Friday, April 10

Pitcher Griffin Canning rises from humble beginnings, enters MLB Draft

Junior pitcher Griffin Canning went 7-4 this season and led the UCLA baseball team with a 2.34 ERA. He also threw four complete games and led the Bruins with 140 strikeouts in 2017. Canning is projected to be a mid-first-round pick in the MLB Draft, which starts Monday. (Habeba Mostafa/Daily Bruin)

Griffin Canning’s college career is over, but his pitching career isn’t.

The UCLA baseball ace wasn’t a touted prospect in either high school or college.

But after enjoying a career season in 2017, the junior is a projected first-round pick in Monday’s MLB Draft.

[Related: Full 2017 MLB Draft coverage]

Pitching has been Canning’s calling card since Little League. He enjoys the one-on-one confrontation and the mental struggles it presents.

And after Monday, it’s how he will make a living.

“Honestly, (pitching) just clicks for me. That’s just always how it’s been,” Canning said. “It’s just been a constant in my life.”

But behind Canning’s resume and pitching repertoire isn’t a boastful ballplayer. The Bruins’ ace is humble, despite knowing he’s a premier prospect.

“He’s a team kid, a team player,” said Julie Canning, Griffin Canning’s mother. “He doesn’t like being brought in the limelight compared to all the other guys. … He’s always been that way.”

Recruiters didn’t pen Griffin Canning as a promising Southern California recruit in high school, but under Santa Margarita Catholic High School coach David Bacani and mentor Mike Witt, a former MLB pitcher, Canning was added to the list by the end of his senior year.

Canning’s final high school outing in the California Interscholastic Federation Division I championship game highlighted his evolution.

Canning stood atop the mound at Dodger Stadium, flummoxing Foothill High School batters. Umpires squeezed his strike zone, but he overcame it, garnering 11 strikeouts in a complete-game 3-1 victory.

“It’s like he was born to be in that arena, be on that stage, because that guy was just dialed in,” Bacani said. “Griffin is one of those guys, who, in a moment … can have the poise, the competitive edge that he’s not going to let (the adversity) affect him.”

Canning had arrived, but he was already slated to be a Bruin by then.

UCLA baseball coach John Savage reels in top-tier recruits. MLB pitchers Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer are just two of the 90 players drafted from UCLA who played during Savage’s tenure.

Savage was impressed by Canning during his sophomore year.

“I saw his athleticism, his easiness to repeat,” Savage said. “I saw upside of that pitch ability.”

Canning verbally committed to play for the Bruins and came to Westwood despite being drafted by the Colorado Rockies, drawn by UCLA’s academic and athletic reputation.

“He felt like he wasn’t ready to live that life in the minor leagues,” Julie Canning said. “He really wanted to play at UCLA, and he really wanted to play for coach Savage.”

Good company surrounded the freshman in 2015.

Veterans like then-junior James Kaprielian and then-senior David Berg took him under their wings, guiding him through the unfamiliar terrain of college baseball.

“(Kaprielian and Berg) led by example,” Griffin Canning said. “They laid the foundation for how it was supposed to go.”

Savage threw Canning into the fire immediately as the midweek starter. He posted a 2.97 ERA through 11 starts before a season-ending injury. In 2016, he led the team in innings and strikeouts.

Canning’s pitches gained velocity in 2017, a testament to the strength and conditioning workouts throughout the previous two years. He entered the season projected to be a third-round pick.

That changed quickly.

“His stuff flew off the charts and it (caught) a lot of people’s attention,” Savage said. “That’s why (teams) can dream on him running through a system without a lot of bumps or a lot of development really, that this guy is a pretty quick mover to the major leagues.”

Scouts criticize Canning for his stature, but they commend him for his ability to throw strikes and whiff hitters with an arsenal of breaking balls that puts him above talented high school prospects.

“Players who only weigh 175 (pounds) usually don’t get drafted in the first round, no matter who they are,” said one American League scout. “But his command and control are elite – as good as it gets in college baseball.”

Savage’s throwing program for Canning included counting the amount of throws when he warmed up and measuring the distance that he threw.

But it wasn’t based on superstition: It was routine.

“That allows me to be at my best physically and mentally (and) get me locked in – doing the same thing every time,” Canning said.

Canning’s increased strength and daily regimen resulted in his best collegiate season, as he boasted a 2.34 ERA – third in the Pac-12 – with a conference-high 140 strikeouts.

The All-Pac-12 pitcher shot up the draft board throughout the year and is now projected to be a top-20 pick.

Tears streamed down Canning’s face as he walked out of the dugout with his team following the Bruins’ 3-2 extra-inning loss to San Diego State, which eliminated them from the NCAA Tournament.

The relationships he had with his coaches and teammates at UCLA will be left behind, but never broken.

“I mean, I’m with these guys and these coaches more than I am with my family, so these are going to be my best friends,” Canning said. “I’m going to remember all the times that I’ve had. … I’m going to look back and say, ‘These are the good times.’”

Friday night will no longer be Griffin Canning night for UCLA.

Scouts won’t flock to Jackie Robinson Stadium to watch the slender 6-foot-2 pitcher dominate hitters with his mid-90s fastball and wipeout sliders.

It’s time for fans to gather at stadiums and witness the Orange County, California, baseball player develop throughout the minor leagues, the same way he emerged throughout the past seven years.

Canning’s college career may be over, but his professional career is just starting.

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