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Position Preview: Relief Pitcher

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Tyler Brown will close it down, but who will join him in the game’s best bullpen?

College World Series - Vanderbilt v Michigan - Game Two
The best in the business.
Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images

With just 6 days until the start of the season, we turn our attention to the bullpen—where we will have the game’s best Closer, and enough depth at reliever to form another SEC caliber starting rotation. Of course, who will be available in relief depends entirely on who wins the 3 and 4 starting pitching slots, so other than at Closer, consider the remaining players’ roles in flux until the end of the year.

*Click here for the Starting Pitcher Preview, Outfield Preview, Catcher Preview, First Base Preview, Shortstop Preview, Second Base Preview, and Third Base Preview.

Departures

#34 Jr. LHP Zach King (0-2; 6.18 ERA; 22 App; 3 Starts, 3 Saves)—13th round Miami Marlins

#35 Jr. LHP Jackson Gillis (1-1; 5.14 ERA; 7 App; 0 Starts, 0 Saves)—13th round Milwaukee Brewers

#55 RS Fr. LHP Joe Gobillot (0-0; 15.50 ERA; 2 App; 0 Starts, 0 Saves)—16th round Tampa Bay Rays

#49 RS Jr. LHP A.J. Franklin (1-0; 10.43 ERA; 14 App; 0 Starts, 0 Saves)—17th round Kansas City Royals

#43 Fr. RHP Austin “Big Walnut” Becker (0-0; 15.50 ERA; 2 App; 0 Starts, 0 Saves)—[Transfer to Texas Tech]

It’s a testament to how highly regarded Vanderbilt is as a pitching factory that four relievers with draft year stat lines like this got MLB bonus money. As such, we’re not losing anyone we can’t replace, or haven’t already recruited over. Of the four draftees, Gillis has the biggest arm. Jacky Fastball, of course, suffered through an injury plagued 2019, and though coming into the season, he was looked at as a back of the pen option, only saw action in 7 games. Zach King had a pretty good 2018 (1-4, 3.46 ERA; 3 Starts; 3 Saves), but struggled with consistency and command in ‘19, and was effectively replaced by Jake “Eder of Souls” Eder by tourney time. Franklin mostly saw time in mop-up duty, or as a LOOGY. You can be forgiven if you forgot Gobillot and Becker were on last year’s team.

Still, lefties don’t grow on trees, and the one weakness of the 2020 roster of arms will be handedness. If you scour our roster, you will find that we only have 4 southpaws currently. One is a freshman (Ryan Keenan) who is unlikely to see much action this year. The other freshman, Spencer “The Gift” Jones, is much more likely to find playing time at 1B/DH this year than on the mound, as he fractured his elbow last year (of course, if his arm is able to get back to 100%, the bullpen sure could use him). One (Jake Eder) may be poached from the pen and used in the starting rotation on Sundays. The remaining lefty is the uber-talented Hugh Fisher... and... I’ll let Corbs break the news to you:

Head coach Tim Corbin on Fisher: “Hugh will be sitting this year out after having arm surgery after the summer. He has taken advantage of the situation by improving his body, working on lower body mechanics and mentoring the new players in the program. He works very hard at his craft and will make a full recovery.”

At this point you may be wondering why I sold the bullpen as such a strength at the outset of this article. Well, shut up.

Oh don’t worry, I’ll explain it now.


Returning Players:

The Closer

#21 Jr. RHP Tyler “The Delivery Man” Brown (3-1; 2.19 ERA; 31 App; 0 Starts, 17 Saves)

Brown was recently named 1st team All-SEC, and is pretty much every baseball scribe’s 1st team All-American Closer. The man has overcome more in his young life than most will in multiple lifetimes, and has emerged through his trial-by-fire youth with ice water in his veins. He can blow it by you, buckle your knees with a spike a curve, pin-point you to death, and change speeds like a pitcher wise beyond his years. His unreal 13 K/9 rate and 1.65 BB/9 rate tells part of the story, but his intangibles are off the charts. Brown gets called on to deliver in the most tense situations, but you’ll never see it on his placid, stoic face.

Simply put, Brown is more calm on the mound than I have been at any point of my life, and I’m including being put under anesthesia when I got my wisdom teeth removed. In fact, I am at my most zen when Corbs signals to the pen to bring in Brown, as there is no doubt he will get the job done—quickly, efficiently, and without incident.

He can throw on back to back days, if needed. He can give us a 3 inning save with only one run of cushion, if needed. Hell, he could get you a toe by 3 o’clock this afternoon... with nail polish, if needed.

I want to pause to reflect on the unbelievable luxury we have to use an All-World talent like Brown at Closer. Believe you me, he would start on every other SEC team, and be the Ace of most. For us, though, he gives us the Maybach-esque luxury of being able to slow down our hearts and compress tournament games to 6 innings.

Back of the Bullpen Options

#39 Jr. LHP Jake “Eder of Souls“ Eder (2-0; 2.97 ERA; 19 App; 0 Starts, 4 Saves)

The only thing that keeps Eder from being our Set-Up man is, well... here’s what I said about the possibility of using Eder as a starter this year:

You know Eder as the man with the ball in his hand, collecting the three inning save when we won our 2nd title this past June. If he stays in that role, we will have the best one-two punch of Set-up man (Eder) and Closer (Brown) in all of college baseball. However, if he can hold off Leiter, Doolin, and Hliboki and win the Sunday starter jerb, we may well have to change the name to Jake “Innings” Eder.

The truth is, Jake was always expected to be a starter when he passed up a pretty sizable MLB bonus to pitch at Hawkins Field.

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s what Baseball America had to say about the big lefty when they ranked him the #11 prospect in the Cape Cod League:

11. Jake Eder, LHP, Orleans (Junior, Vanderbilt)

Eder was one of Vanderbilt’s most-trusted relievers this spring and helped the Commodores win the national championship. After their triumph in Omaha, he reported to Orleans, where he pitched impressively in the rotation.

Eder certainly passes the eye test at a listed 6-foot-5, 220 pounds. He has a smooth delivery that generates easy velocity. His fastball sits in the low 90s and reaches 94 mph with the chance for more velocity down the line. He has a good breaking ball and is developing a changeup, giving him the makings of a solid three-pitch mix. He pitches with average control. Eder’s biggest knock right now is that he hasn’t proven himself as a starter for an extended period of time. He’ll likely have a chance to do so this spring at Vanderbilt, but the early look scouts got of him this summer as a starter for Orleans was an encouraging one.

In fact, I expect him on the mound two Sundays from now against Cal Poly St. Luis Abysmal in the MLB4 tourney in Scottsdale, AZ. Not only does Eder give us a lefty in the rotation, he’s one heck of a talent on the mound. Hell, if Jack Leiter didn’t do the same thing Kumar did in ‘18, and spurn offers of $4 million + by MLB teams, we’re not even having this conversation.

With two mid-week games against South Alabama (Feb 18th and 19th) at The Hawk, Leiter and one of freshmen Hliboki or Doolin (or maybe even sophomores Chance Huff or Ethan Smith—sweet sassy molassy, we’re deep!) will still be able to start in our first five games.

Of course, if Corbs decides to keep Eder in the pen, he’s automatically our Set-Up Man, and in tandem with Brown will effectively shrink all Vanderbilt games to 6 innings. That’s insanely valuable, and one hell of a consolation prize if Eder is beaten out for the Sunday starter job.

#27 So. RHP Ethan Smith (4-0; 3.27 ERA; 17 App; 0 Starts, 0 Saves)

At the moment, my best comp for Smith is some mix between departing senior all-time wins leader Patrick “Mad Dog” Raby and current Saturday starter Mason “The Stonecutter” Hickman. Smith throws in the low to mid 90s and has impeccable control. On pretty much every collegiate baseball team not named Vanderbilt, the sophomore would have shored up a starting rotation spot by now. In his freshman year, he mowed them down with the best of them, sporting a near Tyler Brown-ian 12.82 K/9 rate. On top of that, he led the team with a .150 batting average against. In fact, he took that title by a large margin, as the only two other pitchers who held opposing batters under .200 in 2019 were Mason Hickman (.183) and Tyler Brown (.193) respectively. If he only pitches to his freshman levels, that’s an upgrade over every single departing reliever... and a substantial one, at that. Of course, it wouldn’t shock me if he wins the Mid-Week Starter job, either. He’s got a chance to be something special.

#40 Fr. RHP Sam “Hliboki Bartokomous” Hliboki (N/A)

It’s going to sound like I’m repeating myself, a lot, but Hliboki Bartokomous could excel either in the rotation or in the pen. I’m putting him here, as he throws the hardest of our group of stud freshman righties. Again, he could be in the mix for the Mid-Week Starter job, as well.

The Remaining Bullpen Options:

#45 So. RHP Chance “The Pitcher” Huff (2-0; 6.38 ERA; 8 App; 4 Starts, 0 Saves)

#43 Fr. RHP Michael “Banjo” Doolin (N/A)

#33 Jr. RHP Erik “Hail” Kaiser (0-0; 12.00 ERA; 1 App; 1 Starts, 0 Saves)

#34 Fr. LHP Spencer “The Gift” Jones (N/A)

#35 Fr. RHP Chris McElvain (N/A)

#29 Fr. RHP Nick Maldonado (N/A)

#49 Fr. LHP Ryan Keenan (N/A)

#50 RS Fr. RHP Luke Murphy (N/A)

#66 Fr. RHP Thomas Schultz (N/A)