The MLB Draft begins Monday, June 12, and UCLA baseball has three juniors slated to be selected early in the draft. Ace pitcher Griffin Canning is projected to come off the board in the first round, while right-hander Jake Bird and first baseman Sean Bouchard will likely see their names called within the first 10 rounds.
Daily Bruin breaks down how those three got here.
BY KYLE CARDOZA
Griffin Canning's college career is over, but his pitching career isn't.
The UCLA baseball ace wasn't a touted prospect in either high school or college.
But after enjoying a career season in 2017, the junior is a projected first-round pick in Monday's MLB Draft.
Pitching has been Canning's calling card since Little League. He enjoys the one-on-one confrontation and the mental struggles it presents.
And after Monday, it’s how he will make a living.
“Honestly, (pitching) just clicks for me. That’s just always how it’s been,” Canning said. “It’s just been a constant in my life.”
But behind Canning’s resume and pitching repertoire isn’t a boastful ballplayer. The Bruins’ ace is humble, despite knowing he's a premier prospect.
“He's a team kid, a team player,” said Julie Canning, Griffin Canning's mother. “He doesn't like being brought in the limelight compared to all the other guys. ... He's always been that way.”
Recruiters didn't pen Griffin Canning as a promising Southern California recruit in high school, but under Santa Margarita Catholic High School coach David Bacani and mentor Mike Witt, a former MLB pitcher, Canning was added to the list by the end of his senior year.
Canning's final high school outing in the California Interscholastic Federation Division I championship game highlighted his evolution.
Canning stood atop the mound at Dodger Stadium, flummoxing Foothill High School batters. Umpires squeezed his strike zone, but he overcame it, garnering 11 strikeouts in a complete-game 3-1 victory.
“It's like he was born to be in that arena, be on that stage, because that guy was just dialed in,” Bacani said. “Griffin is one of those guys, who, in a moment ... can have the poise, the competitive edge that he's not going to let (the adversity) affect him.”
Canning had arrived, but he was already slated to be a Bruin by then.
UCLA baseball coach John Savage reels in top-tier recruits. MLB pitchers Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer are just two of the 90 players drafted from UCLA who played during Savage's tenure.
Savage was impressed by Canning during his sophomore year.
“I saw his athleticism, his easiness to repeat," Savage said. "I saw upside of that pitch ability.”
Canning verbally committed to play for the Bruins and came to Westwood despite being drafted by the Colorado Rockies, drawn by UCLA's academic and athletic reputation.
“He felt like he wasn't ready to live that life in the minor leagues,” Julie Canning said. “He really wanted to play at UCLA, and he really wanted to play for coach Savage.”
Good company surrounded the freshman in 2015.
Veterans like then-junior James Kaprielian and then-senior David Berg took him under their wings, guiding him through the unfamiliar terrain of college baseball.
“(Kaprielian and Berg) led by example," Griffin Canning said. "They laid the foundation for how it was supposed to go."
Savage threw Canning into the fire immediately as the midweek starter. He posted a 2.97 ERA through 11 starts before a season-ending injury. In 2016, he led the team in innings and strikeouts.
Canning's pitches gained velocity in 2017, a testament to the strength and conditioning workouts throughout the previous two years. He entered the season projected to be a third-round pick.
That changed quickly.
“His stuff flew off the charts and it (caught) a lot of people’s attention,” Savage said. “That’s why (teams) can dream on him running through a system without a lot of bumps or a lot of development really, that this guy is a pretty quick mover to the major leagues.”
Scouts criticize Canning for his stature, but they commend him for his ability to throw strikes and whiff hitters with an arsenal of breaking balls that puts him above talented high school prospects.
“Players who only weigh 175 (pounds) usually don’t get drafted in the first round, no matter who they are," said one American League scout. "But his command and control are elite – as good as it gets in college baseball.”
Savage's throwing program for Canning included counting the amount of throws when he warmed up and measuring the distance that he threw.
But it wasn’t based on superstition: It was routine.
“That allows me to be at my best physically and mentally (and) get me locked in – doing the same thing every time,” Canning said.
Canning's increased strength and daily regimen resulted in his best collegiate season, as he boasted a 2.34 ERA – third in the Pac-12 – with a conference-high 140 strikeouts.
The All-Pac-12 pitcher shot up the draft board throughout the year and is now projected to be a top-20 pick.
Tears streamed down Canning's face as he walked out of the dugout with his team following the Bruins' 3-2 extra-inning loss to San Diego State, which eliminated them from the NCAA Tournament.
The relationships he had with his coaches and teammates at UCLA will be left behind, but never broken.
“I mean, I’m with these guys and these coaches more than I am with my family, so these are going to be my best friends,” Canning said. “I’m going to remember all the times that I’ve had. … I’m going to look back and say, 'These are the good times.’”
Friday night will no longer be Griffin Canning night for UCLA.
Scouts won't flock to Jackie Robinson Stadium to watch the slender 6-foot-2 pitcher dominate hitters with his mid-90s fastball and wipeout sliders.
It's time for fans to gather at stadiums and witness the Orange County, California, baseball player develop throughout the minor leagues, the same way he emerged throughout the past seven years.
Canning's college career may be over, but his professional career is just starting.Click to return to page, or swipe for more
BY DAVID GOTTLIEB
As his second-grade year came to an end, an 8-year-old Jake Bird signed his friends' yearbooks.
"Save this autograph for when I'm playing in the major leagues," he told them.
Fast forward to the start of Bird's junior year in college – after which Bird would be eligible for the MLB Draft – and it looked like that elementary school kid was right all along.
Bird began the season with two of the best starts of his career. The right-handed sinkerballer yielded one run, striking out 13 batters over 13 innings.
"Bird was a wild factor in his first couple starts," said coach John Savage. "People were like 'Whoa.' Fastball was low 90s, slider was a wipe out."
Then he got hurt.
Shoulder inflammation kept Bird off the field for more than a month at the outset of the most important year of his career. That's when the fight began to earn that draft stock back.
Bird grew up in Valencia, California, as the second-oldest of four boys. Their father coached them in the standard variety of youth sports: soccer, basketball, flag football and baseball.
"I couldn't ask for better kids," said Heidi Bird, Jake Bird's mother. "If they could choose, 'Who do you want to have over?' They're fine with just each other."
Bird played both baseball and basketball in high school, but he knew that he was better at baseball. Things got more serious when he stopped playing basketball November of his senior year.
"When I stopped playing basketball was when I really got the control down," Bird said. "The velocity spiked a little bit and then scholarship offers came in and the pro letters started coming in."
As MLB scouts and college recruiters started to fill the bleachers at West Ranch High School's baseball facility, with the then-high school senior on their radar, Bird had to make a choice: Division I or the minor leagues.
"As the year went along, I was like, 'Man, it would be cool to play in the pros,'" Bird said. "But, man, I'm not ready for it."
Bird had never been on a plane until his senior year of high school, and the prospect of leaving his family was devastating. The possibility of him going to the East Coast was enough to jerk tears from his mother and youngest brother.
"I knew there's probably some life skills I would have to learn before I went out and did that," Bird said. "I heard the minor leagues are a rough time if you're a little kid that doesn't really know what he's doing on his own."
When big league teams asked what it would take for him to sign, Bird pushed his number close to $1 million, partially to keep them from drafting him so he could go to UCLA, where his dad went to school.
That plan worked. No team drafted Bird out of high school, and he headed to Westwood to start working with Savage, one of the nation's most reputable coaches when it comes to pitching.
After working through two years of Savage's system and a summer in the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League, Bird took hold of the Saturday job, slotting in right behind projected first-round pick Griffin Canning.
"I knew (Canning) was on Fridays," Bird said. "We pitched on the same days during the intersquads, and each time out, I wanted to just beat him."
Savage called Bird one of the hardest workers on his staff, and all of that hard work seemed to be paying off, as evidenced by Bird's early success. But Bird's shoulder inflammation didn't just keep him from pitching in games for a month; it kept him from pitching like himself for a good chunk of the year.
Bird's delivery is crude and unorthodox, making it more difficult for him to be able to consistently repeat his delivery, Savage said.
"He kind of lost that touch and feel, so when he came back he just wasn't as sharp," Savage said. "It wasn't shocking, (but) frustrating because he kind of got to that point where he got past that."
After a few rough relief outings, Bird returned in a midseason game against USC. Senior Moises Ceja, who was filling in on Saturdays while Bird was hurt, got knocked out after just 1 1/3 innings pitched. Bird came in and fired 6 1/3 scoreless innings, striking out seven. After the appearance, he won the Saturday job back.
"His stuff took a hit, no question, but it seemed to kind of resurface," Savage said. "The two bullpens I saw before regionals, I'm like, 'Boy, this looks a little different again.'"
A few starts later, Bird got the chance to perform in front of a bevy of scouts at the Long Beach Regional with 4 2/3 scoreless innings in relief. Savage said Bird should have won that game, and suspected Bird would have had a big postseason had UCLA not been eliminated so quickly.
Bird's stuff was back: a heavy sinker that can touch 94, a hard slider that registers between 86 and 88, a change up and a curve ball. Savage recommends that teams initially try him as a starter pitcher, but also thinks Bird's ability to get ground balls and his dominance over right-handed hitters could make him a good reliever.
As Bird's third year of college comes to an end, he'll very likely be signing with a major league team in the coming months.
But before going pro, Bird got to spend three years close to his family in Valencia, making frequent visits home to play golf in his neighbor's yard, video games with his brothers and catch with his dad. His mom helped with his laundry.
The economics student got to take advantage of his education, earning Pac-12 All-Academic Second Team honors with a GPA of 3.56.
The MLB Draft begins Monday with the first two rounds. Since Savage said he's hoping Bird goes in between the fifth and ninth rounds, the righty will likely hear his name Tuesday, when selections for rounds three through 10 will be announced.
"There's still a lot of interest," Savage said. "He'll get drafted pretty good. But it was tough because he just missed so much time."Click to return to page, or swipe for more
BY DYLAN SANDERS
It was a sunny day in late February, and the Bruins were in the midst of their second preseason weekend series. In the first inning of Saturday’s matchup against Gonzaga, Sean Bouchard slugged a first-pitch home run to give UCLA an early lead.
Five innings later, he hit another one. It had taken the junior only 21 at bats to tie his career-high season home run total from 2015.
“I really wasn’t surprised,” Bouchard said. “Being more mature in my third year in college, being stronger and understanding my role all kind of contributed to that.”
As a corner infielder, Bouchard is all but expected to be able to drive the ball deep, so his resurgence was perfectly timed and long overdue.
Few first basemen are picked at the top of the MLB Draft, since the position falls at the bottom of the defensive ladder. They require pop in their swing in order to gain attention in the early rounds.
Standing at 6 feet 3 inches tall and 215 pounds, Bouchard is a formidable presence at the plate because of his size alone. Yet it took two years – and a fielding position change – before he regained the power hitting potential that had landed him a spot at UCLA.
At Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego, Bouchard sported a .379 batting average in his senior year. Even playing among other highly touted prospects – including his then-teammate Brady Aiken, the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft – his hitting carried the team to the semifinals of the CIF San Diego Section Championship that season.
Alternating between shortstop and third base, Bouchard led Cathedral Catholic with 39 hits, 33 runs and nine home runs.
"In high school, he was mostly a power hitter," said Todd Bouchard, Sean Bouchard's father. "It was always just kind of natural.”
But it was several years before those power numbers would show up in college, with just two long balls each in his freshman and sophomore years.
He played third base in many of his ventures in the infield, but was confined to the designated hitter spot for much of the season.
"Mentally, I think he struggled with the importance of defense," coach John Savage said. "He was too lackadaisical. The ball security was not at a high level and we didn't like that.”
Savage added that the demanding nature of being a Pac-12 third baseman added to his fielding troubles. The ability to react to both a speeding ball off an aluminum bat and a bunt down the line presents difficulties that are not as common in the MLB, where the bunt is less prevalent and the bats are wooden.
While Savage wouldn't go as far as calling third base in the majors easier than third base in college, he emphasized that Pac-12 third basemen need high baseball IQ.
Bouchard's experience at third base and his time as a shortstop in high school are assets for his draft stock, according to an American League scout.
Bouchard began playing first base in his second year at UCLA, swapping positions with then-junior Luke Persico. He had never put on a first baseman's mitt in his life.
“That was a transition for him indeed,” Todd Bouchard said. “He was used to playing on the other side of the infield. It definitely was a learning curve for him.”
Sean Bouchard struggled in the beginning, recording a pair of errors in only his second game at the position. The adjustment was not immediate, but as the year progressed, Bouchard began to gain confidence both in the field and at the plate.
By the end of his sophomore season, he had amassed a team-leading 36 RBIs and a .436 slugging percentage, as well as a .989 fielding percentage.
“I think one of the best moves we did was put him at first,” Savage said. “He kind of just hit and didn’t worry about throwing the ball, fielding the ball.”
With long hours in the weight room and help from hitting coach Rex Peters, he combined a new strength, along with his size, into his swing.
The preseason Gonzaga game was only a taste of what was to come.
In 2017, Bouchard led the team with his .306 batting average, .523 slugging percentage, 66 hits, 16 doubles, 43 RBIs and nine home runs.
The slugger had the fifth-most home runs in the Pac-12 and placed among the top 10 players in the conference in terms of both RBI and slugging percentage. He started in all 57 of UCLA's games as well.
As a result, Bouchard earned All-Pac-12 first team honors as a first baseman at the end of the season.
"Adjusting to the college game was a big deal for me personally from the power perspective," Bouchard said. "The biggest part was just understanding myself as a hitter and understanding the pitching at the collegiate level."
Bouchard's junior year was more characteristic of his high school career – he hit the same number of home runs in 2017 as he did as a senior at Cathedral Catholic – than either of his previous seasons at UCLA.
"Everybody's clock is a little different," Savage said. "Those high elite guys seem to be ready quicker. For (Bouchard), it took a little time."
With the draft only days away, Savage said Bouchard’s prospects as an early-round pick are high. But, as he has seen throughout the ups and downs of his baseball career thus far, nothing can be taken for granted.
"It's always kind of been in the back of my head, in terms of wanting to play (in the majors)," Bouchard said. "Things have been thrown at me – different positions, getting off to a tough start in my college career, but you've just got to learn from it."Click to return to page, or swipe for more