HOW IS BASEBALL’S CULTURE DIFFERENT FROM OTHER MAJOR SPORTS?
NEIL HEALY: Baseball is one of the more interesting cultures in sports because the player and coaches deal with failure more often than most other major sports do. The all-time great players still only hit around .300, so they fail seven out of 10 times at the plate. The large amount of games and how the game is set up leads to more times that you fail. Even if a major league team wins 100 games in a season the team still lost 62 times. Losing 62 times in the NBA means you’re terrible; losing that amount of football games means you’re bad for about a decade. You can hit a walk-off homer the night before and then go 0-4 with a walk the next day.
You can’t celebrate your wins or dwell on your losses for too long in baseball because you have to get up and play the next day. It’s a lot like life. You fail more times than you succeed, so I feel that baseball culture knows how to deal with failure more effectively.
Another aspect of baseball that is different from the other major sports is that there is so much action in inaction. So much happens during dead periods of play that you can miss them if you don’t pay attention. The runner is on first and he gets the signal from the manager. The catcher gives the sign to the pitcher, who winds up out of the stretch to see if the runner is looking to steal. This and so much more are easily forgotten, but are just as much of a part of the game as the play itself.
JACK RIEGER: Baseball’s culture is very different from other sports in a lot of ways. First off, baseball is pretty exclusive, meaning if you don’t play baseball or haven’t played competitively, players and coaches are probably not going to respect your opinion.
At first glance, that seems to make sense, right? If you’ve never stood in the box while the opposing pitcher is throwing 90 mph at you, why should your opinion be valued? But what about Buster Olney, who is one of the most respected Major League Baseball reporters. Olney stands at about 5’7” and never played baseball at a high level, yet he is a voting member of the baseball Hall of Fame.
If you look at current Major League Baseball managers, a high majority are former players, but the same can’t be said for football or basketball. In fact, Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon claims that if he had seen just one pitch as a major league player he would’ve been hired ten years earlier.
Baseball also has a history in the U.S. that dates back to the 1840s, creating a culture of old white men who can’t stand to see current players celebrate or flip their bats.
HOW DOES NEW MANAGER T.J. BRUCE CHANGE THE TRAJECTORY OF THE PROGRAM GOING FORWARD?
NEIL HEALY: T.J. Bruce is bringing in a new culture to Nevada baseball that he picked up as an assistant on UCLA. He wants to center his team’s success on more fundamental aspects of the game such as pitching and defense. It sounds simple, but how many times in baseball does the team that is an offensive juggernaut get bounced in the first round? Bruce learned from UCLA head coach John Savage, who enjoys a more old-school style of baseball led by dominating the mound and playing good defense. UCLA won a national championship in 2013 and was the No. 1 seed entering the College World Series last season, so it is a proven method to success.
Am I saying that Nevada will go on to Omaha, Nebraska, as the No. 1 seed? No, but I feel that Nevada will be better equipped to win the big games down the stretch. Nevada went into the Mountain West tournament as the regular season champion and the favorite to win it all and go to the College World Series, but lost both games to New Mexico and San Diego State, and fell short of a postseason berth. Despite 41 wins and averaging eight runs a game, the Wolf Pack failed to win the games that really mattered. A philosophy of pitching and defense is a better way to win postseason games. Look at the San Francisco Giants, who have won three out of the last six World Series trophies because they center on good pitching in the starting rotation and the bullpen and they have the best infield in baseball. Bruce knows how to win the big games and soon Nevada will know too.
JACK RIEGER: I may be in the minority, but I think this is a considerable setback for Nevada baseball, especially this year. The hiring of 33-year-old Bruce to replace Jay Johnson, who left for Arizona, was praised by various big-name figures like UCLA coach John Savage, Reno Aces manager Phil Nevin, and former Nevada football coach Chris Ault.
Bruce was an assistant coach at UCLA, which won a College World Series in 2013, and hiring a young and emerging assistant is typically well-received, but Nevada lost some valuable players when Johnson left. Most notably sophomore catcher Cal Stevenson, who transferred to a junior college when he learned of Johnson’s departure, and plans to play for Johnson at Arizona when he’s eligible. There were also two MLB draftees who decommitted from Nevada when Johnson left. None of these changes are T.J. Bruce’s fault, as coaching changes in every sport typically impact incoming players.
The hiring of Bruce is risky because he’s only 33-years-old and this is his first head coaching position in college. He has the tough task of following up a season in which Nevada won its first regular season Mountain West championship and won 41 games. I don’t expect this season to be anywhere nearly as successful as last year, mostly because the Wolf Pack lost tons of talented offensive weapons, including 71 percent of its runs scored and 82 percent of its home runs.
IS BASEBALL NEVADA’S MOST TALENTED, PROMISING PROGRAM?
NEIL HEALY: As of right now, yes. Let’s not forget that the baseball program is still the only Nevada team to win a Mountain West championship. The team was nationally ranked last season and is able to lose five draft picks, three All-Americans and five All-Mountain West selections, and still near the top of the conference. At a school like Nevada, you can see the success of your program when your coaches get hired away from you to a major program. Former head coach Jay Johnson led the Pack to a banner year before getting hired by Pac-12 powerhouse Arizona. Did Nevada struggle to hire someone qualified? No, instead Nevada hired one of the top assistants from arguably the best college baseball program in the nation.
Another big indicator to a program’s success is how the players do once they are off campus. Five players were drafted off last year’s team and former first basemen Austin Byler had major success in the Pioneer League this past summer and won the league championship with the Missoula Osprey. The Wolf Pack has also had many players have big success in the Majors. Ryan Church, Kevin Kouzmanoff and Chris Singleton are three players who have enjoyed major success at the major league level. We will see how basketball does in the next couple years, but the way baseball has had success both in the Mountain West and how their players and coaches do after they leave Nevada is too important to ignore.
JACK RIEGER: It’s hard to answer this question right now in the midst of a coaching change. Former coach Jay Johnson impacted the program immediately, and within two years was swayed by a larger program in the University of Arizona. That is ultimately the hardest part of being a small program; you can’t afford to retain the most talented leaders. If T.J. Bruce becomes a huge success, which he may, does he accept the first lucrative offer from UCLA or USC?
Here’s what Nevada baseball has going for them: the Pack has nice local support from fans, the program is coming off its best season in recent memory and it has the preseason MW player and pitcher of the year.
Nevada athletics tends to thrive with smaller sports because the playing field is more level. Women’s swimming and rifle are good examples of that. Nevada baseball’s team last year was incredibly talented with Austin Byler, Cal Stevenson, Jordan Devencenzi, Kyle Hunt and Kewby Meyer. All of those players are gone this year and Nevada will have to depend on the talent of its pitching staff and its defense (two things T.J. Bruce emphasizes) in order to win big.
WHO IS THE MOST VALUABLE PLAYER?
NEIL HEALY: Trenton Brooks comes into the 2016 season as the key to success. Besides the obvious fact of him being a two-way player as a pitcher and outfielder, he will also be looked to as the key at the top of the batting order. Six out of nine spots in the lineup are being replaced after last season’s lineup put up monster numbers, and Brooks will be looked to as the new focal point at the top of the order. Along with his play in the batter’s box, he will be a weekend starter. His impact can’t be questioned.
JACK RIEGER: Trenton Brooks is probably the most decorated player on the team this year, considering he led the Mountain West in batting average last season and is also a solid starting pitcher. For the sake of being interesting, I’ll go with Christian Stolo, who enters the season as the MW preseason pitcher of the year, and is the ace of a pretty talented staff. New coach T.J. Bruce has a reputation as a pitching and defensive specialist, and in order for Nevada to have a chance at contending for a conference title, Stolo will have to remain healthy and effective.
Neil Patrick Healy and Jack Rieger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @SagebrushSports.