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.”
[Related: Full 2017 MLB Draft coverage]
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.
At 6 feet 3 inches 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 than either of his previous seasons at UCLA – he hit the same number of home runs in 2017 as he did as a senior at Cathedral Catholic.
“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 Bouchard 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.”