Even before Griffin Canning ever threw a Division I pitch, UCLA's coaching staff knew it had a future ace on its hands.
"Canning is special," UCLA coach John Savage said in November of 2014, the fall of Canning's freshman year. "Canning is really good - you're going to love Canning. He's 88-91, curveball anytime. Slider, changeup, athletic - you're going to love him."
UCLA's recruiting coordinator at the time, T.J. Bruce (now head coach at Nevada), was even more specific in his forecast for the tall righthander.
"When you go out and evaluate players, it's about three pitches. If you can command three pitches, you'll be pretty good for a long time, and that's what he does," Bruce said that fall. "There's more velo in there too, in my opinion. I think he has a chance to be 93-94 every day, with some maturity of the body. The biggest thing is the fastball command is special."
Fast-forward a few years, and the words of Savage and Bruce seem prescient. Canning has been a key contributor on UCLA's staff for three years, going 15-11, 3.26 in 234.2 innings over the course of his career. He's having his best season as a junior, with a 2.77 ERA and a 78-20 strikeout-walk mark in 61.2 innings.
Canning has also taken the velocity jump that Bruce predicted, and he has blossomed into a likely first-round pick who could be the first college pitcher drafted on the West Coast this June. Of course, the velocity gains were accompanied by a few growing pains during the middle part of this season.
"You're dealing with a pitchability guy who's all of a sudden trying to pitch with 92-95, whereas he was 89-92 last year," one Southern California area scout said. "So maybe some of his struggles with being elevated and throwing more balls than we're accustomed to could be related to that."
"He was really sharp early - he came out of the chute throwing the ball extremely well," Savage said. "Then his velocity kind of took a spike, he was up to 95, 94. His stuff has been really good all year - he's been 92-94 every outing. He kind of, for whatever reason, lost his Canning command a little bit, missed up in the zone, walked more than he normally walks. And then it seems like we kind of found his slot again against ASU, made a little adjustment with the slot. He seems to be back on track."
Canning got on track emphatically last week against Stanford, when he struck out a career-high 12 batters without issuing a walk in a complete-game, four-hit shutout. When he's at his very best, he can smother hitters with quality strikes, like he did on Thursday against the Cardinal.
Savage said that during his brief and uncharacteristic struggle with his command this season, Canning had started throwing from a high three-quarters slot, but he found his comfort zone again after settling back into his normal three-quarters slot. Suddenly his angle to the plate was better, his pitches started coming out of the same tunnels again, and he had more success locating down in the zone to his glove side.
And Canning can do a lot more than blow hitters away with velocity. His fastball has a high spin rate, which gives it some extra life. He's a true four-pitch guy who also has hard, late rotation on his power curve at 80-82, a solid slider at 85-86 and very good hand speed on his changeup, which is firm at 85-86 but is nonetheless effective. Scouts seem to like the curveball the best out of his three secondary offerings.
"The curveball's special. He gets in trouble with the slider, but I think the curveball is going to be an above-average major league pitch," the area scout said. "I think he goes out (in pro ball) as fastball-curve-change and I think he destroys guys. It's high-level athleticism and defense, and it's great makeup."
Canning knows how to hold runners, and he fields his position very well. Savage referenced a standout play he made on a bunt against Stanford last week as an example of his athleticism and body control at work.
As polished as Canning has always been for his age, it's remarkable to think that he did not make the Area Code Games or the USA Baseball junior national team in high school. So maybe he was just a bit overlooked in some quarters, but Savage always knew what he was getting when he signed Canning. He was pursuing an ace, and that's just what he's gotten.
"He led Santa Margarita to a Division I CIF championship on his back. It's called the 'Canning Rule,' they've changed that whole league how it's set up, how you play an opponent three times now, whereas before you were running into the best pitcher," Savage said. "I thought he was the best high school pitcher in Southern California that year. He did not make the USA team, did not make the Area Codes, which is a little crazy to think back at it. But we knew we had a gem. We knew we had a special guy. He's a winning pitcher, very competitive, with pitchability. And we knew he was gonna get stronger. As soon as his stuff took a jump, then you're talking about a legitimate guy. Just his makeup, his work ethic, his competitiveness - it was just very easy to see. It was hard to miss. We just felt that this guy was going to be in line with some of the really good pitchers we had."
Indeed, Canning is a perfect heir to that long tradition of former UCLA aces - he fits right in the conversation with David Huff and Trevor Bauer and Gerrit Cole, Adam Plutko and Nick Vander Tuig and James Kaprielian. Canning looks up to his UCLA predecessors, but his idol has always been former Dodgers ace Orel Hershiser - which is why he wears No. 55.
"He's a bulldog. It's a Hershiser competitor," Savage said. "He's about the right things. He's about team, he's about making pitches. He's got the big picture in front of him. This guy will pitch in the major leagues. There's just too much pedigree there and too much athleticism to think otherwise. He's been a great asset to our program and to the younger guys, he's helped (Kyle) Molnar, he's helped (Jon) Olsen. He's just a guy that's had a major impact on our program."
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