Yesterday, with three weeks until the season starts, Tim Corbin and returning seniors Ethan “Chili P” Paul, Stephen “Sentient Fire Hydrant” Scott, and Julian “Chinfante” Infante sat down to answer questions from the media. Here’s what I took from the 20 minute question and answer session. Click the tweet below to hear the press conference in it’s entirety.
#VandyBoys to start season ranked No. 1 https://t.co/ylgMBjWJb9— Tennessean (@Tennessean) January 25, 2019
The Coach Speaks
Takeaway #1: “A Sense of Peace”/”Playing With House Money”
Tim Corbin displayed his quiet confidence throughout, and never took the bait regarding pre-season rankings. However, when asked about the effects of having so many returning seniors this year, Corbs extolled the virtues of having senior leadership. What stood out were these two phrases: 1) “A Sense of Peace” and 2) ”Playing With House Money.”
With the former, Corbs spoke not only of senior leadership, but the calming effect this has had on what can be the chaos of pre-season competition at a program as good as Vanderbilt’s. He seemed like a man who had been through the battles of trying to mentor talented 18 year-olds who have never not been “the man” on the baseball diamond, and was grateful that the seniors took much of that part of his job off his plate. He described them less as players and more as coaches.
For the latter, Corbs realizes that at an elite program like Vanderbilt’s, it is exceedingly rare that juniors will choose to return for their senior season—especially drafted juniors like Stephen Scott and Ethan Paul. As such, for the purpose of roster construction, he must always plan to have their replacements arrive after three years. He could not afford to expect any of them back, but to get three multi-year starters and a mainstay in the rotation (senior RHP Patrick “Mad Dog” Raby) back is found money.
Takeaway #2: Roster Balance Through the Classes/”Teamsmanship”
Not only are four senior starters returning, three year junior starters OF JJ Bleday and SP Drake Fellows; junior lefty set-up man and closer Zach King and Jackson Gillis; rising sophomore starters IF/OF Austin Martin, CF Pat DeMarco, C/DH Philip Clarke, and SP Mason Hickman; and the #1 ranked freshman class joins the competition for innings and at bats.
In all honesty, Corbs would likely be able to field two complete NCAA Tournament teams with the roster he has, but the competition has been of the healthy variety. Corbs credits a lot of this “teamsmanship” to his returning seniors.
Takeaway #3: Competition: “I Don’t Know if That’s Our Rotation [...] We Rent Positions Here [...] You’ve Got to Pay Your Rent.”
To double down on what I he said before about roster balance and just how stocked this team is, the most interesting thing I heard in this press conference was Tim Corbin’s reaction to the assumption one questioner made that he has “his entire starting rotation returning.” Rather than reply, “Yes, that is a gift,” Corbin, without hesitating, shot back, “I don’t know if that’s our rotation [...] we rent positions here.”
That is exactly what I wanted to hear. With uber-talented freshmen fireballers Kumar “Harold” Rocker and Austin “Big Walnut” Becker, as well as sophomore lefty Jake Eder on the team, last year’s starting rotation of Drake Fellows, Patrick Raby, and Mason Hickman will have to win those spots in open competition, and further, that competition will remain open all year. The best pitchers will get the weekend slots, period. That is exactly as it should be. Expect such fierce competition to bring out the best in Fellows, Raby, and Hickman... if they hold onto their rotation spots.
The Seniors: Ethan Paul, Julian Infante, and Stephen Scott
Baseball returns to The Hawk.— Vanderbilt Baseball (@VandyBoys) January 25, 2019
With three weeks to first pitch, Vanderbilt opened training.#VandyBoys | #AnchorDown https://t.co/q7AZm6vfHO pic.twitter.com/Q2NhAInVmf
Takeaway #4: Position Battles/Positionless Baseball
The main takeaway here is that even the seniors are preaching positionless baseball—likely out of necessity. Like the fantastic depth in the competition for rotation spots, there will be fierce competition for at bats and innings in the field. The senior hitters portion of the press conference opened with Ethan Paul being asked a seemingly innocuous question: “Ethan, what position are you, and what position do you want to be?” Paul, who has mostly played second base, has experience playing shortstop, first base, and as DH over the past three years. To me, he appears to be a natural second baseman, but with Connor Kaiser heading to the minor leagues, he might be pressed into action at SS. Paul realizes this, and has no ego about it. His answer was quick, succinct, and honest: “I’ll play any position the team wants me to play.”
Both Julian “Chinfante” Infante and Stephen “Sentient Fire Hydrant” Scott were asked that same question, and all answered honestly that they have been training at multiple positions, implying that nothing has been guaranteed—even to the returning seniors. Stephen Scott said succinctly, “I think we’ve all been cross-training.”
Though even Coach Corbin earlier pointed out that only first base is currently settled—heavily implying that Infante has already won that job—Julian Infante echoed the sentiments of the other seniors sitting with him, and said, “I still don’t know my position.”
Going into this year, I fully expected the most competition for playing time since our beyond stacked teams of 2013-2015, and it’s great to hear Corbin echo that sentiment, and better yet, to hear that even the seniors have embraced the competition.