KANSAS CITY — There’s always a delicate balancing act for a reigning national champion: what’s the best way to celebrate the previous season’s accomplishment while also turning the page to the season ahead? There’s no question that Omaha experience is a major asset for returning veterans, but it’s imperative that those veterans stay hungry when they return to campus the next fall.
Fortunately, Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin has some experience in this area. There was no championship hangover for the Commodores after they won the 2014 College World Series; they ran all the way to the finals again in 2015. So Corbin knows what levers to pull for his club this fall, coming off another national title this past June. They’re the same levers he always pulls.
“As odd as it may sound, my approach is the same almost every year. I think after winning ’14, in ’15 we just kind of moved forward,” Corbin said. “It’s not like you can ignore those things, because in the fall you get those celebratory moments where the team comes back, and you want to, those are important things and that was an important time. But at the same time this group has to go, ‘OK, that’s gone.’ The experiences certainly help a lot of those kids, they have to. When you’re in that environment and playing in high-temperature situations, that certainly is an opportunity to learn to handle the emotional part of baseball. So they benefit from that. But you can take the experiences with you, but you can’t take the successes. It’s not money — it’s gone, you’ve spent it. And if you didn’t spend it, you should have. So now it’s on to 2020.”
Vanderbilt will have plenty of holes to fill in 2020 after the departures of everyday stalwarts JJ Bleday, Stephen Scott, Ethan Paul, Philip Clarke, Pat DeMarco and Julian Infante, plus bulldog starting pitchers Drake Fellows and Patrick Raby. That’s a lot of experience to replace — but replacing the talent won’t be a problem, because Vandy has continued to recruit at the highest level year after year.
And of course, the Commodores still have some key pieces back with both talent and experience, especially on the mound. Last year’s D1Baseball Freshman of the Year and CWS Most Outstanding Player Kumar Rocker leads the way. In last Saturday’s exhibition against Oklahoma State, Rocker didn’t show the kind of electrifying stuff that made him a sensation in the 2019 postseason — in fact, just about all of Vandy’s big arms were down in terms of velocity, which is not atypical in fall ball, when pitchers are at different stages in their throwing programs and are working hard in the weight room. He sat mostly 89-91 and topped out at 93 with an 80-83 slider, and he seemed to be emphasizing his developing changeup, which was firm at 85-87 but flashed decent sinking action. Corbin said improving the changeup is one of Rocker’s goals this fall, and it’s scary to think just how good he could become with a third weapon, because he’s already proven he can dominate with his mid-90s fastball and wipeout slider when he’s in top form.
Fellow righthander and CWS star Mason Hickman also returns to the rotation after going 9-0, 2.05 with 129 strikeouts and 28 walks in 96.2 innings last year. His high-spin-rate fastball and advanced command remain his calling cards, and he’s as steady as college starters get. Hickman didn’t throw in Kansas City, but he is pitching this fall, and Corbin said he’s pretty much the same old reliable Hickman.
“I look at Hickman as just consistent. And when I looked at Raby, there was a lot of consistency there too,” Corbin said. “Mason is a reliable soul on the mound. He threw some very understated innings, that’s for sure. When you talk about Vanderbilt’s success, he’s had a lot to do with it.”
Two key pieces of last year’s bullpen, closer Tyler Brown (3-1, 2.19, 17 saves, 65-9 K-BB in 49.1 innings) and power lefthander Jake Eder (2-0, 2.98, 4 saves), are being trained as starters this fall, although there’s a long way to go before Vandy settles on their roles. In Kansas City, Eder didn’t show the mid-to-high-90s heat we’ve seen from him in the past, instead focusing on commanding his heater at 88-90 along with a sharp downer curveball at 73-76 that dropped off the table. Corbin said it’s no secret that the key for Eder is to fine-tune his fastball command to all four quadrants of the plate, especially out of the stretch. If he does that and continues to show the huge raw stuff he’s featured in the past as a starter, Eder has top-10-pick potential. But Vandy will be without fellow flame-throwing lefty Hugh Fisher in 2020 after he had Tommy John surgery this fall — certainly a blow to a staff that lacks lefthanded pitching aside from Eder.
Brown sat at 90 mph in his breezy 1-2-3 inning against Oklahoma State, flashing a plus slider at 83-86 and an 83 mph changeup that remains a work in progress. He’s such a weapon at the back of the bullpen that it’s tough to imagine Vandy moving him to the rotation when the dust settles, but Corbin left that door open.
“I think he’s versatile to do either/or, and that’s how he would tell you too: ‘I’ll do what I need to do to help, whether start, middle, finish.’ He’s got a good mindset, that’s the one thing you trust about the kid,” Corbin said. “He contains his emotions and his adrenaline very well. Whatever role you could put him in, you know he’s going to be able to handle a situation. Getting to Omaha and pitching in tight situations like he did, that’s good stuff for anyone.”
The other most obvious weekend starter candidate is prized freshman righthander Jack Leiter, the highest-ranked freshman to set foot on a college campus this fall, per the PBR Draft 100. Leiter was renowned in the 2019 high school class for his advanced feel for pitching with an electric fastball that sat 94-97 and touched 98 when he was at his best, along with a devastating sharp curveball. In two scoreless innings against Oklahoma State, Leiter showed the ability to paint both corners at 89-93 and flashed that plus curveball at 76-78 with tight 11-to-5 bite, as well as a solid changeup at 82. He’s also mature beyond his years, giving him a strong chance to follow in Rocker’s footsteps as a weekend starter as a freshman, something that isn’t particularly common at Vanderbilt.
“He’s just a mature kid. The way he handles his academics, social life, mound presence — if you saw him and spent any amount of time with him, and I said, ‘OK, tell me what year in school he is,’ you’d say, ‘That’s a sophomore or junior.’ Just the savvy of the kid and how he controls his emotions,” Corbin said. “He had a solid outing against Oklahoma State and some solid outings against us. He’s got to improve as they all do, but he’ll do something for us, I would imagine.”
Vandy’s latest crop of elite freshmen also includes several other arms who figure to make an impact over the course of their careers, and some of them will surely contribute early on, depending on how quickly they develop. I scribbled the word “Hickmanish” in my notebook next to righthander Michael Doolin’s name, and Corbin used that exact same word to describe him. His 88-90 fastball showed the same high-spin, riding life up in the zone that Hickman is famous for, and his 74-76 mph curveball showed good 11-to-5 depth, though he still needs to command it more consistently. But Doolin’s mature presence and demeanor really reminded Corbin of Hickman and Raby.
Physical freshman righty Nick Maldonado showed a clean arm action and worked at 87-88 with the makings of a quality curveball at 73-75. Super-projectable 6-foot-6 righty Thomas Schultz worked at 87-89 with good downward angle and mixed in a promising 77-79 changeup and big slow curve that needs more power; he struggled in his four-run inning, but his upside is obvious. Six-foot-3, 185-pound righty Sam Hliboki also has plenty of projection in his lanky frame, and he showed some sink on his 86-87 fastball along with a quality slurve at 77-78 and an inconsistent changeup in his 1-2-3 inning in KC.
I didn’t see sophomore righthander Ethan Smith pitch in Kansas City, but he’ll obviously be a huge piece of this Vandy staff. Smith racked up 47 strikeouts in 33 innings over 17 relief appearances as a freshman, and he looks primed for a bigger workload in 2020, in one role or another. With a heavy fastball that touched 96 last spring and a filthy power slider at 84-87, Smith has obvious back-end stuff and could take over the closer job if Brown winds up sliding into the rotation. That’s just speculation at this stage, but it makes some sense.
Two other returning arms to keep an eye on are sophomore righthander Chance Huff and redshirt freshman righty Luke Murphy. Huff sat 90-91 with good carry through the zone in his two scoreless innings vs. OSU, and he showed good command of a quality 81-83 slider, repeatedly throwing it for backdoor strikes against lefties. Corbin said he’s one of the most improved pitchers on the staff this fall. Murphy is a 6-foot-5, 175-pounder with a short three-quarters arm action and a crossfire delivery that adds some deception to a fastball that sat 88-91 in KC. He also used his sweeping 75-77 mph slurve and solid 82 mph slider effectively in his scoreless frame, and he showed poise by escaping a bases-loaded jam with a strikeout. Junior Erik Kaiser, a three-quarters righty who worked at 88-90 with a three-quarters slurve in his 1-2-3 inning vs. OSU, could also be in the mix.
The lineup has more turnover, but it still has a first-team All-American to anchor the whole thing in junior Austin Martin (.392/.486/.604, 18 SB), who sat out the Oklahoma State scrimmage while working his way back from a cleanup procedure in his knee, though he’ll be full go by the time spring practice starts. Martin played third base a year ago and could certainly handle that spot again, but he’s also strongly in the mix at either middle infield spot or center field. Likewise, senior Harrison Ray could fit at any one of those four positions, and the Commodores will take their time figuring out how the puzzle pieces fit together best. Corbin said Ray is moving his feet better on the infield this fall, and he’s tightened up his swing and improved his pitch recognition since last spring. He’s got a chance to make the same kind of senior-year leap that Paul made in 2019, when he took over at shortstop for the first time in his Vandy career and posted an .883 OPS, making himself a ninth-round pick.
Physical junior Jayson Gonzalez seems likely to take over the everyday job at third base, allowing Martin to move elsewhere. Gonzalez made big strides with his plate discipline in part-time duty as a sophomore, and he looked great in all facets in Kansas City, singling up the middle, drawing a walk, stealing a base, and hitting a monstrous opposite-field home run. He also showed off his sneaky athleticism with an above-average home-to-first time on a groundout. Corbin said Gonzalez is built like a tight end, and he could add valuable physicality and righthanded power to the lineup if he puts it all together as a junior.
My guess is Martin and Ray both wind up manning middle infield spots, in one combination or the other, because Vanderbilt has several other very good options in center field. Speedy sophomores Isaiah Thomas and Cooper Davis are both capable of patrolling the middle garden well, and freshman Will Duff gives Vandy a third speedster with good on-base skills who looked good in center against Oklahoma State, while Thomas and Davis sat out with injuries. Duff is also a versatile utilityman who could slide to the infield as needed, while slick-fielding sophomore Tate Kolwyck and switch-hitting freshman Carter Young give the Dores further depth on the dirt. Corbin said Young is particularly advanced as a defender for his age, though his bat could take some time to develop. Thomas is an electric athlete with loads of upside, and he gained valuable experience in the NECBL this summer. He figures to be in the lineup in center or right, while the scrappy Davis could start in left or center while setting the table atop the lineup.
Sophomore Matt Hogan has played his way into the outfield mix as well. Hogan is another good athlete with above-average speed, and he really stood out at the plate in Kansas City, showing good breaking ball recognition left-on-left and drawing two walks. He also showed some barrel control by flaring a changeup away for a single to right-center, and he drove the ball middle-away, flying out to the warning track in center and hitting an opposite-field three-run homer to left on a fastball away.
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“I think he’ll give himself a chance. He’s a very hard-working kid, he’s very toolsy,” Corbin said. “He’s got abilities, he can run, he can throw. He’s got strength in his hands. He went to the Northwoods League, that was a great opportunity for him. Hogan got a ton of at-bats up there because he did not travel to Omaha with us, so he got an opportunity to play. You can see where there’s certainly a 12-month difference, which you would expect. There’s greater command of the zone, and just in the short term, I think he’s been able to slow himself down in the outfield, he covers a lot of ground, he throws well. I think it was more about just landing his throw back into the infield, but he’s got a better sense of that and certainly a better sense of the strike zone.”
Strong-bodied sophomore Justyn-Henry Malloy is in a similar category as a sophomore who gained important experience this summer, in the NECBL in his case. Malloy’s raw power is obvious, and he also showed some patience at the plate in KC, drawing a pair of walks. He still needs refinement, but he could factor into the mix at first base or DH.
Another sophomore breakout candidate is catcher/first baseman Dominic Keegan, a powerful and compact 6-foot, 210-pounder who showed off his exciting raw pop with a monstrous three-run homer over the batter’s eye at the Kansas City Urban Youth Academy, where the ball was not carrying particularly well. He also did a good job staying back on an offspeed pitch on a single to center field. Keegan has made progress behind the plate, though Corbin said he still has a long way to go to prove he can handle Vandy’s power-armed pitching staff. Fortunately, the Commodores are blessed with a polished, seasoned senior catcher in Ty Duvall, who also sat out the Oklahoma State scrimmage with a nagging injury. Duvall had a chance to play pro ball this summer, so getting him back to run the show as a senior was a huge boon for the Commodores. He’s also a very capable bat-handler who drew 42 walks against 46 strikeouts last year.
Finally, two high-profile freshman hitters stood out in a big way in KC. Parker Noland has serious strength in his 6-foot-1, 195-pound frame, and he showed good barrel skills against OSU, delivering a couple of singles up the middle, drawing two walks and hitting a sacrifice fly to center. Corbin said he must improve defensively, and prove he can handle left-on-left breaking balls, but he’ll be in the mix for a corner infield job.
Then there’s two-way talent Spencer Jones, a 6-foot-7, 205-pound lefthanded hitter and lefty pitcher with enormous upside. Jones isn’t pitching this fall while he continues to work his way back from a broken arm, but he hit .366 in 84 plate appearances against older competition with the Santa Barbara Foresters this summer, and he drove the ball with authority against Oklahoma State. Jones was robbed of extra bases by a spectacular leaping catch up against the wall in dead-center with the bases loaded, and he lined hard singles to left and center. Jones has serious buggywhip in his swing, and he’s an athletic long strider who runs far better than you’d expect for his size.
“We’ve given him a lot of repetitions; just in the short time that I’ve seen him, he has a feel for the strike zone, which I would say is a little bit more mature than most,” Corbin said. “But time well tell. We’ve put him at the top of the order just because we were just putting kids anywhere at that point against Oklahoma State. I don’t know if he’ll be competitive enough to hit for us, but at least he fared well against Oklahoma State, and he’s hit the ball reasonably well against our pitching.
“This fall is more about giving the newcomers a chance to play, and we’ve seen a lot of them. They’re gonna need time, it’ll take them some time to get into the college game. We’re hoping they give themselves a chance, and if they do they’ll give us a chance.”
It’s safe to say Vanderbilt will have a chance in 2020. Some growing pains are inevitable as all the young players get acclimated, but the Commodores clearly have Omaha-level talent. Time will tell if they can make it back to the promised land, but Corbin and his fine coaching staff have an amazing track record when it comes to developing their young talent. Maybe the ‘Dores have a ways to go, as Corbin said repeatedly — but don’t bet against them getting there in the end.