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Aaron Fitt | | January 22, 2021

Vanderbilt baseball looks to mature in 2021, despite the presence of Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter

All you need to know about the 2021 college baseball season

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Anyone can look at the top two starters in Vanderbilt’s weekend rotation and jump to the conclusion that the Commodores will be one of college baseball’s very best teams next year. And let’s face it, there won’t be a one-two pitching punch more talented than Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter, who have a legitimate chance to be the top two picks in the 2021 draft, 10 years after UCLA’s Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer set the standard for teammates by going No. 1 and No. 3 overall.

But Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin is tapping the brakes a bit on what threatens to be a runaway hype train. Leiter, a second-year freshman who will be draft-eligible by age, may be a supreme talent, but like many of the other key players Vanderbilt will rely upon next spring, he has yet to prove himself over a full Division I season. That’s because the COVID-19 pandemic cut the season short after just four weeks of nonconference play.

“He is a very mature kid, but it would be hard for me to understand who he is right now — he’s had very little time at Vanderbilt. The next SEC game he pitches will be the first time,” Corbin said. “I’m sure he’s more confident, but based on what? No summer baseball, no SEC action. Who isn’t confident right now?”

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That said, Leiter sure looked the part of a marquee prospect and a surefire All-American in his two scoreless innings at Vanderbilt’s Black & Gold fall world series. He attacked the strike zone at 92-96 and bumped 97 with a riding fastball that approached a 2400 rpm spin rate. He used his plus 77-79 curveball with sharp downer bite as the putaway pitch on three of his four strikeouts, but he also showed a quality slider that flashed plus at 83-85, and an effective changeup at 88-89 against lefties. A two-inning look at the end of a modest fall workload is not the same thing as a deep start in the SEC tournament or Omaha, but it was still a very exciting look. Leiter appears to be progressing exactly as Vanderbilt fans hoped he would.

Rocker, meanwhile, racked up six strikeouts over three innings of work in the series opener a day earlier, running his fastball up to 98 mph and sitting at 93-95, according to scouts who were on hand (I arrived a day later for the final two games of the series). Rocker didn’t have his best command, but his fastball and vicious slider were mostly overpowering as usual. The 2019 D1Baseball Freshman of the Year and College World Series Most Outstanding Player, Rocker is already a proven commodity at the college level, and Corbin said he’s worked hard to add some veteran polish and take his game to an even higher level this fall.

“I think he worked pretty well over the last five months to move better physically, work on his fitness level. I think he’s in a good place that way,” Corbin said. “He’s a kid that operates like a professional; when he comes in he wants to get things done. I think the neat thing about him is he asks a lot of good questions, he doesn’t ask questions just to ask questions, he asks something so he can start making an adjustment. He’s a good listener, very coachable. The piece I’ve seen in conversations with him is it’s very important to him how to be a good leader. And I just think he’s worked hard on the command, the manipulation of the ball. As an older kid it’s more about location and movement. Whether it’s an up and in pitch to a lefty or an up and in pitch to a righty, or a down and in pitch — those parts of the pitching puzzle elude kids for a certain amount of time.”

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It’s safe to assume Rocker and Leiter will occupy two-thirds of the Vanderbilt rotation, and that fact alone should make the Commodores exceptionally difficult to beat in weekend series this year. But there is indeed plenty of uncertainty about the remaining pitching roles and a lack of high-level experience in the pitching staff as well as the lineup. Hence Corbin’s caution. That isn’t to say he can’t see the potential in his team, but as the person who spends the most time around his players, teaching them and trying to get the most out of them, he also is best positioned to see all of his team’s warts.

“I’m just unsure right now, just because you get caught up in your own environment, and you’re really unsure about what’s in front of you,” Corbin said. “We have a lot of inexperience on our team positionally, and even from a pitching standpoint. I look at our pitching staff much differently maybe than [outsiders] — they’re just a bunch of names to me. They have some physical tools, but until they do something in this league and show consistency, they’ve all got to get better. Collectively they’ve got to get much better than they were a couple weeks ago. If we’re gonna have a staff that stops people, we have to show more consistency than we did the last couple of months.”

Rotation stalwart Mason Hickman and All-America closer Tyler Brown are gone, taking away the two most experienced, established arms and two of its top CWS heroes. That leaves Rocker and third-year sophomore righty Ethan Smith as the two most seasoned pitchers on the staff, by a mile. And Smith is certainly a candidate to join Rocker and Leiter in the rotation, though he could also take over for Brown as the bullpen anchor — a role that Vanderbilt clearly places great value upon, which is one of the reasons the coaches never moved Brown from the bullpen into the rotation. Corbin praised Smith’s versatility and didn’t commit to using him in either role come springtime, but it’s worth noting that he pitched an inning of relief on Friday and then bounced back strong with three more innings of relief Sunday, striking out five and allowing no runs on two hits. A high-slot righty with a good, repeatable delivery, Smith pounded the zone at 90-93 mph with a high-spin fastball (up to 2526 rpm, and repeatedly above 2400) and a swing-and-miss slider at 81-84. He also has some feel for a changeup, and one scout said he flashed a 77 mph curveball on Friday, giving him a four-pitch arsenal that clearly plays in a starting role — though he’s also shown mid-90s heat in the past in shorter stints, and his stuff could really play up as a bullpen stopper.

The only other holdover who pitched meaningful innings on the 2019 national title team is left-hander Hugh Fisher, who missed the spring of 2020 while recovering from Tommy John surgery. At his best in the past, Fisher has sat in the mid-90s and bumped upper 90s from a whippy low three-quarters slot, along with a sweeping slider that eats up lefties. He didn’t have his best stuff in the fall world series, working at 90-93 with erratic command, though he still flashed a good slider at 80-82. Fisher is still working his way back to full strength, and he’ll doubtless be a major weapon at or near the back of the bullpen by the time spring rolls around.

Third-year freshman right-hander Luke Murphy also figures to be a key piece toward the back of the bullpen, and he certainly looked the part of a potential shutdown closer on Saturday at the fall world series, striking out four in two hitless innings of work. His first inning might have been the most impressive frame I’ve seen from any pitcher this fall, as he struck out the side in order, setting up three left-handed hitters with 94-96 mph gas and then freezing all three of them on backdoor power curveballs at 78-79. That hammer continued to rate as an easy plus pitch in his next inning of work, when his velocity ranged from 92-95. A lanky 6-foot-5 righty with a high three-quarters slot, Murphy is loose and athletic, and he’s still just scraping the surface of his potential. He’ll only get better as he gains experience and gets farther removed from the Tommy John surgery that cost him all of the 2019 season.

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Other Vanderbilt pitchers who showed low-90s heat in the two scrimmages I saw: Second-year freshman righties Michael Doolin and Chris McElvain and true freshman RHP Gage Bradley. Doolin, who posted a 0.87 ERA and an 18-4 K-BB mark in 10.1 innings as a freshman, has a strong, durable frame and a clean high three-quarters delivery that produced 90-92 heat along with good feel to spin the breaking ball, which ranged from 78-82, sometimes looking more like a downer curve and other times looking more like a slider. He had poor command on this day and didn’t get out of the first inning, but his track record and arsenal should give him a chance to compete for a starting role next spring or remain a go-to arm in the bullpen. The same goes for McElvain, who made six relief appearances as a freshman last spring. He sat at 91-92 last Saturday and flashed a very promising 78-81 slurve and an effective mid-80s changeup in his two innings — one of which was a clean 1-2-3 frame, and one of which was sloppy and laborious.

I liked what I saw from Bradley in 3.2 innings of one-run relief on Sunday. A slender, athletic righty with a little front-side funk and a quick arm from a high three-quarters slot, Bradley sat 90-93 and showed off good feel for a quality changeup at 78-79 along with a promising but inconsistent curveball at 77. Bradley and funky low three-quarters lefty Nelson Berkwich strike me as true freshmen who should compete for significant innings in their first years at Vanderbilt. Berkwich showed natural feel to pitch with an 87-90 fastball that jumps on hitters, a three-quarters breaking ball with good depth at 76-78, and a 79 mph changeup that showed swing-and-miss qualities. Ryan Stefiuk is in a similar mold, a physical southpaw with some funk from a low slot, but his stuff wasn’t as good (he sat 84-85 with a decent slurve). Like Berkwich, he has some natural pitchability.

Physical 6-foot-5 freshman Hunter Owen also showed arm strength from the left side, bumping 91 mph, though he sat mostly at 88-90 and struggled with his command on this look. I saw the makings of a promising curveball and cutter, and I expect he’ll develop into a key contributor over the course of his career. The same goes for freshman Donye Evans, a loose, whippy low three-quarters righty with intriguing projection in his 6-foot-6 frame, suggesting he’ll eventually throw harder than the 88-90 he showed last weekend. He also showed some feel for his changeup but struggled with his sweeping three-quarters breaker.

I did not see second-year freshman righties Sam Hliboki and Thomas Schultz, though both of them got off to great starts last spring and should only get better with another year of strength and experience. They’ll obviously be important pieces of this staff. I also didn’t see righties Miles Garrett or Patrick Reilly, two more true freshmen who add depth to this staff. Garrett is an undersized bulldog who started the fall series opener and sat about 90 with a decent low-80s slider according to a scout. The Commodores like the life on his fastball and his competitiveness and pitchability. Reilly is a physical 6-4 power pitcher who has run his heater into the mid-90s.

And freshman Grayson Moore has a chance to be a legitimate two-way player, a rare occurrence at Vanderbilt, where players usually wind up specializing as a position player or a pitcher. A high-slot righty with an 88-89 fastball last weekend, Moore started his outing with a 66 mph eephus pitch, which was cute, but his best offering was a changeup at 76-77 with good arm speed and sink. The physical 6-foot-4 Moore is also a switch-hitter with power potential at the plate, and he ripped a double to left field while hitting from the right side in the scrimmage.

“That’s always the toughest thing to tell, whether a kid could go both ways. But with him there’s potential — he’s athletic, he’s a switch-hitter, he moves well, he loves to play and he loves to pitch,” Corbin said. “Typically you get those kids where, they’d like to do both, but then when they get to a point where it becomes too much, they move in one direction. I don’t feel that from him. I think this is a kid who likes to do both, likes to play both. There’s a quicker transition going from the mound to the field than most.”

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Last year’s big two-way recruit, Spencer Jones, is out while recovering from Tommy John surgery, but he’s scheduled to start swinging the bat in November, and Corbin said he could envision Jones seeing game action (probably as a DH to start) in February or March. Expect Jones to focus on being a position player this year, but Corbin said he thinks he shouldn’t give up on pitching, because he does still have big potential off the mound. In the short term, though, he could be a major presence in the lineup, with natural hitting instincts despite the length in his swing and emerging power potential.

Vanderbilt needs to replace All-American and first-rounder Austin Martin plus mainstay catcher Ty Duvall, but pretty much everyone else is back — although only outfielder Cooper Davis has experience as an everyday regular in SEC play. Davis, a speedy left-handed slasher with good bunting and bat-handling skills, figures to bat leadoff while manning either center field or left. He’ll help lead an outfield mix that is loaded with speed, between third-year sophomores Isaiah Thomas and Matt Hogan, second-year freshman Will Duff, and blazing-fast true freshman Enrique Bradfield Jr. Fellow newcomer Javier Vaz plus second-year freshman T.J. McKenzie give Vanderbilt two more bona fide speed merchants in the infield mix, and returning shortstop Carter Young can really run too (I timed him at 3.8 seconds to first on a push bunt from the left side). Corbin loves to play an aggressive style and push the action on the basepaths, and he seems to have the personnel to do that in 2021.

Davis and Thomas look like very safe bets to play every day in that crowded outfield mix, and Thomas could not have looked more impressive the two days I was in Nashville. He was simply a force of nature, showing off a quiet, disciplined approach as well as big-time bat speed from the right side. He reached base safely in 6-of-7 plate appearances over the two scrimmages, hitting two lasers to right on Saturday (one of them a double on a slider, the other a single on a fastball) and drawing a walk. On Sunday, he hit an opposite-field three-run homer on an elevated fastball, a grand slam over the high wall in left on a 93 mph heater over the middle, and lined an RBI single to left-center on another heater. After hitting four homers in 62 at-bats last spring in his first real taste of everyday playing time, Thomas looks poised to make a huge jump in his third year at Vanderbilt. If you’re looking for a breakout All-America candidate who could rocket up draft boards next spring, Thomas is your man.

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Assuming Thomas mans right field, Davis could play center or left, and fellow speed merchant Bradfield might wind up playing the other spot — although as noted above, there’s no shortage of competition. Bradfield is a wiry left-handed slasher with top-of-the-charts speed, and his game is built around putting that speed to use. He bears some resemblance physically and stylistically to longtime big leaguer Willie McGee, an effect enhanced by the fact that he wears No. 51 like McGee did. In his setup at the plate, he employs a device made famous by another former MLB great, pumping his left elbow like Joe Morgan. Bradfield needs to add strength to his 6-foot frame, but he has quick enough hands to hold his own against velocity, and he has a bright future as a fire starter for the Commodores.

“He’s developed pretty well. He’s like a lot of them, had his ups and downs over the course of the fall, but he’s certainly a runner, learning the short game,” Corbin said. “He’s done a nice job of using the field too, got a flatter swing, has the ability to push the ball to the other side of the field with a decent amount of strength — for a guy who’s 145 pounds, he’s still strong. So I think as long as we continue to introduce him to calories and a weight room, he might have a chance.”

Hogan gives Vanderbilt another speed-oriented left-handed option in the outfield, while Duff is a quick-twitch athlete with some bat speed from the right side, though his plate discipline must continue to mature. Two more true freshmen give Vanderbilt more physical, less speedy options in the outfield: Troy Laneve offers intriguing left-handed power potential, while Jack Bulger has very good hitting instincts and right-handed pop in his strong, compact 6-foot, 205-pound frame.

Vanderbilt could also deploy third-year sophomore Tate Kolwyck in the outfield, but given the glut of other options at those positions, he might fit best on the infield dirt. One way or another, Kolwyck’s right-handed bat needs to be in the lineup; he’s a tough out who battled hard at the plate in the two scrimmages I saw, working four walks and hitting an Evans curveball over the wall in left-field for a two-run homer. He’s another strong, compact athlete who runs well and has a good right-handed stroke, and he has benefitted from a couple of years in the Vanderbilt program to develop his all-around skills. He handled himself well at both middle infield spots last weekend, but he’s a true Swiss army knife who can be utilized however Vanderbilt needs.

“I like Tate’s energy. Tate’s a good player in the program,” Corbin said. “He’s versatile, a former football quarterback who played really well in high school, passed for over 10,000 yards. I think the thing I like most about Tate is he really loves to play. He’s out there with a smile on his face 24/7. There’s a sense of enjoyment, and today you don’t see that a lot really, guys that really, really enjoy being out on the field. He can play second, third, short, center field — he gives us the ability to do a lot of different things.”

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Expect Young to hold down shortstop and blossom into a bona fide star in his second year in the program because he has a well-rounded toolset. He’s a switch-hitter with a nice line-drive stroke and good feel for his barrel, and he’s a fluid defender whose feet, hands, instincts and arm strengths are all assets. And as noted above, he’s a good runner too.

Vanderbilt needs second-year freshman third baseman Parker Noland and third-year sophomore first baseman/catcher Dominic Keegan to emerge as power-hitting threats in the heart of the order, and both of them have the ability to fill that need. Keegan looked particularly good last weekend, driving the ball to the opposite field with authority. On Sunday, he ripped a 90 mph Doolin fastball into the right-field corner for an RBI double, then hit another opposite-field laser for a solo homer to right later in the game. He has obvious strength in his flat right-handed stroke but also has life in his 6-foot, 210-pound frame, and I expect him to bust out in a big way in 2021. He could see some action behind the plate, where he’s still developing, but I’d bet on him to serve as the primary first baseman.

Noland brings additional physicality and left-handed power potential, complementing the other option at the hot corner, the righty-swinging Jayson Gonzalez. Corbin said the 6-2, 205-pound Gonzalez has also seen some action at second base this fall in order to help Vanderbilt maximize its lineup flexibility. Corbin said the competition between Noland and Gonzalez at third base is “pretty even,” and he praised Gonzalez for developing more of a vocal clubhouse presence in his fourth year in the program.

The ‘Dores will miss Duvall’s experience behind the plate, but they still should be in very good shape at that critical position between second-year freshmen CJ Rodriguez and Maxwell Romero Jr., plus Keegan and true freshman Alan Espinal. Rodriguez appears to have the most advanced catch-and-throw skills of the bunch, and I’d expect him to lead the rotation behind the plate, but Vanderbilt has typically deployed multiple catchers in years past, a practice that keeps everybody fresh and builds depth at a demanding position. Rodriguez showed off a solid-average to above-average arm with good accuracy last weekend, and he has a quiet setup and good pitch recognition at the plate, with nice feel for his barrel. The stocky Romero, who has powerful tree-trunk legs, offers more pop, which he showcased with a pair of homers in Friday’s fall world series opener. Right now, Corbin isn’t anointing anyone the favorite behind the plate.

“You’ve got four or five kids that can catch bullpens, we’ll see what they can do inside a game,” he said. “CJ had an opportunity to catch last year because Dominic was injured; he did OK, he needs to get better. I just think [they need to develop] their ability to catch a pitching staff, communicate with a pitching staff, identify what pitchers can do and what they can’t do, and bring out the best of them. I look at CJ Rodriguez and Max Romero as freshmen, I look at Keegan potentially as a freshman behind the plate — they just haven’t played much there. So really you’re looking at a bunch of guys with first-year experience that are all jumbled up.”

And experience can only be gained through time and repetitions; there’s no shortcut a coach can take to magically impart experience upon his players. But really, a lack of experience is the biggest concern about this Vanderbilt team, which has the potential to be one of the most complete clubs in college baseball as the 2021 season progresses and the talented young players gradually gain maturation, confidence and veteran savvy. As Corbin has said in Omaha in years past, freshmen aren’t really freshmen anymore by the time June rolls around.

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