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Inside Pitch Magazine, May/June 2021

Cover Interview: John Savage, UCLA

UCLA's Man With a Plan

by Adam Revelette

Inside Pitch Magazine CoverJohn Savage has built the UCLA baseball program into one of the nation's elite. Under his watch, the Bruins have made trips to the College World Series in 2010, 2012, and 2013, when UCLA won its first-ever NCAA baseball title. In 2019, Savage was named the Pac-12 Coach of the Year and ABCA West Region Coach of the Year. He managed the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team in 2017. Prior to UCLA, Savage made stops as head coach at UC Irvine (2002-2004) and as an assistant cat USC (1997-2000) and Nevada (1992-1996).

Inside Pitch: What does your note-taking look like?

John Savage:
It's on my phone. I have all kinds of notes. You can pick things up anywhere. And you take what you learn and you can develop your foundation and culture. You can add and you may even subtract, take away some things you may have been doing for a long time. Just because something feels comfortable doesn't mean it's right. 

You definitely have to spend some time organizing your notes. And it’s all about timing; maybe a player or a team needs to hear a certain message at a certain time. I think any good coach keeps getting better through constant evaluation of how they’re doing things. Is there a better way? The best version of you is yourself. You can't try to be somebody else. I worked under Mike Gillespie and that's the guy that you learn so much from. But if you start acting like him, the players can see it. It just doesn’t feel right.

IP: What’s a common thread amongst elite coaches and programs that you’ve observed from afar?

JS: You see the preparation, you see their control of their emotions, the way they go about it. I always try to judge a coach on how the players play. How do the players react and respond? What is their body language? What's their demeanor? Take Nick Saban and Alabama football. It's just so professional, so advanced. It's a connection you see within a program like that. Every year it’s a different team, but you can tell it’s the same program. That’s a model that we try to follow, with principles and standards and so forth. You’ll always have new personalities, new characters and different skill sets, but the philosophy is the same.

IP: What does a bullpen environment look like? 

JS: Our bullpens are all about pitch execution. We want to be very competitive. I don't want to be heavily involved- I want the catcher and the pitcher to be the main characters. 

Our ‘lab’ is really our long toss, our flat ground and our video. And our bullpen is all game execution, pitch execution. We want it to be as close as we possibly can and to real game. We have them on Rapsodo and Trackman on the main diamond, but we’re not interrupting bullpens with that stuff. It's pretty high intensity, there's really no one else around, nobody talking around the pen other than some other pitchers that may be watching. We want it to be a high execution, pitch by pitch environment. 

We have a hitter stand in or we use a dummy. We don't throw one bullpen without that in the box. When we take a jump shot, we want to be covered. When we try to shoot a goal, we want a goalie. We want presence in the box to have that ability to be comfortable, to be pitching in, pitching up, pitching off the hitter. 

We do all of our mechanical, mental, physical development outside of the bullpen, in the outfield, in the weight room, in video sessions. We don’t involve a lot of mechanics or mental games while we’re in the bullpen. Again, it’s about pitch execution. We want complete preparation. 

The last thing you want to do is put those guys in a confusion state. We really want to create a competitive platform and environment. There's absolutely no confusion over that.

IP: What’s the system like when it comes to mechanical development? 

JS: We have a 10-drill series in the bullpen that we have pitchers go through, in groups of 2. Balance drills, direction drills, momentum, eye drills, separation drills, strength over the rubber, pick drills, sign sequence drills, night signs, touches, drops. There’s a wide variety of things that can keep them sharp, keep them right. It’s about developing these guys so they can pitch to any scouting report. 

We also have our ‘principles of competing,’ which is our mental game aspect. Dave Snow, Rex Peters and myself really work hard on that part of it. Those are sessions, group meetings and so forth. So, we love drills, but we like things in the right place, at the right time, so we can provide a clear vision so our pitchers can understand what they’re working on. 

IP: So how do you implement the technology piece?

JS: We're doing that in video sessions, showing them what is looks like and evaluating what areas we think the fastball may really work, sequencing, et cetera. But it really comes down to can you move the fastball? We have to be able to command the fastball and that's more old-school, but that's also part of setting hitters up and finishing hitters and affecting their approach. Affecting their timing, affecting their mental game. 

The ability to have command has so many effects on hitters and the ball in, the ball away, the ball up, the ball down. So with that said and with that being the primary objective, we use the technology to help show them what type of pitchers that we think they are. We want to pitch to our guys’ strengths. We really try to stay away from their weaknesses as much as we possibly can. And it's not that we're not addressing those weaknesses, but not when we're competing. We're really focusing on their strengths. And we want to keep it simple. And we want to keep it comfortable. But they have to be able to pitch when they're ahead and they got to be able to pitch when they're behind. There are plans on both sides of the spectrum.

IP: What are the best ways to develop command and not just control with the pitcher? 

JS: We're very, very adamant that within 90 feet in our throwing program, we're working on command. We're trying to hit the pocket of the glove. We're trying to move the ball around. When we throw away from the hitter, we're pitching down. When we throw in on the hitter, we're usually more elevated. When we pitch middle, we can pitch downhill, but we can pitch middle. We can pitch up. We work very hard on our locations. And then, we do a lot of 45 foot, glove side work with our fastball and our breaking balls. Outside of 90 feet, sure, we're working on arm strength. But inside of 90, we are working on command. 

Another one to look at is effort level. Are they too high or too low? Too fast or is too slow? You want them to be able to find their rhythm, find their slot. And you have to get a lot of repetition. Look at the best shooters in the world, the best golfers in the world. It's muscle memory. 

So we have a few ways to pound command into them. They know when they're working on it and they know when they're not working on it. And I think that’s a relief to them, having specific distances, specific messages in those areas that will tell them what you’re working on. 

Having hitters stand in is an old-fashioned way of doing it, but there's nothing like somebody in the box. Somebody can pitch ‘in’ all day long without a hitter and then you put a hitter in there spraying it. It goes into a ‘control’ mode. 

It's not always perfect, we don't really demand perfect. We want to be good. And we want to keep on improving that command by repetition.

IP: What are you spending time on in game review? Scouting reports or pitch calling/selection? 

JS: It all depends on how many runs we score! If it’s one or two or three, you always can look at that one or two pitches that we’d like to get back. But there’s no blame. We don't really second guess anything that we do. We look on more of the execution part of it. I call the pitches, I set up the scouting reports, I do the video of opposing hitters with David Berg, and we want to know our opponents as well as anybody, we want to have a plan, but you might have to adjust it within the game. 

We never really present, ‘Oh I’m so sorry, that was the wrong pitch. Next time...’ We really just look at ourselves and how we can make that pitch better. I see ‘wrong pitches’ executed be fine and vice versa. You call 125 to 150 pitches a night. Nobody is going to be perfect. 

You have to have conviction, you have to have flow. You have to know what your guy is doing well at the time. You want a high awareness of the game situation. You may pitch to the field, to the bigger part of the yard. Two outs, no outs, runners on. And you have to move on! 

And self-evaluate after a game. I'll watch every pitch. You can’t assume anything. That's one thing that I think coaches who get in trouble, they assume a pitch is in a certain area. If it gets hit hard or whatever, I think you have to really see it with your own eyes before you truly evaluate. 

IP: What was it like growing up in the Savage household?

JS: Very competitive. I’m the youngest of the three boys, so I always ‘played up.’ There wasn't a whole lot of success, but you learn how to fight. You learn how to grind. You learn how to play really or pitch or whatever at a different level. 

Pete and I shared the same room and we talked baseball, basketball, football, every single night. We were never really into anything else. It was baseball cards, watching games, playing games, heading to San Francisco to watch the Giants or the Oakland A's. 

IP: And you observed his career from afar, so to speak. 

JS: I think he's the best coach in the Savage family. The guy is phenomenal coach. He cares so much about his players, he's relentless on the development of his players in all aspects. Nothing stops him, not cold, not snow, not rain. He’s at every convention, he listens to every podcast. I get so much information from him, a lot more than I give him! If you want to get better and you want to play baseball and love the game, he's the perfect high school coach. 

He also works full time at Savage and Sons, which is a plumbing and heating store in Reno that's over 125 years old. He gets in there early in the morning, works till two o'clock, heads to over to Reno High. And he's been doing that for 25 years. 

IP: What are the types of things that you talk about when you talk about potential players?

JS: We talk about evaluation, projection, what guys look like, what they could become in the future. We talk about makeup, toughness, competitiveness, intelligence. Pete really knows what we're looking for. He’s got a really, really good eye for talent, but he's even better at developing talent. 

IP: Is it harder to win a division one national championship or a state championship in high school baseball?

JS: Well, that's a good question, and no disrespect toward Pete or anyone in high school coaching, but I think it's tougher to win a national championship. But, every program is in their own arena of winning and anything good takes time. And to win a national title, you have to be very, very good, and a little fortunate too. 

Inside Pitch Magazine is published six times per year by the American Baseball Coaches Association, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt association founded in 1945. Copyright American Baseball Coaches Association. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any way without prior written permission. While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained herein, it is impossible to make such a guarantee. The opinions expressed herein are those of the writers.
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