After seeing their title defense go up in injury-riddled smoke in 2014, the Bruins once again find themselves in position to make a deep College World Series run this year. Let's take a look at a couple of the main reasons why.
James Kaprielian, RHP
Drafted in the 40th round by Seattle out of high school, Kaprielian honored his UCLA commitment and has subsequently developed into the staff ace. After spending his freshman year in the bullpen of UCLA’s national championship team he turned in a solid sophomore campaign in the rotation last year before emerging to lead Team USA’s staff over the summer. He entered this spring as Baseball America’s top prospect in the PAC-12, and he’s done little to diminish his standing since.
The big appeal with Kaprielian is relative safety, as he projects as a high-floor mid-rotation type. His frame is pretty well maxed out at a sturdy 6’4", 200 pounds, and there aren’t a ton of variables in the development profile. On the one hand, it doesn’t leave much room for velocity or stuff projection, but on the other it gives his draft profile some extremely appealing cost certainty.
His mechanics have some notable strengths and weaknesses. On the plus side, he maximizes his height with good posture through his wind to generate a long stride and tall release to create excellent downhill plane from a high-three quarter slot. His arm speed is solid, and the length at release helps his modest velocity play up.
On the other side, he needs the arm speed and leaves himself relatively little room for error in getting through his checkpoints. His wind-up is very long and his arm action lacks some fluidity and consistency at the back end, as he’ll extend all the way back into a dreaded "inverted W" before he fires is hips and makes a big, rotational turn at a steep angle. It puts some stress on his shoulder, and he’ll sometimes decelerate and get stabby at the apex, leaving the arm to generate its forward momentum from a bit of a stand-still. The approach angle also leaves him susceptible to balance inconsistencies that limit the command profile to the solid-average range.
Kaprielian features a deep arsenal of largely solid-average stuff. His four-seamer works around 89-92, though against Vanderbilt a few weeks back he came out of the gate hitting 94 with diminished command. The heater is a relatively straight pitch, but the velocity and effectiveness both play up on account of some deception and the outstanding vertical extension at release, and he’ll work it comfortably to all four quadrants. It projects as a 55 pitch between velocity and command, and I don’t see much room for more.
Beyond the heater his repertoire of secondaries includes a curve, slider, change, and occasional cutter. The curve is the best of the pitches at present, an overhand breaker with solid drop and finish at 78-80 that he’ll go to frequently to finish batters off. He can lose snap on the pitch and roll it at times, and the pitch will sometimes show itself with a hump out of his hand. It’s a very effective pitch in his current environment, but he’ll need to develop greater consistency with the pitch to have it play as more than a solid-average offering at higher levels.
The change flashes the best potential of the bunch, with nice fade and drop in the 83-85 range. There isn’t a ton of separation from his fastball, but the arm slot makes it a difficult pitch to pick up out of his hand and it plays up in context. It will flatten out from time to time, but I like his chances of developing it into a 55 pitch down the line.
The latter offering comes out in the same velocity band as his slider, and it helps the offering work as a fourth average-range pitch. It’s a subtle breaker with solid north-south movement, though Kaprielian’s arm angle limits the two-plane break of the pitch. It lags behind the other two secondaries at present, but there’s enough there to project it as a fringe-average offering with utility. The cutter offers a similar if slightly exaggerated movement, and he deploys it sporadically as a chance-of-pace in fastball counts.
The package is a sum of its parts, one that lacks a standout tool but presents appealing depth and low variance. He certainly won’t be the sexiest name called on day one of the draft, but his relative safety somewhere in the late first or supplemental round will provide strong value and he should move relatively quickly.
Kevin Kramer, SS
Kramer missed all of last season after requiring labrum surgery, but you wouldn’t know it from watching him hit. I have mixed feelings about his swing mechanics, which are highly unorthodox and not intuitively conducive to repeatable barrel delivery. And yet I’ve seen 12 plate appearances out of him now this spring across three games and he’s hit a rope in two-thirds of them.
He stands fairly tall and narrow at the plate with a huge leg kick as the pitcher winds. His back leg and bat are both completely vertical at release, and despite the extreme lower half weight shift that ensues he remains impressively balanced off the inside of his back leg and his hands stay quiet. There’s a significant amount of head movement as he launches forward, and the bat triggers to the hitting zone from an extreme north-south alignment with very little wrist cock and a flat path that virtually eliminates his ability to generate backspin and loft.
But boy does he hit the ball hard in spite of all of that. His hand-eye coordination is outstanding and his pitch tracking appears well advanced. I generally frown on momentum-generated bat speed, but Kramer attacks the ball with a surprising ferocity and quickness to the point of contact despite using very limited wrist and forearm action. His front foot is down early and firm, and he creates a nice fulcrum to control the force he creates with his lower half. The process is especially beneficial when he looks to go the other way, and he’ll frequently keep his hips closed and pull his hands in to do just that.
It’s a really unusual recipe for success, and certainly not one you’ll find in any instructional videos. But when he swings there’s usually a line drive on the other end of it.
Defensively Kramer is solid if unspectacular at short, with solid lateral quickness, range, and good hands, but a slower gather and longish arm action on throws. His arm still shows signs of recovery in progress, as the velocity is not quite there at present. He’s a couple clicks shy of average right now, and if the arm strength doesn’t return in full he may ultimately profile better as a second baseman, where his range could play up as part of an above-average profile.
He’s not a burner by any stretch, more a solid-average runner. He stole second base last Friday on a closer-than-you’d-think play at second with a 2.28 pop on a pitch in the dirt.
Kramer profiles as a very intriguing senior sign for Day Two, and I wouldn’t be remotely surprised to see him off the board in the top 200. He’ll be one of the more interesting bats of this class to track through his early professional development to see what if any mechanical changes his future franchise seeks to implement.
Chris Keck, 3B
Keck has come…well, not out of nowhere, but he’s thus far held off highly touted freshman recruit Sean Bouchard at the hot corner by performing significantly better than he has over any sustained period of time during his college career. He’s listed at 6’2", 188 pounds, though he appears to have a bit more volume to him than that, and he at least looks like he’s closer to the 200 pound range. Keck boasts some surprising athleticism and agility at third, while his offensive performance this spring (.342/.438/.684, six homers, 12:15 K:BB) has quickly put him onto draft radars near and far after he missed a significant chunk of last season with a blot clot in his arm.
At the plate Keck starts from a slight crouch with weight on his toes and the bat resting on his shoulders, hands tight to his back ear. He rises up slightly and loops the bat head up and back down to cock his wrists at first movement, while taking a large (though not quite Kramerian) stride at delivery. He’s not as disciplined in keeping his weight leveraged off the inside of his back foot as Kramer, but he creates significantly more separation and maintains his hand level well pre-pitch.
He’s an aggressive hitter, looking to turn and drive the ball with most swings, and his swing path will get uphill. He’ll commit too early and drop his back shoulder, leaving him unable to generate leverage and attack the point of contact. It’s a flag that he may be prone to struggles against fastballs away and professional offspeed pitches alike. The raw power is legitimately above average, though, and he works his plate appearances well with a patient approach against pitches outside of his happy place.
I like what I’ve seen from the baseline approach, but his bat-to-ball skills remain raw from the standpoint of consistent execution, and I’m not quite willing to buy into the hit tool just yet. He’s also a below-average runner, clocking at 4.31 and 4.28 in my viewings.
In the field Keck has consistently impressed. His arm strength is easily plus, and he pairs it with sound footwork to get himself into throwing position. He moves well, showing good instincts and an ability to anticipate angles. I’ve now seen him make a variety of tough plays in game without incident, including a couple diving stops playing even with the bag and a sweet charge, glove, and throw to gun down a 4.24 runner on a Texas Leaguer. The latter play in particular impressed as he didn’t rush himself to barehand, instead trusting his internal clock and making a clean play on the ball with his glove and a fluid transfer.
It’s been a well-timed breakout for Keck, and between the flashes of offensive execution and a nice defensive baseline he’s a good bet to go somewhere in the middle rounds of the draft.