LOS ANGELES -- As it turns out, getting stuck with Tyler Heineman at catcher has worked out pretty well for the UCLA baseball team.
He's a .351-hitting catcher who bats second on the team seeded No. 2 nationally in the NCAA baseball tournament, a top-notch defensive catcher who handles the pitchers like a pro and a valuable clubhouse presence who provides leadership to a young pitching staff.
He has started 54 of UCLA's 59 games this season, will start another when the Bruins begin their NCAA super regional against Texas Christian on Friday at 6 p.m. PT at Jackie Robinson Stadium and was selected by the Houston Astros this week in the eighth round of the Major League Baseball draft.
Not bad for a guy who was supposed to be the weak link for UCLA this season -- a junior who received no scholarship offers out of Windward High School, came to UCLA as a walk-on only because it was his dream school and played sparingly during his first two seasons.
When three-year starter Steve Rodriguez and top high school recruit Austin Hedges signed with major league teams after getting picked in the 2011 draft, Heineman became the UCLA starting catcher by default. But he since has emerged as one of the top college catchers in the country and was one of 12 semifinalists for the Johnny Bench Award, given annually to the nation’s top catcher.
“You never really expect to have this kind of a year, but I always hoped I would,” Heineman said. “I certainly knew I was capable of it and wanted to, but until you go out and do it, you just never know. I'm extremely happy with how it's played out so far.”
There weren't many others who knew Heineman was capable of this type of season, especially offensively. His .351 average is second on the team, and his batting skills have developed into those of a prototypical No. 2 hitter. He leads the team with 16 sacrifice bunts and has a 20-14 walk-to-strikeout ratio.
His work behind the plate is even better. He has been charged with only four passed balls and two errors in 54 games, and has thrown out 20 of 44 (45.4 percent) would-be base stealers. All that in addition to providing a calming influence on a staff that lost aces Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer to the major leagues last season, and is relying on three sophomores and a freshman to anchor the starting rotation.
“He's just made himself a really good baseball player,” coach John Savage said. “It's really a great story of a guy that's stayed with it and a guy who didn't play very much his first two years and came on to the scene as a junior and has made a huge impression.”
It's also a rarity, Savage said, especially for a catcher. Sitting on the bench for the better part of two seasons tends to erode skills, but Heineman kept his focus, soaked in as much knowledge as possible and put everything together this season to become a team leader in all areas.
“You don't see that a whole lot from guys that don't play that much,” Savage said. “Sometimes they tend to go backwards in terms of their development, and this guy didn't miss a beat when he wasn't playing. It just goes to credit his aptitude and attitude when he wasn't playing and his mindset of becoming a better player.”
Heineman acknowledges that it wasn't easy. He was a freshman on the 2010 team that went to the College World Series championship series but never got on the field in Omaha. He had only eight at-bats that season.
Last year, he became the Tuesday starter and caught games when Rodriguez needed a rest. Otherwise he came in as a pinch hitter and ended up batting .261 in 23 games.
“It was really difficult,” Heineman said. “It really hurt me every time I wasn't in the lineup. It would really bother me and it would really get to me. I'd say to myself, ‘I should be playing more. Why am I not playing more?'"
Things worsened when he didn't hit as well as he thought he should. It became a vicious circle of trying to hit better but not hitting because he was trying too hard.
“Every time I got up to the plate, whether pinch hitting or starting, I felt like [at] the plate I had to do more in order to play more,” Heineman said. “And when I didn't do well in my first or second at-bat and then I'm 0-2, I'd get nervous and start pressing because I'm thinking I won't get to play as much.”
Dejected, Heineman started to think about leaving UCLA. He remembered his high school coach from Windward, a tiny private school in nearby West L.A., telling him not to go to UCLA because he would never play there as a walk-on. He remembered his parents suggesting he should go to Harvard, a school with no scholarships but guaranteed playing time.
He went to UCLA, because it was his dream. He grew up in nearby Pacific Palisades and attended UCLA summer baseball camps. He used to go to games, and fell in love with the school and the program, so when he received an invitation to walk on, he immediately accepted, not knowing what was in store.
“I wasn't guaranteed to even stay on the team past the first year,” he said. “I knew I would have to work as hard as I can to get every minute of playing time, but it's where I wanted to go my whole life so I was going to do it.”
After two years, his dream became a nightmare, and Heineman said he was ready to walk away until Rodriguez signed a professional contract last summer.
“I was thinking I would transfer because I wanted to play,” he said. “I loved UCLA, I loved the coaches, but I would understand that if [Rodriguez] were to stay, it's pretty much his job to lose again, and I didn't really want to play behind him again for another year.”
Hedges still could have come and beat him out, but Heineman said he would have taken his chances competing against a freshman. However, when Hedges signed at the 11th hour, it opened up the job for Heineman.
Unfortunately, it also opened up the chatter that UCLA was going to struggle at catcher this season.
“I kind of saw some things online that said UCLA could be in trouble behind the plate because it's a major hole that they have to fill and they only have Heineman,” he said. “It kind of disappointed me a little bit, but it motivated me to kind of prove them wrong.”
And so far, that's exactly what he's done. He steadily gained confidence at the plate with consistent at-bats and has taken his offensive game to heights nobody could have predicted. And his defensive skills, always a strength, have become even sharper with game experience.
He knows how to talk to pitchers in difficult situations -- “He's saved me trips,” Savage said -- and has developed from a walk-on with no scholarship offers out of a tiny high school to a kid who sat on the couch with his parents earlier this week and watched as his name came up in the eighth round of the MLB draft.
He has yet to determine whether he’ll sign or return to school next season, but no matter the decision he makes, you can bet either the Bruins or the Houston Astros will be happy to be stuck with him.