Vanderbilt Baseball is in the middle of a slump. The Commodores have won just once in their last six games and gone from the top of the national rankings to a slot outside the top 10. Is this mid-season swoon indicative of a larger problem, or is it just the product of growing pains from a team filled with underclassmen?
The 'Dores have outscored their opponents 34-25 in their last eight contests but only have a 2-6 record to show for it. Two emphatic wins have been surrounded by patience-testing losses as Tim Corbin balances competitiveness with development in the Vandy dugout. What has been the recurring theme in these upset losses? And should Vanderbilt fans be worried?
Here's a quick, arbitrary statistical breakdown of Vanderbilt's 12 losses this season. Ignore the single asterisks, as they're just there to prevent scores from turning into dates in the spreadsheet. :
|Date||Opponent||Score||Home Game?||Losing Pitcher||Did Vandy Lead/Tie After the 6th Inning?||Runs Allowed, Final 3 Innings|
|2/14/2015||Santa Clara||*7-6||Y||Hayden Stone||Yes||2|
|2/21/2015||Indiana State||*8-1||Y||Hayden Stone||No||0|
|4/10/2015||Ole Miss||*6-5||Y||Kyle Wright||Yes||4|
|4/11/2015||Ole Miss||*5-4||Y||Tyler Ferguson||Yes||2|
|4/17/2015||South Carolina||*5-2||N||Walker Buehler||Yes||3**|
|4/18/2015||South Carolina||*3-2||N||John Kilichowski||No||0**|
|Avg. Deficit:||Home Pct:||Lead Pct:||Late Game RA:|
** denotes that Vanderbilt's opponents did not bat in the bottom of the ninth inning.
|Batting average by order position|
|44 / 155||35 / 139||29 / 132|
- The majority of Vandy's losses (58%) have come at home. 61 percent of their games this season have taken place at Hawkins Field.
- Five of these losses have been one-run affairs. The Commodores are 7-5 in one-run games this season.
- The majority of Vandy's losses (58%) have come when the Commodores have either led or been tied with their opponent in the final three innings.
- Vanderbilt's pitchers are allowing 5.18 runs per nine innings in the late stages of team losses. During the rest of the season, that rate falls to 3.47.
- Vanderbilt's losses have been well distributed between the team's pitchers. No Commodore has accumulated more than two Ls this year.
- It's not especially surprising, but the top third of Vandy's batting lineup has been the most effective in these losses. Those players are batting more than 60 points better than the bottom third of the Commodore hitters.
So what are the takeaways here? Vanderbilt's defeats have been the result of some late game breakdowns on the mound. Many of the pitchers on the hook for those losses are underclassmen - Stone, Bowden, Kilichowski, Wright, and Sheffield are either sophomores or freshmen. Vandy's bullpen is still maturing. The foundation for another championship run is there thanks to this team's immense talent; unfortunately, the construction process has been rocky.
You can make a similar case for the bottom third of the batting order. Those slots have mostly been reserved for players like Tyler Campbell, Nolan Rogers, Jeren Kendall, Jason Delay, and Karl Ellison. Of that group, only Campbell is an upperclassman. Delay and Ellison did plenty of work behind the plate last season, but neither player was effective standing next to it in 2014. They've both made strides after being offensive black holes in Omaha. Campbell made his mark in relief of third baseman Xavier Turner (suspended by the NCAA for practicing witchcraft), but he was hovering around the Mendoza Line before coming to life in the great midwest. The veterans are getting better and the freshmen are learning; though the Commodores are losing, they're still building.
Vanderbilt battled through growing pains to become a national champion in 2014. The Commodores lost five of their weekend series in SEC play and went 1-2 in the conference tournament before the gravity of their talent compressed all those learning moments into a trip to Omaha. Vandy hasn't been losing because they've been overmatched - they're losing because this young team is making mistakes and playing teams that are good enough to capitalize on them. If they can mature and patch those holes they'll prove that they belong at the top of the college landscape again in 2015.