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2021 Position Previews: Relief 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 - Michigan v Vanderbilt - Game Three Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

The additional benefit to having the level of starting pitching depth we have is that many talented, SEC weekend starter quality arms will be pushed to the bullpen in 2021.

Potential Closers and Set-Up Men

#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.

There are not a lot of videos of Hliboki right now (he was a bull pen guy during a Covid shortened season, so it’s not shocking), but here’s one of his appearance against UCLA last March. It doesn’t fully show all he is capable of, but hey, it’s something.

#32 Sr. LHP Hugh “Big Fish” Fisher

(2-0; 4.41 ERA; 52 appearances; 0 starts; 34 & 2/3 IP; 11.9 K/9; 4 Saves)

*Note: Fisher missed the 2020 season rehabbing an arm injury. These stats are from 2019.

Big Fish was expected to be the 8th inning guy in 2020, setting up closer Tyler Brown, but suffered an arm injury and spent 2020 in surgery and rehab. If Hliboki is the closer (as I posited above), Big Fish will be their go to lefty—either the man who gets the ball in high leverage situations against lefty hitters or just the man you pencil in as the 8th inning setup guy every night.

Assuming he’s back to full strength, Fisher throws high 90s heat and has a wipeout slider that reminds me of Andrew Miller’s slider when he was at UNC.

Those two pitches—especially the slider—are enough to give someone a long career in a MLB bullpen. There has never been a doubt Fish has a million dollar arm. The question with Fisher is control—and this has been the question throughout his Vanderbilt career. If he’s able to repeat his delivery and control where his otherworldly stuff goes, he’s the no doubt choice to close. He has yet to show that to us, of course, so I still think he’ll be the set-up guy/high leverage lefty out of the pen.

#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.

Similar to Hliboki, there’s not much video out there of Doolin pitching for Vanderbilt. Here’s what it would have looked like to have to face him in high school:

#66 So. RHP Thomas “The Mayor” Schultz

(0-1; 0.66 ERA; 4 appearances; 1 starts; 13 & 2/3 IP; 11.2 K/9; 1 Save)

The Mayor made his Vanderbilt debut on the same day Jack Leiter exploded onto the scene. Here’s the thing, though... when Corbs pulled all-world Leiter for the less heralded Schultz after 5 innings, you could be forgiven for not noticing there had been a change.

Here was what I wrote about Schultz after his debut:

Boy did he have something to live up to in relief of Leiter... and sweet sassy molassy, did he step up to the challenge:

Well, at least Shultz is doing his best Leiter impression:

First batter K’d (looking). 2nd batter: K (swinging). 3rd batter: K (swinging). Holy Moses…

Vandy Lifestyle brand manager Vandy Import chimed in with:

is Thomas Schultz actually jacK Leiter in Groucho glasses?

...to which I replied:

Or on stilts.

Schultz would also work quickly and throw strikes for the rest of the game, finishing with a line of 4 IP 2 H 0 R 0 BB 7 K in 55 Pitches (39 strikes), and recording the save in a 3-0 win.

Schultz’s 9th:

Single, G3, K (swinging on a heater down the middle), F7.

19 Ks combined by Leiter (12) and Schultz (7) in 5 IP and 4 IP respectively.

Leiter (1-0) gets his first win in his first ever college start.

Schultz (0-0) gets his first save in his first ever college appearance.

It will not be their last.

Returning Relief Pitchers

#29 So. RHP Nick Maldonado

(0-0; 2.70 ERA; 4 appearances; 0 starts; 6 & 2/3 IP; 8.1 K/9; 0 Saves)

Maldonado was another big armed freshman Corbs could call to in the bullpen in 2020. He wasn’t a dominant strikeout artist like some of the others, he more than held his own. Though he averaged more than a hit per inning, he only walked one batter in total. Brownie will call his name when he needs someone to pound the strike zone.

#35 So. RHP Chris McElvain

(0-0; 4.82 ERA; 6 appearances; 0 starts; 9 & 1/3 IP; 6.8 K/9; 0 Saves)

McElvain has a big arm, but is a work in progress as a pitcher. He’s got all the ingredients, though, so let’s give him time to work with Brownie—as Carl Weathers would say, “That’ll make a fine stew!”

#50 Jr. RHP Luke “The Law” Murphy

(0-0; 13.50 ERA; 4 appearances; 0 starts; 2 IP; 18.0 K/9; 0 Saves)

All “The Law” did in 2020 was walk you or strike you out. In his 2 IP, he walked an ungodly 9 hitters (for a “Oh God not in the face!!!” 40.5 BB/9), but if you want to look on the bright side, he did K 2 per inning. With a team this deep, the junior righty must clear up his wildness, or Brownie will stop calling for him. He’s got the arm talent, though, so let’s hope 2020 was just a small sample size thing and he figures it out this year.

#49 So. LHP Ryan “& Kel” Keenan

(DNP)

Though Keenan did not see any action in 2020, he’s only the 2nd veteran LHP (to Hugh Fisher) we have on the roster. There are many freshmen lefties, though, so Keenan will have to battle his way onto the mound this year.

#34 So. UTL/LHP Spencer “Dr. Jones” Jones

(DNP)

Jones spent 2020 recovering from an elbow injury, so he did not throw a pitch on the mound for the Dores. He did spend some time in the field and at the plate (.206/.333/.334), however. If Jones’s arm is healthy, he can truly become our Shohei Otani. Well, I suppose if it isn’t, he would also be our Shohei Otani. Trust me, you’re going to want to keep an eye on this one, as he has Ace potential in his left arm.

The Young Guns

#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).

*Note: What I write about the rest of the Young Guns 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.

#46 RHP Gage Bradley

From Perfect Game:

Gage Bradley is a 2020 RHP with a 6-2 175 lb. frame from Clarksville, TN who attends Rossview. Tall and slender square shouldered build, lots of physical projection remaining. High leg lift delivery, stays tall over the rubber, high 3/4’s to over the top arm slot with nice extension out front, long stride down the mound. Fastball topped out at 91 mph with steady plane and the ability to work to both sides of the plate, maintained velocity well, stays on top of his fastball very consistently. Showed an advanced feel for landing his curveball for strikes and keeping hitters off balance, developing change up. Polished pitcher with strike throwing ability and plenty of physical maturity remaining. Verbal commitment to Vanderbilt.

MLB.com Top 200 Ranking: Unranked.

Perfect Game Rating: 9.5.

#77 LHP Brett “Mmm...ormon Bop” Hansen

MLB.com Top 200 Ranking: Unranked (He was a top 100 prospect in the ‘18 MLB Draft).

Perfect Game Rating: 9.5.

Hansen has spent the past two years on his Mormon Mission, so while he’s a freshman, he’ll be as old as a junior. Let’s just hope he has been working on his game, as he could be a much-needed veteran(ish) lefty out of the pen. He was the #1 LHP in his class in the state of California, so Hansen could be a big piece to this team that’s not being reported on yet.

#30 LHP Nelson “Son of Sam” Berkwich

MLB.com Top 200 Ranking: Unranked.

Perfect Game Rating: Ungraded (though he was the #5 LHP prospect in Florida).

#33 LHP Hunter Owen

MLB.com Top 200 Ranking: Unranked.

Perfect Game Rating: Ungraded (though he was the #1 prospect in Maine).

#44 RHP Donye Evans

MLB.com Top 200 Ranking: Unranked.

Perfect Game Rating: Ungraded (though he was the #5 RHP prospect in Georgia).