Today, we look at what has historically been the strength of the Vanderbilt Commodore Baseball team: Starting Pitching. For the TL;DR crowd, even though we're losing Carson Fulmer, Walker Buehler, and Philip Pfeiffer, it's safe to say our starting pitchers will still be great to dominant, and supremely talented.
In the coming days, I'll look more closely at middle relievers, set-up men, closers, make season predictions (and ask you to do so, as well), and preview the opening series against the University San Diego Torreros. Make sure to check earlier articles about outfielders, middle infielders, corner infielders, and catchers.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree; in Nashville, we've got Hawkins Field.
Might as well start with the bad news... we're not just losing our three weekend starters, we're losing the #8 and #24 overall picks and a 3rd rounder in the 2015 MLB Draft. Let's bid them good luck before we move on.
Friday Starter: Carson "The Florida Flamethrower" Fulmer
I'm not going to lie: I'm going to miss Fulmer even more than I'll miss Dansby Swanson. Carson was everything you want in a player and student athlete. The black belt pitcher had a death stare that could burn holes into opposing batters, a mid to high 90s fastball few bats could catch up with, and a spike curve that left opponents wishing for the sweet release that death brings. He wasn't the most talented ever to take the bump at Hawkins Field (that would be David Price), but he was the most intense, and the pitcher I would unequivocally want on the mound in the toughest and most important situations.
...and we salute him for it.
He's in the White Sox system now. Moving on.
Saturday Starter: Philip Pfeifer
Pfeif was not just a redemption story, as his recovery from addiction is an inspiration to all who struggle with their demons, but he was one hell of a pitcher last year. If the Dodgers (who chose him in the 3rd round of last year's MLB draft) decide to turn him into a reliever, he could be fast-tracked to their bullpen by the end of this year. If they're going to try to make him a starter, it will likely be a longer battle.
Good luck, Pfeif, on your dream journey.
Sunday Starter: Walker "Iron Man/Ferrous" Buehler
Buehler, though last season was marred with injuries, was a valuable contributor, and arguably the most consistent pitcher on our CWS winning team of 2014. He has a repeatable, easy delivery, smokes it up into the mid 90s, good control, never gets rattled, and possesses perhaps the best twitter handle of any Vandy ballplayer ever.
However, some medical issues in the structure of his elbow dropped him down to the bottom of the first round, and he likely wouldn't have been healthy enough to pitch for us in '16 anyway.
LA to see the doc... See if all these three pound lifts have been worth it— Walker Buehler (@buehlersdayoff) December 8, 2015
Get healthy, Iron Man... we all expect to see you in the majors in '17 or '18.
Tyler "Turd" Ferguson
Just an awful year for the Turd, but he still has a million dollar arm, and hopefully the Texas Rangers can figure out a way to harness the immense talent within their 6th rounder.
If nothing else, it was an oversized hat. It was funny.
The Returning Starters
#44 RHP Kyle "The Movement" Wright
Sophomore R/R 6'4" 200lbs
2015 Stats: 6-1, 1.23 ERA, 58 2/3 IP, 9.5 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, .180 b/avg, 0 HR allowed
While many of us on draft night 2014 were bemoaning the loss of potential future Commodore Aces like Touki Toussaint, Justus Sheffield, Cody Reed, and Dylan Cease to MLB teams, we may have overlooked a guy who just might be better than all of them in Kyle Wright. Wright has great stuff (he throws in the low to mid 90s, can throw three pitches consistently, and has impeccable control), but it's the late breaking, down in the zone, movement he puts on most pitches that butters his bread.
In fact, Wright is precisely the type of pitcher I would not even attempt to make solid contact on - opting to try my luck bunting and beating the throw.
He has the capability to buckle an opponent's knees with wiffle-ball pitches, but unlike other movement-specific pitchers, Wright has the juice to blow a fastball by most batters. His all-pitch movement, especially on the fastball, is unlike anyone other than Pedro Martinez, so I can only conclude he will be tossing Serrano by the melon like Pedro did Zimmerman at some point this season. Hey PhillipVU94, that's how probability works, right? I'm pretty sure that's how probability works.
It is not hyperbole to suggest that even on a staff with Carson Fulmer and Walker Buehler, Wright was the Vanderbilt pitcher most in control on the mound in '15. Though he largely served as a closer and mid-week starter last year, he dominated in those roles, and would have been the ace on many teams in the NCAA tourney.
Wright is a little dinged up right now, with an oblique injury. Word from Corbs is he will miss week 1, but will likely be back in week 2 or 3, and will then compete for the role of Friday starter. Despite fierce competition, I expect him to keep that role through the postseason.
#24 RHP Jordan "Stuff" Sheffield
R.S. Sophomore R/R 6'0" 185lbs
2015 Stats: 5-2, 2.85 ERA, 60 IP, 8.3 K/9, 6.5 BB/9, .193 b/avg, 3 HR allowed
Had Jordan Sheffield not undergone Tommy John surgery his senior year in high school, it's highly likely he gets drafted and offered enough money (like his brother, Justus, a year later) to never have been a Dore. Regardless, in his first year back post surgery, he showed glimpses of the All-World arm he was billed as having. He alternated between the bullpen, midweek starts, and weekend starts, with a relative degree of success. Sheffield can dial his fastball up to the mid to high 90s, and, when his control is on, buckle knees with a spike curve, and is currently projected to be a first round pick in the 2016 MLB draft.
However, as is evident by his high BB numbers, control was an issue at times. More than that, batters often worked deep counts on Sheffield, as he often left pitches too high. These issues drove his pitch count up, and he was rarely able to go deep into games.
The 2nd year after TJ surgery is usually when pitchers return to form, so the team has high expectations for Sheffield in '16. The fans should, as well. If things go well, Sheffield can be a second Ace on a dominant rotation. Expect him to start as the Saturday starter, and if he can stay out of deep pitch counts, have an All-SEC caliber season.
#21 LHP John "K-Chow (Arf Arf) Bat Poison" Kilichowski
Junior L/L 6'5" 210lbs
2015 Stats: 3-4, 2.84 ERA, 66 2/3 IP, 8.6 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, .219 b/avg, 4 HR allowed
K-Chow started 10 games last year, but I imagine Corbs is hoping that number is closer to 20 in '16. The lanky lefty is a control-forward, downward plane pitcher with a low 90s fastball who needs to stay low in the zone to be successful. If he's on his game, he is comparable to Mike Minor. If he leaves the ball up in the zone, he's hittable. Although K-Chow doesn't have the arm talent of some of the young guns (see below), it is likely Corbs will want the veteran leader on the mound each Sunday. This is not to say K-Chow lacks talent - in fact, he is currently projected to be a 2nd-5th round pick in the upcoming MLB draft. Rather, this Vanderbilt staff is so deep, K-Chow, Sheffield, and (to a lesser extent) Wright will have to be on their A games all year to keep their weekend roles.
Hopefully, Kilichowski can be a veteran, stabilizing presence in what looks to be a young, though fiercely talented rotation.
According to those who went to the banquet, K-Chow will not start week 1, but should be available, as he's been a bit slow coming back from extra work on the Cape this summer.
Jr LHP John Kilichowski. One of our best students. Been a little slow coming back to the mound after Cape summer, but gaining momentum.— Barry Heard (@barryglot) February 14, 2016
#31 LHP Ryan "Vermeer" Johnson
R.S. Sophomore R/L 6'1" 170lbs
2015 Stats: 5-1, 3.02 ERA, 53 2/3 IP, 5.2 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, .244 b/avg, 2 HR allowed
The pin-pointillist had a great freshman year on the mound, making the most of his 15 appearances (5 starts). Johnson's stuff won't dazzle anyone, but he possesses the kind of control and pitcher's IQ to allow him to battle against anyone. Vermeer is the kind of left-handed corner painter South Carolina or Mississippi State would turn into their Friday starter. While he may never have the gas to compete in a radar gun contest, he is a pitcher's pitcher, and can think his way out of most jams. Though he performed well enough to warrant more innings as a sophomore, with the arm talent at Scott Brown's disposal, I'm having a hard time seeing a way for Johnson to top last year's innings total.
In my mind, his ideal 2016 usage is as a swing starter/long reliever with the occasional L/L matchup. However, I'm writing him up in this article because you just can't count out a guy with this good of a feel for pitching, no matter how many arm cannons are competing with him for starts.
#23 RHP Joey Abraham
Sophomore R/R 6'0" 200lbs
2015 Stats: 0-0, 7.94 ERA, 5 2/3 IP, 14.3 K/9, 15.9 BB/9, .333 b/avg, 0 HR allowed
Perhaps the biggest surprise this fall has been the improvement of sophomore Little Rock native Joey Abraham. With Wright dinged up and K-Chow slow to return to form, it has been announced that Abraham will likely get a start week 1. As he only pitched 5 and 2/3 innings last year, I don't know a whole hell of a lot about him, but will be quick with a scouting report if it looks like he has a chance to see some real innings this year.
S Joey Abraham. Big improvements since last year. Likely first week starter.— Barry Heard (@barryglot) February 14, 2016
The Young Guns
#41 RHP Donny "The Element" Everett
Freshman R/R 6'2" 230lbs
Few expected the Clarksville kid with the 98mph heater and Roger Clemens comparison to pass up MLB millions, but as draft day neared, the chatter started up that he was planning to honor his Vanderbilt commitment. Though that scared teams out of drafting him in the 1st round, the Brewers were still able to scrape together a $2.5 million bonus offer... which Everett promptly turned down.
If you don't want to wait to see that kind of electric arm in the weekend rotation, I don't blame you, but I still think it's much more likely Everett takes the path of Wright, Sheffield, and Carson Fulmer - starting off in the back of the bullpen on the weekends, and picking up mid-week starts against lesser competition until he gets his feet wet.
If The Element passes those tests with flying colors (again, like Wright, Sheffield, and Carson Fulmer before him), he may well make his way into the weekend rotation by the postseason.
However, with the estimable depth of starters Corbin possesses, he might just keep Everett as an unhittable fireballer in the back of the bullpen. Either way, he's going to be one hell of an asset, and absolutely no one's going to want to step into the batter's box when he's on the mound. He's got the kind of arm that can break metal bats.
His day will come. How quickly? Well, he's apparently dinged up and will be out for week 1, but should be back shortly.
#27 RHP Chandler "All" Day**
**Update: Nickname changed to "Day Man," as he is the fighter of the Night Man, obviously.
Freshman R/R 6'5" 175lbs
Day was the other signing day coup (#79 on Baseball America's Top 100 Draft Prospects - College and Pro) for Scott Brown's pitching staff. The Perfect Game 1st Team All American is a tall, lanky, projectable righty ("could he be anymore projectable?") who is already hitting 93mph with his fastball. Day already possesses a better than average curve and a good change up. Though he sits in the low 90s, he's got up to 40lbs of good weight to add to his frame, which should bring with it more power.
Best of all, Day will be able to learn firsthand from Kyle Wright how to use his long arms to torque the ever loving hell out of the ball.
Like Everett, fans will want his arm in the rotation immediately, but Corbs will likely be patient with him, alternating mid-week starts and bullpen appearances until he has unequivocally shown he's ready for prime time.
Everett and Day are the future, but if they can adapt to big time, SEC baseball quickly, might be the present, as well.
Other Freshman Pitchers to Keep an Eye On:
RHP Maddux Conger
LHP AJ Franklin
RHP Matt McGarry
RHP Patrick Raby
LHP Evan Steele