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2021 Position Previews: Starting Pitching

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Baseball season starts Friday with a home series against Wright State. I will write position previews once per day on: 1) Starting Pitching, 2) Relief Pitching, 3) Infield, 4) Outfield, and 5) Catchers.

College World Series - Vanderbilt v Michigan - Game Two Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images

It should not shock you to hear pitching will be the strength of the 2021 Diamond Dores. However, there are strengths, and there are strengths. Heading into the 2021 season, Corbs and Brownie have the, hands down, best pitching staff in all of college baseball. Beyond that, we have the best pitcher in college baseball, and his biggest competition for that crown is on his team.

Hoo boy.

The Weekend Rotation

Friday

#80 Jr. RHP Kumar “White Castle” Rocker

(2-1; 1.80 ERA; 3 starts; 15 IP; 16.8 K/9)

The man, the myth, the legend. Kumar, though only a freshman, was the best pitcher (and may well have been the best player) on that 2019 National Champion team. As a sophomore, he was the same, though even stronger. He’s got high 90s heat, a terrifying wipeout slider, and an emerging changeup (which, if he puts that pitch together this year, good luck). In short, facing the big righty is just not fair.

In fact, it could be hazardous to your health.

He’s the Ace. He’s likely to go first overall in the 2021 MLB Draft to Pittsburgh and command a hell of a signing bonus. He’s #80 on the program; #1 in your hearts.

Do I really need to keep telling you how good Kumar Rocker is?

Okay, I’ll keep telling you how good Kumar Rocker is. Remember his 2019 19 K no-hitter against Duke in the Super Regionals (without that, we don’t get to Omaha, let alone win the title) that many called the single best pitched game in college baseball history?

He was a freshman then. He’s a junior now.

He’s coming off the turnbuckle with a craver case of nasty sliders, and there’s nothing opposing hitters can do about it. Get your popcorn ready. Every time he’s on the mound is appointment viewing.

He’s the best pitcher in baseball... and the guy who gets the ball on Saturdays is not too far behind.

Saturday

#22 So. RHP Jack “Leits Out” Leiter

(2-0; 1.72 ERA; 3 starts; 15 & 2/3 IP; 12.6 K/9)

When Leits Out told MLB teams on the eve of draft day 2019 he would honor his Vanderbilt commitment no matter what, I told you all you should treat it like we just got another Kumar Rocker. While they are different pitchers, stylistically, they are the same level of prospect. Similar to Rocker, Leiter passed up multiple millions to come pitch at Hawkins Field. And boy howdy did he come in and put his stamp on things.

In his college debut, against the South Alabama Team Jaguar News (with Darcelle Jones), Leiter and fellow freshman righty Thomas Schultz combined for a 19 K shutout win.

Here’s what I wrote following that game:

9 IP 0 H 0 R 2 BB 19 K in 131 Pitches.

That was the line of Kumar Rocker’s legendary Super Regional no-hitter against Duke.

9 IP 2 H 0 R 1 BB 19 K in 135 Pitches.

That was the combined stat line for freshmen fireballers Jack Leiter and Thomas Schultz tonight in both of their first ever collegiate appearances against South Alabama.

Read that again.

Sweet Pappy Johnson with an erection, if that’s what they do in their first ever games in a Vanderbilt uniform, what does the future hold for them?

Leiter (Al’s son) got the start, and did everything humanly possible to force Corbin to switch him into the weekend rotation right now. In 5 dominant innings, Leiter was in complete control—of his stuff, which was nasty, and of the South Alabama Jaguars’ nightmares, which are sure to be nastier. He spotted sliders for strikes early in the count, worked quickly, painted corners with an easy fastball delivery (92-95 MPH), and never shook off the catcher once that I saw. He will be the Sunday starter by SEC play. I’d do it sooner. He’s ready for prime time right now.

Leiter kicked off his Vanderbilt career by striking out the side. He would K the side in the 3rd inning and 5th inning, as well.

Here was my comment in the game thread after the 3rd:

K (painted the outside corner), K (swinging… the batter nearly fell down), K (knee-buckling curve). If you’re not watching this, you make poor life choices.

...and after the 5th:

K (swinging on a big curve/slider), K (swinging on an outside heater), K (swinging)!!! Holy shit!!!

Though no one mentioned it in the comments while he was pitching, Leiter had a no-hitter going when Corbs yanked him, and would have been perfect if not for one measly walk on a pitch that was juuuuuuuust off the black.

His final line: 5 IP 0 H 0 R 1 BB 12 K in 80 Pitches (52 strikes).

Similar to Rocker, Leiter has a world class heater and a knee-buckler that’s damn near unhittable. Beyond that, on the mental side of things, he pitches like a 10 year MLB veteran. That’s no shock, either, as he was taught to pitch by his father, Al—a 19 year MLB veteran, 3 time World Series Champion, and 2 time all star.

Here’s Al on his son:

Rocker’s the odd’s on favorite to go first overall in the 2021 MLB Draft. Expect to hear Jack Leiter’s name shortly after.

No team has had a 1-2 punch in their starting rotation like this since Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer were at UCLA ten years ago. Be happy.

Sunday

#27 So. RHP Ethan “Raby with a Heater” Smith

(3-0; 1.42 ERA; 4 starts; 19 IP; 10.9 K/9)

Before you scream, “He’s a junior, you nincompoop,” remember, with last year’s season partially cancelled due to Covid, players had the opportunity to gain an extra year of eligibility. As seen above, Rocker’s decision to declare as a Junior and Leiter’s decision to declare as a Sophomore (due to age, he will be a draft eligible Sophomore this year) were intentional, as they’re signaling their availability for the 2021 MLB Draft.

As such, the decision to keep Smith as a Sophomore (he was a draft eligible Sophomore last year, but was strangely not drafted in the 5 round truncated 2020 MLB Draft, despite being a top 100 prospect in said draft), gives Smith the same amount of draft leverage he had last year. In other words, I still expect him to be drafted and sign this coming summer, but if he doesn’t go high enough, or if the money offered does not meet his number, he can come back to The Hawk in 2022 and maintain his Junior draft leverage.

Aside from draft class intrigue, Smith was arguably the 2nd most effective Vanderbilt starting pitcher in 2020 (2nd to Mason Hickman’s 2-0, 0.48 ERA performance). In other words, whereas Rocker and Leiter have the profiles of future MLB Aces, Smith has the profile of a Friday Starter in the SEC, and future back half of the rotation starter (or back end of the bullpen power arm) at the MLB level. He’s Patrick “Mad Dog” Raby with a MLB level heater. How’s that for a Sunday starter?

As a Freshman on the 2019 National Champion team, Smith had to battle his way into early playing time, beating out some more heralded recruits in the process. He was unable to crack the starting rotation of that loaded pitching staff (Kumar Rocker was the Sunday starter, after all), but he did manage 17 appearances out of the bullpen, going 4-0 with a 3.27 ERA and a 12.8 K/9. He limited opponents to a .150 BA, as well, all with a gimmicky, timing ruining double leg pump on his windup (that was understandably complained away as balking by every opposing coach we faced).

In 2020, he got rid of the herky-jerky wind-up, and proved that his arm talent—not his fluky wind-up—was what was getting hitters out. With a traditional delivery in 2020, Smith improved greatly on the mound, as his mid-90s heater and late breaking change kept hitters on their heels. More importantly, the move from bullpen to starter did not kill his swing and miss stuff, as his K/9 only dropped from 12.8 to 10.9. His opponent’s batting average similarly only rose a small amount (from .150 to .182).

For those wondering why I’m excited about moderate drops in numbers, remember that relief pitchers often come in for an inning, and, as such, are able to throw their best stuff with maximum effort. Beyond that, they only have to see a hitter once (maybe twice in a three game series), and do not need the type of arsenal needed to fool a hitter after he’s already seen you once or twice that day.

The number you should focus on is the insanely impressive improvement in ERA (from 3.27 in ‘19 to 1.42 in ‘20). These numbers all match with the eye test, as Smith as a starter focused less on blowing people away and more on location, movement, and pitching to contact so as to go deeper into the game.

Again, your expectations for Ethan Smith in 2021 should be as the best Sunday Starter in college baseball. He has mid-90s heat, an emerging curve, a good enough change, good movement on his pitches, can hit his spots with precision, and a completely unflappable demeanor.

As is always the reality for Vanderbilt starting pitchers, he will have to hold off a bevy of former high school All-Americans to keep his spot in the rotation. Bet on Smith to do just that, force MLB scouts to pay more attention to him, and hear his name called in rounds 2-10 in the upcoming draft.

If I told you we could put Patrick Raby on the mound, but tick up his heater by 5-7 mph, and have him face the opposing team’s worst starting pitcher, you would be intrigued, right?

Potential Mid-Week Starters

#43 So. RHP Michael “Doolin Banjo” Doolin

(1-0; 0.87 ERA; 5 appearances; 0 starts; 10 & 1/3 IP; 15.7 K/9; 1 Save)

The Doolin Banjo was yet another of many power righty freshmen who flat out dominated out of the bullpen in 2020. Though his 15.7 K/9 screams closer, he did so less by throwing straight gas, and more with a control-forward veteran pitching ability. He’s like having another Ethan Smith in the rotation. Due to this, I lean towards Doolin as the mid-week guy this year. Of course, Corbs may go with a Johnny Wholestaff type mid-week plan so as to get innings for our treasure trove of young arms. Even if he does this, I lean towards Doolin getting the nod for the first 3-4 innings. That way, he can still be used once in a high leverage situation out of the pen on the weekends.

#40 So. RHP Sam “The Perfect Stranger/Hliboki Bartokomous” Hliboki

(0-0; 0.00 ERA; 5 appearances; 0 starts; 15 & 2/3 IP; 9.2 K/9; 2 Saves)

*Note: What I write about Hliboki is pasted, verbatim, from what I wrote about him in this week’s Vanderbilt Baseball Mail Bag.

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.

#42 Fr. RHP Christian “The Answer” Little

*Note: What I write about Little is pasted, verbatim, from what I wrote about him in this week’s Vanderbilt Baseball Mail Bag.

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).

The Young Guns (Future Starters)

*Note: What I write about the future starters is pasted, verbatim, from what I wrote about them in the 2020 MLB Draft Primer (2nd-5th Round Edition).

#36 RHP/OF Grayson Moore

Here’s what Perfect Game has to say about him:

Grayson Moore is a 2020 OF/RHP with a 6-4 185 lb. frame from Longwood, FL who attends Lake Mary. Big athletic build, looks bigger and stronger than his listed weight, has filled out and got stronger over the last year. 6.65 runner, very athletic in the outfield with clean actions through the ball and soft hands, outstanding raw arm strength, makes very accurate on line one-hop throws, potential top level defender. Switch-hitter, has a bit better bat speed and barrel whip from the right side but creates leverage and torque from both sides, middle to pull approach, legit switch-hitter with projectable power. Also pitches, high leg lift delivery, slow pace through release, over the top arm slot with some body lean, deep arm action in back. Primary fastball pitcher, topped out at 91 mph, showed some feel for his change up and picked up a strike out on it, developing curveball. Excellent student, verbal commitment to Central Florida.

*Note: Moore switched his commitment to Vanderbilt last July.

MLB.com Top 200 Ranking: Unranked.

Perfect Game Rating: 10.

#31 RHP/OF Miles Garrett

Here’s what Perfect Game has to say about him:

Miles Garrett is a 2020 RHP/OF with a 5-10 160 lb. frame from Stone Mountain, GA who attends Parkview. Slender athletic middle infielder’s type build. Athletic multi-part delivery he repeats well, some energy at release, cross body release out front, plenty of deception for the hitter. Fastball worked mostly in the upper 80’s with good angle to the plate, topped out at 91 mph, good arm side running action at times. Throws both a curveball and a slider with distinct shapes, big downer shape to the curveball, slider has nice late biting action. Tends to drop his arm slot on his change up. Works all his pitches and throws strikes, has a long history of performance and maintaining his stuff deep into games. Good student, verbal commitment to Vanderbilt.

MLB.com Top 200 Ranking: Unranked.

Perfect Game Rating: 10.

#28 LHP Ryan Stefiuk

Here’s what Perfect Game has to say about him:

Ryan Stefiuk is a 2020 LHP/1B with a 6-4 195 lb. frame from Green Bay, WI who attends Preble. Tall well proportioned athletic build, lots of room to get stronger. Multi-part delivery with lots of moving parts and energy, holds it together well, lands a bit closed at release. Upper 80’s fastball, topped out at 91 mph early, worked down in the strike zone very well and missed low when he missed, fastball is mostly straight, worked to both sides of the plate well. Firm change up with nice life. Nice curveball with good depth, was consistently able to backdoor right handed hitters with his curveball. Interesting three-pitch lefty with deception and feel for mixing. Good student, verbal commitment to Vanderbilt.

MLB.com Top 200 Ranking: Unranked.

Perfect Game Rating: 10.

#88 RHP Patrick “Life of” Reilly

Corbs has always done well with players from the Northeast, and Reilly’s from Freehold, NJ. Reilly isn’t as well known on the touring circuit as the other HS pitchers in the MLB Top 200 (again, Perfect Game doesn’t even have a grade on him), but he’s already been clocked at 96mph on the mound. As you saw from this year’s RHP freshman class of Leiter, Hliboki, Doolin et al, it’s a good thing to be able to throw that fast. Let’s sneak him through this 5 round draft and let Brownie work with him.

MLB.com Top 200 Ranking: #181.

Perfect Game Rating: Unranked.