


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