*Before I open the first baseball mail bag of the 2021 season, I hope you will note the juxtaposition of me answering these questions whilst our shooty hoops team is kicking the ever-loving tar out of Clanga. Is this coincidence, metonymy, or full on symbolism? You make the call!
Question from Force10JC:
This Team looks like it will be special. Where will it fall in with the many special teams already fielded by Corbin along with the ones surely still to come?
What a way to start off a pre-season mail bag! Before I answer, let me first point to how good it feels that baseball season is only a week away. Look at the change in tone of the questions from those dealing with shooty hoops and feetball. From “what fresh hell is this?” to “could you rank how phenomenal this team is likely to be to other phenomenal teams we have had in the past?”
Fair enough. Here goes:
That 2019 team was a monster. They’re #1 with a bullet. With the unexpected senior returnees of Ethan Paul, Stephen Scott, the Mad Dog, etc., JJ Bleday putting together a Golden Spikes worthy power surge of a junior season, Austin Martin putting together an arguably more Golden Spikes worthy sophomore campaign, a once in a lifetime Freshman pitching sensation in Kumar Rocker, and an ice water in his veins Closer in Ty Brown... the 2019 team was so loaded, winning the CWS was the expectation, not the hope. In fact, had Michigan taken us down, I think we all would have felt really disappointed. I’m not sure there has ever been a college baseball team that loaded. Maybe that 2018 Oregon State team that took us to the woodshed, or the 1985 Rafael Palmiero and Will Clark Clanga Fighin’ 11.7s? Even then, I’m giving the edge to our 2019 squad. They really were that good.
#2 through #5 is likely some combination of 2014, 2015, 2011, and 2007 (though I could be persuaded to include 2013 in there, too). That’s where I see the 2021 team: firmly within our insanely impressive 2nd tier (one of them won a title, con sarn it).
In fact, I think the closest parallel to the 2021 team occurred a decade prior, as they had a similarly unfair pitching advantage with Sonny Gray, Kevin Ziomek, Sam Selman, Grayson Garvin, Jack Armstrong, and Navery Moore shutting things down out of the pen. Of course, our 2021 pitching staff is even better. It may well be the best pitching staff we’ve ever had at Vanderbilt, and that’s saying A LOT.
Similarly, that 2011 team had some nice pieces at the plate (Anthony Gomez, Aaron Westlake, Mike Yastrzemski, Tony Kemp, Jason Esposito, Connor Harrell, Curt Casali, and Conrad Gregor), but not quite the dominance that was our 2019 lineup. That 2011 team easily could have won the title (as could all of the teams in this tier, with 2015 being the team that SHOULD have won it all). That’s about where I put this team. We have a ALL-TIME pitching staff, but our lineup will not approach what we were able to put out there in 2019. They can easily be good enough, though, given that other teams will have to try to hit against this staff. I mean... good luck.
Question from RocketCityVandy:
If I pin all of my hopes and dreams, and continued dedication as a Vanderbilt athletics fan, on the success of this [team,] am I wrong to do so, and will I be disappointed?
See response to previous question. I have no reason to suspect you will be disappointed. In short, if doing this is wrong, I don’t want to be right.
Question from lsmsrbls:
Maybe Vanderbilt baseball twitter just doesn’t know what “consensus” means. It could be their English skills that are questionable, rather than math. Not sure which one would be preferable.
...and from parlagi:
Follow-up question: What moon man logic led to Vanderbilt being picked #6?
Both of these questions refer to the following tweet:
With respect to the first question, yeah, that mistake by Vandy Baseball Twitter is brutal. Of course, Vanderbilt’s sports media communications have been... let’s just say suspect since they let go of some really good people who used to work there. They deserve your ire. No one associated with Vanderbilt University should make such a public error in counting or vocabulary.
With respect to the second question, yeah, that mistake by Baseball America and Perfect Game is brutal. There are two teams who should be consensus #1 and #2 this year, and it’s us and the Jorts (I would not quibble with the order here, either, as the Jorts are likely to be some really good competition for us this year). At least we will have the opportunity to prove them wrong and make them eat crow. And come June in Omaha, eat crow they shall.
YOU WILL DRINK OUR CROW SHAKE! DRINK IT UP!
Question from BlindRef69:
1. What newcomers should we be excited about? 2. Besides Rocker, what returnees should have the biggest impact?
Oh my God, so many of them. Rather than list them all (as we’d be here forever), I’ll limit myself to one pitcher and one hitter per question. I’ll also cede the naming of each category to Parlagi.
Newcomers to Squee About:
#42 Fr. RHP Christian “The Answer” Little
Little is the ultimate young gun, as he graduated high school early so as to join the team this year. Had he not done this, he would be a lock for the first round in the 2021 MLB Draft (likely in the back half of the first round). He knew he had first round money coming his way and he joined The Diamond Dores anyway. This is my favorite part of the Tim Corbin era (okay, okay, my second favorite part, as Tony Kemp will always be #1), as it happens at least once per recruiting class nowadays.
Here’s what Perfect Game (who ranked him a 10/10 as a prospect) had to say about the 6’4” 205 lb RHP:
EXTREMELY PROJECTABLE BUILD; CLEAN AND EASY ARM ACTION WITH FEEL FOR MECHANICS; FB UP TO 94 MPH WITH TIGHT CB AND COMMAND. VERY GOOD AT PG JR. NATIONAL. EASY 4-PITCH MIX AT PG NATIONAL WITH THE POTENTIAL OF A TOP OF THE ROTATION TYPE OF ARSENAL.
In short, getting him to campus was huuuuuuuuge. While I will not put him in Kumar Rocker’s category, as expecting a freshman to immediately be the best pitcher in college baseball—especially a freshman who’s a year younger than the rest of his class—would be hubris, at best. However, this is a Tyler Beede/Donny Everett (RIP) level get. His best (and most optimistic) comp, of course, is Kumar Rocker, and he’ll get this year to learn how to throw a Rocker-esque knee-buckler from the Craver Case of Nasty Slider’s chef, himself. SQUEEEEEE!!!
Of course, this pitching staff is so stacked, it would not shock me if Little is either the mid-week starter, or one of the bevy of power righties we have in the bullpen. He’s a future Friday starter, though. SQUEEEEEE!!!
*Note: Little’s nickname was chosen as a reference to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy based on his uniform number (and not a reference to Allen Iverson, as all reports indicate Little is not averse to practice).
#51 Fr. OF Enrique “Shockwave” Bradfield, Jr.
Like his teammate, Christian Little, Enrique Shockwave was ranked 10/10 by Perfect Game. The 6’1” 160 lb lefty from Hialeah, FL has a game that should remind you of Juan Pierre, as this young man is faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaast. 6.26 in the 60 yard dash fast. Put him in center field and cover half of the outfield fast. In fact, if he cracks the starting lineup, an outfield of Bradfield, Davis, and Thomas would just be unfair to opposing teams. It’s a three CF outfield tandem, and would erase even the idea of hitting a gapper. Yes, please.
The last guy we had that was that fast was Alonzo Jones (note: Jones was clocked at 6.17 in the 60 in a 2014 PG showcase event). Whereas Jones was never able to fully put it together with the bat, Bradfield’s hit tool is more advanced at this stage in their careers.
Here’s what PG said about him after the 2019 showcase:
Enrique A. Bradfield Jr. is a 2020 OF with a 6-0 155 lb. frame from Hialeah, FL who attends American Heritage. Slender athletic build, not the type of frame that is going to fill out much but has plenty of room for some wiry strength. Outstanding runner, 6.26 in the sixty, has game impacting speed on the bases and in centerfield on defense. Left handed hitter, hits from a straight tall stance with a hanging left lift load, has quick hands and a compact short swing, hands driven swing with contact to all fields, has consistently shown the ability to take pitches and square up the ball, prototype leadoff hitter. Has easy and fluid footwork and actions in the outfield, runs very good routes and charges the ball hard, playable arm strength with a quick release. Polished player who understands his strengths and plays to them. Excellent student, verbal commitment to Vanderbilt.
Of course, like Juan Pierre, expect a Willie Mays Hayes archetype game from the Shockwave. As a lithe young man, he should completely abandon the idea of hitting for power, and instead, put it on the ground and make the middle infielders move. Expect the Vanderbunt to be a major piece of his offensive arsenal. Opposing pitchers should expect that issuing a walk to this young man is tantamount to putting him on 3rd, as he will be a terror on the base paths. Could he be a taller Tony Kemp? I can dream, can’t I?
Of course, like with Little and the pitching staff, Bradfield will have to fight for playing time on an absolutely loaded Vanderbilt Commodore team. I’m not sure he’ll win a starting job right away, but he’s got every tool but power. He’s a future “write his name in Sharpie in the leadoff spot on every lineup card” guy as soon as he wins one of the three starting OF jerbs.
*Note: If you don’t know the origins of “Enrique Shockwave,” Councilman Dexhart of Pawnee, IN would like to take you, and a few of your sexy friends, to a cave in Brazil. If you did know the origins, same answer. In my defense, it was my birthday, and I really wanted to do it.
Returnees to Squee About:
*Note, I’m going to add Jack Leiter to the “besides Rocker” caveat, as both of them are expected to go in the top of the 1st round this year, and if you don’t know about him, you’re likely not our readers. He would have been the obvious choice, of course.
#40 So. RHP Sam “Hliboki Bartokomous/The Perfect Stranger” Hliboki
Obscured by the attention granted to Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter (and rightfully so, of course), was the beyond impressive freshman debut of our Perfect Stranger. Hliboki Bartokomous was unreal on the mound in 2020, finishing the year with a 0.00 ERA in 15 & 2⁄3 IP (2 saves). In addition to not allowing one opposing batsman to cross home plate, The Perfect Stranger held opponents to a .043 batting average. That’s less than 1⁄4 of a Mendoza! In fact, only 4 people reached base when he was on the mound (2 H, 2 BB). On the flip side, 16 opposing hitters struck out.
If I had to bet, Hliboki will be our closer this year (who amongst Rocker, Leiter, and Smith are you going to bump from their weekend starting roles?), but it would not surprise me if he’s our Friday starter in 2022. He’s that good.
#8 Jr. OF Isaiah “I.T./Run Support” Thomas
Though our I.T. shares a name with a Hall of Fame shooty hoops player (though ours is spelled correctly), this one has a future on the diamond. Expect him to patrol center field (or RF if Corbs goes with Cooper Davis or Enrique “Shockwave” Bradfield in CF) all year. Expect him to bat third (or at least in the meat of the lineup) all year. He’s a defensive stud, and though he still has too much swing and miss to his game for my liking, is my choice for the title of Commodore hitter who can swing a game entirely by himself. When he gets hot, he stays hot. He just needs to work on limiting the cold streaks.
In the 2020 shortened season, I.T. moved from “Tech Support” to “Run Support,” as he led the team in HR (4), tied for the lead in RBI (13), and was 2nd in doubles (5). He was the type of player who would normally start as a freshman, but in 2019, the outfield was patrolled by JJ Bleday, Stephen “The Human Fire Hydrant” Scott, and Cooper “The Ontario Barrel-Maker” Davis. Still, Thomas found a way to make an impact, played in 21 games (starting 6), and slashed .368/.405/.684 with 3 HR and 3 2B.
Question from ShoogyMgShoogs:
How do we split catching time? CJ looked good last year.
This is an excellent question and the position battle I will most closely watch all year. As always, our depth at the position is a really good problem to have.
#5 (the number Corbs gives to starting catchers) So. C C.J. “Chi Chi” Rodriguez did look like a future stud last year, both behind the plate and at the dish (.289/.370/.356). In 2020, he found himself in pretty much a 50-50 split with senior Ty Duvall. He looked like a natural receiver, framed the ball well, and was able to block the nasty spike sliders our pitching staff throws his way. The one area he could improve upon is pop time, so as to keep runners glued to first base (but this is nearly always the main thing young catchers need to improve upon).
I have to assume Chi-Chi catches most of our games this year. He will have to hold off the charge from three other Commodore catching prospects, of course.
Perhaps the most exciting of the three is #16 Fr. Jack “Whitey” Bulger, as he was the #35 overall high school prospect in his draft class (and the #4 catcher). Frankly, we were lucky to get him to campus, and last year’s 5 round truncated MLB draft certainly helped us out. At the moment, he’s listed as UTL rather than C on the roster, but we could be reading too much into that. Rather, similar to Dom Keegan, Bulger’s carrying tool is expected to be his power bat. As such, the UTL designation likely means that Corbs is going to try to get Bulger’s bat in the lineup, no matter the position. Expect him to be in the mix at DH and 1B when he’s not behind the plate.
Fellow sophomore catcher #55 Max “Power” Romero, Jr. did not play in 2020, but looked more than able to hold his own in Fall Ball.
The other name to watch is #45 Fr. C Alan Espinal. Of course, he may well redshirt, as our team, once again, is loaded.
Question from lidore16:
If the team split into say…a crack commando unit called, just spit-balling here, the A-team, and a slightly less crack commando unit called the B-team, which players would be on the B-team and where would they finish in the SEC baseball standings?
As an added note, I’m willing to give the baseball twitter the benefit of the doubt because the error most likely lies with BA and PG ranking us outside the top 5.
Answering this fully would require 3000 words, so please accept a simpler version, where I focus on the pitching staff alone. Feel free to ask this later in the year, once we have a better feel for who has won position battles, and I will make my answer to this question a stand-alone article.
If we split our pitching staff into two teams, our weekend starters would look like this:
Friday: Jr. RHP Kumar Rocker
Saturday: So. RHP Jack Leiter
Sunday: Jr. RHP Ethan Smith
Friday: So. RHP Sam Hliboki
Saturday: So. RHP Michael Doolin
Sunday: Fr. RHP Christian Little
Team A is obviously the best weekend pitching staff in college baseball. Team B, well, if Little is ready, they would be a top 5 pitching staff in college baseball. Seriously, they’re that talented. Hell, they might be top 3 (after the Jorts). I could give you a Team C and have them be a respectable SEC starting rotation (and top half if Spencer Jones’ elbow is healthy).
No one wants to face our pitchers. Any of them.
Question from ShoogyMgShoogs:
Where do I have to travel to actually watch them in person?
This question was asked before Vanderbilt Athletics released the following about home games:
Vanderbilt University will allow a limited number of parents and family members of student-athletes at Hawkins Field to start the season. A limited number of student-athlete guests for visiting teams will also be allowed as required by the SEC.
The decision to continue limiting attendance at athletic events is based on the advice and guidance of Vanderbilt’s public health partners, including the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and local public health officials. Vanderbilt will continue to evaluate the opportunity to welcome season ticket holders and fans as soon as possible at games, based on the evolving conditions of the pandemic.
Of course, the questioner likely assumed as much, as the question was about where he might be able to travel where fans would be allowed in the stands. Either way, it’s useful information, so I decided to pass it on.
Onto the actual question: I’m the wrong person to ask, as I won’t be looking for tickets until I’m fully vaccinated (hopefully by this spring), and enough others are, as well. However, Okie State stands out, as I live here, and our Governor—though he caught it himself—has not even issued a mask mandate. OKC has one (though omits churches, for instance), but I cannot speak for Stillwater. Beware of any plan to “open safely” which just amounts to saying the phrase, “we will open safely,” without actually doing anything (or requiring attendees to do anything) to truly make things safe. It’s the Mars Attacks aliens saying “Don’t be afraid; we are your friends” while zapping everyone in their path with death lasers.
I will be watching every pitch I can on TV and streaming this year. That’s enough for me. More than enough, actually, considering we didn’t get to do that for the bulk of last year.
Again, I cannot recommend traveling to my state, or anywhere that has just thrown up their hands and done nothing to mitigate the pandemic. Your mileage, of course, may vary, but please wear a mask and follow CDC guidelines. Please get vaccinated as soon as one is available to you. These two steps will help make it so we can all get back to doing the things we love without putting ourselves and other, more vulnerable people, at risk.
I also recognize that Covid fatigue is real. Doing the right thing in this pandemic has been, and will continue to be, miserable. As an ethicist (Kantian mostly), all I can say is the reward for doing the right thing is knowing you have done the right thing. That’s enough for me, as well, even though it’s difficult. Trust me, I want to be in the stands and see you all in the stands as soon as it is actually safe to do so. Let’s all get fully vaccinated by Omaha. Is that a rallying cry everyone here can get behind?