As college baseball fans, we were all extremely disappointed with how the 2020 season came to an end. Sadly, we had no conference tournaments, no NCAA tournament, no CWS in Omaha. In most cases, we never got the opportunity to watch our coveted teams play in a conference game. In far too many instances, the only thing we got to see was some out of conference games against subpar competition that gave us the big fuzzies about how good our teams actually were. In some cases, we saw our teams struggle. With the Vanderbilt Commodores, fans got to see them grow and mature, as they were led primarily by freshmen and sophomores.
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Enter 2021!!!! 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. Still, they are a youthful team with not a ton of experience yet, at the same time carrying the talent and ability to make a big statement this year. In fact, 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 this spring, he has yet to prove himself over a full Division I season.
Let us take a look at their pitching first and foremost, since they will rely heavily on Rocker and Leiter to carry this team. With positions 1 & 2 locked up in the rotation, who then will follow as the 3rd starter and who gets the ball as the midweek ballhawk? Ethan 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. Smith pounds 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 giving him a four-pitch arsenal that clearly plays in a starting role. 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. 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. Michael 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 might be a factor in a starting role. Second-year freshman righties Sam Hliboki and Thomas Schultz both got off to great starts last spring and should only get better with another year of strength and experience. Other names to watch will be 2nd year freshman Chris McElvain, true freshman RHP Gage Bradley, true freshman Nelson Berkwich, physical 6-foot-5 freshman Hunter Owen, 6-foot-6 freshman Donye Evans, freshmen Miles Garrett, Patrick Reilly and physical 6-foot-4 Grayson Moore. Vanderbilt has arms to spare-the question is whether they can develop enough to make major contributions that lead to a deep run in Omaha.
Defensively, only outfielder Cooper Davis has experience as an everyday regular in SEC play. Davis also batted in a leadoff role in both 2019 and 2020 and has an OBP of .424 and a batting average of .328. His natural position seems to be left field. 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. 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. 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 (He has been 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 base paths, and he seems to have the personnel to do that in 2021. 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. The other option at the hot corner, the righty-swinging Jayson Gonzalez, who returns after taking a leave of absence in 2020. If he can stay healthy, he has a BIG bat.
Behind the plate, they 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.
Vanderbilt will start the season as somewhat inexperienced, but 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.
Projection: Vanderbilt should challenge for the regular season and tournament titles in the SEC, host a regional. They are poised to make a deep post season run if the experience from 2020 enables the growth needed for this young team to be successful.