On Valentine’s Day, it is advisable to bask in love’s warming glow. For Vanderbilt baseball fans, that means talking about starting pitching. While Rob “Right Said” Manfred and the MLB Owners oligarchy are committed to setting Spring Training and possibly the start of the 2022 season ablaze, Corbs and the Diamond Dores have come through yet another offseason of tractor tire flipping, freshman proper oral hygiene teaching, and reminding everyone to oil their mitts ready to start the season with a top 25 matchup (and in some preseason rankings, a top 10 matchup) against Okie State this Friday.
Last year, we took 2 of 3 from Josh Holliday’s Pistol Petes in Stillwater. This year, they come to Nashville. If there’s a better opening weekend clash in the making, I’ve not seen it. The closest is likely Clanga vs. Long Beach State to determine which fanbase are the true dirtbags, The Highlander style. But we’re talking about love, not hate, today, so on with the 2022 Position Previews.
Of course, before you can start anew, you must give the appropriate space and time to mourn lost loves from the year before:
Starting Pitchers Lost to the Draft
Here was how I opened last year’s Starting Pitching Preview:
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.
Let’s just say I was not wrong there, I was just wrong about who would be the best of the two in 2021. Leits Out and K-Rock are the type of one-two punch that comes around once a generation. Not for Vanderbilt, mind you, but for college baseball. The last time a team had a Friday and Saturday starter tandem like that was UCLA in 2011 with Gerritt Cole and Trevor Bauer. You don’t just replace pitchers like Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker and not feel a little sting. So let’s pour out a little Leiter Fluid and a few nasty sliders from that Craver Case we’ve been keeping in the freezer since Omaha.
Oh God... that was a poor decision. The smell of burning frozen slider meat and accelerant haunts the nostrils. Moving on.
Now Leiter is one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball with the Tejas Rangers, and Rocker, though he got completely screwed over by the Mets, will train with Scott Boras’s staff, possibly play a little Indy ball closer to draft time, and will likely be a 1st round selection in this Summer’s draft. Regardless, when they were here, they were Gods. And we salute them for it.
#22 So. RHP Jack “Leits Out” Leiter
(11-4; 2.13 ERA; 18 starts; 110 IP; 14.7 K/9)
#80 Jr. RHP Kumar “White Castle” Rocker
(14-4; 2.73 ERA; 20 starts; 122 IP; 13.2 K/9)
Now onto those who will likely get the ball on opening weekend.
The (Likely) Weekend Rotation
To quote from William Corbin Williams:
so much depends
glazed with Ace
beside the two
Whereas last year, Day 1 and Day 2 were locked in from the get go, in 2022, the pitching rotation is likely to be an active competition. All reports I’m hearing are that Fr. LHP Carter Holton has all but locked down one of the spots. With So. RHP Patrick “Life of” Reilly’s dominance in the Cape Cod League, it’s a safe bet to say he gets another. Fellow So. RHP Christian “The Answer” Little was really starting to put it all together in the postseason last year, so he’s in the driver’s seat to get a spot, as well. Of course, perhaps the biggest question with our pitching staff will be “Where’s Maldo?” as Jr. RHP Nick Maldonado, though he split closing duties with Luke Murphy last year, has been given a shot to compete as a starter. Jr. RHP Chris “McBain” McElvain has been a Swiss army knife in the Commodore pitching staff the past few years, and cannot be counted out in the weekend starter competition, either. Then, of course, you have the guys returning from shaking hands with Tommy John, and of those, Jr. RHP Michael “Doolin Banjo” Doolin is on track to return sooner than fellow Jr. RHP Sam “Perfect Stranger” Hliboki, who may be out for the bulk of the season (potential late season addition, please and thank you?).
In other words, as Chad Bishop wrote recently:
Whom among that group gets the ball for a game’s first pitch, however, remains to be seen.
“(Brown and I) talk about that on a day-to-day basis,” Corbin said of the rotation. “At the same time we won’t be making any decisions right away just because we have a week ahead and more innings to play. There’s a lot of kids that can make some headway.
“I think it’s very fluid and I don’t think anything is going to be set anytime soon.”
Well, that doesn’t help at all. Ah heck, I might as well take a stab at the opening three below, then preview who else is in the running, and then tell you which freshmen other than Carter Holton to keep an eye out for.
The (Likely) Weekend Rotation (*and this time I’ll actually preview some pitchers)
#88 So. RHP Patrick “Life of” Reilly
(4-2; 4.98 ERA; 7 starts; 43 & 1/3 IP; 11.0 K/9)
A big, fireballing righty in Vanderbilt’s weekend rotation? It is a day ending in Y at Hawkins field.
Though Reilly was mercurial at best in 2021, you could see Ace potential in his stuff. What’s got me most optimistic about the big righty is how he flat out dominated the Cape Cod League this summer. Though he only started two games—understandable, as let’s just say he was busy in Omaha during the first half of the Cape Cod League—he had a 0.00 ERA with 10 K in 10 IP. Tough to do better than a spotless ERA.
Oh, and he’s working on both a slider and a cutter. Master those and he can unlock his vast potential.
Of course, the question with Reilly was never his stuff. Rather, it’s about hitting the catcher’s mitt consistently. If he can throw strikes and avoid the big inning (another 2021 bugaboo for Reilly), he may well be the key to Vanderbilt making a return trip to Omaha in 2022.
#42 So. RHP Christian “The Answer” Little
(3-2; 5.48 ERA; 11 starts; 42 & 2/3 IP; 10.3 K/9)
If anyone on this roster has a chance to be “The Next Kumar Rocker,” it’s the wunderkind from Missourah. Of course, see all the “mercurial” notes regarding Reilly and go ahead and paste them right on in for Christian Little, as well. Of course, he was 17 last year, and really started to put it together at the end of last year. (*Note: Yes, expect to hear nothing but this fact from the TV crew in every Little start this year.)
Most promising was his dominant performance in a 5-4 win over Ole Piss in the SEC Tourney, in which he threw 5 & 1⁄3 IP allowing 3 H and 1 R while striking out 7 and walking only 1. Ole Piss’s lineup was pretty pretty pretty good in case you’ve forgotten. Oh hell, just watch it:
Like Reilly, it will come down to control, poise, and avoiding the big inning. Like Rocker, that slider could be a war crime.
#20 Fr. LHP Carter “The Left Handed Sonny Gray” Holton
Though most of my nicknames are name-based puns—and in this case, it would have been “Hears a Who”—every time I see clips of Holton on the mound, or hear insiders talk about him during Fall Ball and/or practice, the thing that shines through is his poise and competitiveness. Now he doesn’t have the “burn a hole through the back of your head death-stare” of Carson Fulmer at his age, but he does have that “thinking man’s competitor/you will have to pry the ball from my cold, dead hands” of Sonny Gray.
He’s got a 96mph heater, a two-seamer with arm-side run that will just be the death of lefties, a slider that will also be the death of lefties, and an improving changeup (which could be the death of righties if he masters it). Oh, and the kid from Guyton, GA just fills up the strike zone with pin point control not common to young fireballers.
I’ve said enough. Watch for yourself:
Oh, and as Jim Callis (at least I think that’s Jim Callis’s voice in the video linked above) notes, the only reason he wasn’t drafted in the 1st round and given dump trucks full of money is that he’s a tick under 6 feet tall. Again, remind you of anyone who used that particular chip on his shoulder as motivation to turn into an MLB All Star?
I think Holton locks in an opening weekend starter role, and further, I’ll plant my damned flag and say he’ll be the Ace by the end of the season.
#29 Jr. RHP Nick Maldonado
(1-2; 2.31 ERA; 28 appearances; 0 starts; 50 & 2/3 IP; 10.5 K/9; 9 Saves)
As referenced above, the answer to “Where’s Maldo?” may well be the true wild card to this season. Though if it were up to me, I’d keep him at closer (and McElvain as the set up man) and let the kids battle it out for the starting rotation. However, as we all know, a prospect will make a lot more money in the draft if teams believe he can start rather than just be in the bullpen. As such, Maldo has a world of incentive to kick down the door and break into the weekend rotation, even if it might not make as much sense from a roster construction perspective. Generally speaking, in college baseball, the most important pitchers are your Ace and your Closer. Have a shutdown guy at both of those spots and you have a chance at winning the whole thing. Having an Ace #2 guy like we had last year was just a luxury that almost never happens. Still, Maldo could win the competition outright, or the kids could stumble early, forcing Brownie’s hand. Either way, he’s a guy to watch.
Corbin says "we will likely start (Nick Maldonado)" because of his pitch package and he's been training as a starter— Aria Gerson (@aria_gerson) February 14, 2022
Remaining Veterans in the Starting Pitching Discussion/Possible Mid-Week Starters
#43 Jr. RHP Michael “Doolin Banjo” Doolin
(1-0; 0.87 ERA; 5 appearances; 0 starts; 10 & 1/3 IP; 15.7 K/9; 1 Save)
Note that these are his 2020 stats, as the Doolin Banjo shook hands with Tommy John prior to the start of last season. If he’s back and pitching like he did as a freshman, he will beat down that door and win a spot. It’s much more likely they ease him back in with mid-week starts and relief appearances early in the season (though when he’s ready to throw even this season is still a mystery). He would be one hell of a mid-week starter (pours rum for Jobu).
*Note: It looks like Doolin will not be available this season.
#35 Jr. RHP Chris McElvain
(5-1; 4.34 ERA; 22 appearances; 1 starts; 45 & 2/3 IP; 11.4 K/9; 2 Saves)
Last year, I wrote:
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!”
Now, McBain is one of the most improved pitchers on the team, and could be anything from a Closer to a Set-Up guy to a weekend starter (my preference is for the former two, of course). I’ll say more about McBain in my relief pitching preview tomorrow.
The Young Guns (Future Starters)
*Note: What I write about the future starters is pasted, verbatim, from what I wrote about them in the 2021 MLB Draft 2nd through 20th Round Primer: The Commits.
#95 Fr. LHP Devin Futrell
Here’s the scouting report from MLB.com:
American Heritage High School in Plantation, Fla., has a very long history of producing outstanding Draft talent, most recently first round infielder Triston Casas in 2018. It’s not been as successful on the pitching front, with Shaun Anderson the lone arm to come out of the program to make it to the big leagues, by way of the University of Florida. Futrell, a super-projectable left-hander, has the chance to become the second, though he might need to follow the same college route first.
It’s easy to dream on Futrell’s stuff improving as he fills out his 6-foot-5 frame. Right now, his fastball sits in the 88-90 mph range, commanded fairly well and thrown with decent life. His changeup is his best secondary offering at present, sold with good arm speed and thrown with good sink when at its best. He throws a slower 12-to-6 curve in the low-70s that will need some tightening at the next level.
Futrell does a decent job of repeating his delivery and staying around the strike zone, though like with a lot of young arms, he needs to refine his overall command. There are some definite starting pitcher attributes here, but it might take some time for it to all click, with the added challenge of trying to sign him away from his commitment to Vanderbilt.
#17 Fr. LHP Ryan Ginther
Here’s what Perfect Game has to say about him:
Ryan Ginther is a 2021 LHP/OF with a 5-11 201 lb. frame from Hendersonville, TN who attends Station Camp. Strong athletic build. Up tempo aggressive delivery that he controls well, 3/4’s arm slot, very fast arm coming through. Fastball topped out at 94 mph and explodes on hitters at the plate, lots of deception with his angle and fast paced delivery, fastball rides up in the zone and gets over barrels consistently. Solid slider with big sweeping depth at times. Pounded the strike zone to both sides of the plate and was in complete command while creating very uncomfortable at-bats. Stuff has jumped forward over the past year. Very good student, verbal commitment to Vanderbilt. Named to play in the Perfect Game All-American Classic.
#98 Fr. RHP Greysen Carter
Here’s what Perfect Game has to say about him:
Greysen Carter is a 2021 RHP/OF with a 6-4 205 lb. frame from Louisville, CO who attends Fairview. Big and strong athletic build with the chance to get even stronger. Hands over the head delivery, compact arm action in back with over the top arm slot that creates big angle to the plate, stays on line well, very little upper body lean off line for his arm slot. Fastball topped out at 93 mph with occasional nice cutting action, holds his velocity well from the stretch, fastball gets on hitters quickly, no reason he can evolve into a steady mid-90’s thrower when physically mature. Firm change up to slow down hitter’s bats a bit, tends to slow arm on his curveball, primary fastball pitcher at present. Switch-hitter who is much stronger at present from the right side, hits from a spread stance with a deep load and fast level swing, generates power to the middle of the field right handed and projects lots of power. Excellent student.