Vanderbilt Baseball: Eleventh Week Behind, Week Ahead
Well, it was the Nashville Massacre weekend. I’m not sure Vanderbilt has ever enjoyed a sustained beat down on an SEC opponent. The only thing that comes to mind is the Basketball team’s undressing of Billy Gillespie’s Kentucky Wildcats in February of 2008.
Of course, the joy of the Nashville Massacre quickly evaporated into the jubilation over Usama Bin Laden “getting got”, to quote The Wire. Nevertheless, we’ll hop right into the topic of the week.
The Immediate Progression
The theme of the last two weeks has been maturity. I was chatting with Chris Lee of VandySports.com last Thursday and both he and I agreed that the thing setting this team apart was a tremendous attitude, highlighted by incredible maturity up and down the roster. In particular, we both commented on the plate discipline and demeanor of Tony Kemp and Conrad Gregor. Both are incredibly advanced as hitters, never swinging at a pitcher’s pitches before two strike counts. The end result is getting good pitches to hit and a ton of walks.
Click through to keep reading.
So far, through their 43 game careers, Kemp is batting .313 with 25 walks and just 19 strikeouts. While slugging .394 (certainly respectable, highlighted by 4 triples), it’s the .446 on base percentage that stands out. He’s also stolen 8 bases in 12 attempts and has played error-free and often spectacular defense.
As a lefty designated hitter, Gregor has seen fewer plate appearances (starting just 26 games and appearing in another nine), but his numbers are even more impressive. He is batting .364 (second on the team), with a .477 slugging percentage (third) and a .486 on base percentage (second). His 21 walks in just 110 plate appearances is simply a stunning number.
The maturity doesn’t end there, though. One also has to look at a guy like Connor Harrell. After a Freshman All-American season in 2010 which saw Harrell bat .300 and play stellar defense, he was deemed the starting center fielder. After enduring a brutal mid-season slump and misplaying a ball last weekend, Harrell was replaced in the starting lineup two Saturdays ago by Jack Lupo. After Lupo went down with a hamstring tweak on Friday night, Harrell remained on the bench as Gregor moved to left field.
So how did Harrell respond this weekend? He pinch hit late in each of the three games this weekend and launched a two-run home run Friday, lasered an RBI double off the wall on Saturday and launched another two-run home run Sunday. These Commodores don’t sulk or cry in a corner when the chips are down. They stand up and get better.
These three examples are just that: a limited sample reflected up and down a lineup led by some experienced and competitive warriors like Curt Casali, Taylor Hill and Sonny Gray. But the freshmen like Kemp, Gregor, TJ Pecoraro and Kevin Ziomek are perhaps the best reflection of the way Tim Corbin and the team leaders run this squad.
The Week Behind
The terrible weather that struck the south on Tuesday and Wednesday cancelled Vanderbilt’s travel to Western Kentucky for a rematch with the Hilltoppers. We’ll see whether or not the game gets rescheduled, but the Commodores were not going to let the momentum depart after crushing Louisiana State by a combined 31-9 score in a weekend sweep. Tennessee was heading to the Hawk and they would regret ever getting on I-40.
Friday: Vanderbilt 10, Tennessee 1
This game actually was a pitchers duel for the first three innings. Volunteer Steven Gruver went pitch for pitch with Sonny Gray until the middle innings, with each team registering a run in the third inning. Gray had excellent stuff again but battled an inning or two of somewhat sluggish control. The run scored against him was assisted by a couple of questionable calls in the inning, particularly relating to Gray’s throw to third base on a sacrifice bunt. The flip clearly nailed the runner, but the umpire ruled him safe, perhaps forgetting the force was in effect. Gray came back from the bases-loaded, no out situation to permit just one run and he cruised thereafter, registering six strikeouts, against just four walks and four hits in eight innings.
On the offensive side, Vanderbilt’s offense was led by Aaron Westlake who launched a majestic home run by the walkway in center field and later walked twice, scoring three of the Commodores’ ten runs. After taking a 2-1 lead in the fourth, Vanderbilt exploded against a tiring Gruver, hanging three runs in the sixth and another three in the seventh. Mike Yastrzemski collected three RBI and two stolen bases in the two innings. The evening’s capstone moment was Harrell’s pinch-hit two run home run to left center off of reliever TJ Thornton.
TJ Pecoraro closed things out for Vanderbilt with two strikeouts in a perfect ninth, but the story of the evening was likely that Tennessee pretty much lay down from the sixth inning on. That was a theme which would be repeated over the next two days. Gray picked up the win, moving to 9-2 on the year.
Saturday: Vanderbilt 10, Tennessee 1
While Friday’s game had some sense of tension in the first five innings, that was not the case on Saturday. Grayson Garvin was Grayson Garvin, throwing 95 pitches over 5.2 innings, allowing just one run on six hits with six strikeouts and no walks. A few very long at bats extended Garvin’s pitch count, driving him out early in the sixth, but by that time the game was decided with the Commodores leading 7-1. With two on, Will Clinard used his cut fastball to great effect over 1.1 innings of scoreless ball. From there, Derek Johnson turned the ball over to Jack Armstrong. In two innings of work, the big right-hander was a bit wild, but flashed some big numbers, hitting 96 on the stadium gun several times. With a hard sinker working and a sharper, flatter slider, he cruised through the eighth and ninth innings, surrendering a hit and a walk against one strikeout.
The offense began, was powered by and ended with Aaron Westlake. Sure, others like Kemp (2-5, run, two RBI), Esposito (3-5, run, RBI) and Riley Reynolds (2-4, run, RBI) flexed some muscle as the Commodores pounded out 17 total hits, but the big first baseman was the man. In his first at bat, he laced a line drive off the right field wall for a double. He would come around to score the Commodores first run in that first inning. In the third inning, he took the same pitch and launched it deep and well past the wall down the right field line for a solo home run. After collecting a single to left, he launched another majestic home run to right, his second of the day and third of the weekend.
While Garvin moving to 9-1 and a perfect 7-0 in SEC starts was nice, the offense was the story of the game. Vanderbilt pounded out six doubles and Westlake’s two home runs. Little did folks know it, but the route was on. From the third inning on, Vanderbilt was on a run that would include 27 runs over the next 12 innings.
Sunday: Vanderbilt 19, Tennessee 3
It could not have been pleasant to be a Tennessee position player during the bevy of extended innings the Commodores put up over the weekend. While starter Nick Blount was punished over his three innings of work (yielding eight earned runs on 10 hits and a walk), it was Nick Williams and Hunter Daniel who earn the true bit of shame. After pitching a scoreless fourth and fifth innings, Williams permitted the first seven batters of the sixth inning to reach. Daniel did little better, recording only one out while permitting another four hits and a walk. Drew Steckenrider eventually quelled the Commodores, but not before eleven batters rounded the bases and seventeen came up to bat. Each of Anthony Gomez and Curt Casali had multiple hits in the inning and Harrell capped his big pinch-hitting weekend with a majestic two-run blast to left. All told, the inning lasted 38 minutes and, at its end, there was nothing but shame for Todd Raleigh’s Volunteer club. Several times, Vanderbilt runners obediently chose not to advance on wild pitches and passed balls, almost rubbing in the clear and utter dominance of the weekend.
Flipping to the other side, the Volunteer bats were stymied by Taylor Hill. The senior righty was dominant over six innings of work, permitting just four hits and a walk, with six strikeouts. At just 82 pitches, he was relieved after sitting for the nearly forty minute bottom half of the sixth frame. He was replaced by Kevin Ziomek, who used his wicked curve to get two strikeouts against one hit in the seventh. Mark Lamm actually struggled, with a couple of well struck hits, a walk and an error by Harrell in center field (on a not routine, but makeable play). He was tagged with surrendering one earned run (at which point the Hawkins Field crowd sympathetically gave the Volunteers an ovation) and two unearned runs. Navery Moore closed the game out in the ninth, allowing just a hit by pitch.
The Commodore offense was the story of the day, tallying a season high 19 runs on 21 hits and six walks. Six batters had multiple hits, including Gomez (4-6, two runs, RBI), Kemp (2-4, four runs, two walks), Casali (2-4, two runs, four RBI), Gregor (2-3, two runs, RBI) and Esposito (3-6, two runs, three RBI). Esposito extended his batting streak to 23 games with the successful weekend. Also pitching in was Sam Lind, who started two days at designated hitter over the weekend and showed opposite field power each day. After doubling to the wall in left center Saturday, Lind cleared the Green Monster on Sunday for his first home run as a Commodore. He also added two sacrifice flies on the day.
On Twitter, I coined the weekend the #NashvilleMassacre during the third inning, after Vanderbilt took a 7-0 lead on Riley Reynolds’ double. After the weekend, there was no better description. Vanderbilt out scored Tennessee 39-5, outhit them 49-19 and enjoyed 21 extra-base hits to the Volunteers’ four. You felt really bad for a few Vols like Khayyan Norfork who was showing great effort in the field at second all week, but this Volunteer team had, quite simply, given up. In fact, with just three weekends of SEC play remaining, it’s likely that the 19 runs that Vanderbilt put on Tennessee on Sunday equals a sum greater than the number of days for which Raleigh will remain employed in Knoxville.
Apologies, Corrections and Indignation
Apologies are two-fold today. For myself, I apologize for getting this up late. Additionally, on behalf of Vanderbilt, I apologize to Tennessee’s Zach Osborne. During Sunday’s game, Vanderbilt marketing made the somewhat crass choice to play the oompah-loompah song as you strode to the plate. I also must admit that I chortled a bit, before reprimanding myself.
My correction this week addresses the mistake of discounting the Commodore lineup. I’ve been promoting this as a pitching-first squad in a pitcher-friendly ballpark, but Vanderbilt, as a team, is tearing up the SEC offensively, scoring a whopping 7.91 runs per game while allowing only 2.86, for a winning margin over 5.05 runs per game, or +106 over the course of 21 games. Other than Florida (+73) and South Carolina (+52), no other SEC team is higher than Georgia’s +3. In SEC play, the Commodores lead the SEC in batting average (.337), slugging (.491), on base percentage (.417), doubles (49) and triples (6), and are second in home runs (18).
Against the best competition in all of college baseball, the Commodores have responded by becoming a veritable bowling ball against the pins of each pitching staff other than South Carolina’s. The attack is balanced, with seven Vanderbilt batters among the SEC’s top sixteen in conference batting average. Of the seven top run scorers, five are from Coach Corbin’s lineup. Add in that each of Garvin, Gray and Hill rank among the top ten in ERA among starters, and it’s not hard to see why Vanderbilt has a somewhat preposterous scoring margin and an enviable 17-4 record.
As for indignation, well, we’ll start by noting that I do consider Aaron Fitt to be the most accomplished national collegiate baseball writer in the business. That said, in his first year on the West Coast for Baseball America, he’s taking a fondness to Oregon State. Actually, that’s not entirely fair to say. Let’s go into the whole story.
Three weeks ago, Oregon State completed a two week stretch in which they swept Arizona State at home and Stanford on the road. That same weekend, Vanderbilt dropped its first series at South Carolina. Baseball America decided to catapult Beavers six spots to third and drop the previously top ranked Commodores to fourth. In doing so, Oregon State jumped over a Fullerton squad that went 4-0 on the week, a Texas squad that went 3-1 and Florida and Texas A&M squads that won their weekend series.
Now, I don’t begrudge a ranking spot of one place – to be quite honest, it’s entirely irrelevant. Nevertheless, the justification for pushing Oregon State (a hot streak and perceived under-ranking) violated a semi-cardinal rule that has kept Oregon State in the number three ranking the last two weeks. Notably, higher ranked teams that won weekend series were jumped by the Beavers three weeks ago. In the case of Florida, they were jumped while defeating a solid Georgia squad on the road. Baseball America folks (as well as Kendall Rogers of Perfect Game) have long noted that you generally do not drop a team if they win their weekend series. This rule makes particular sense early in a season when the sample sizes are small. Later in the year, it makes less sense.
Nevertheless, the justification for Oregon State’s jump was a hot streak. If you look at the last 20 games for Vanderbilt and the last 21 games for Oregon State (21 so as to include their 7-2 loss to Oregon on Tuesday night of this week), you have the following results:
|Vs Top 50 RPI||12-2||12-3|
It would sure seem to me that while both teams are on nice runs, one, in particular, is steamrolling the competition. Vanderbilt has demolished its opponents, save a visit to Columbia and the defending champions who currently hold the second ranking in Baseball America’s poll.
While Vanderbilt has continued to streak, with back-to-back, impressive sweeps since being jumped by the Beavers, Oregon State has dropped a game each of the last two weekends. While admitting several times that he actually believes Vanderbilt is the better team, Fitt pointed to the apprehension toward dropping the ranking of teams which had won weekend series in favor of “hot teams” – or exactly what he did in advancing the Beavers over Florida, Texas and Texas A&M.
When looking at the two teams on the year, arguments that would put Oregon State ahead of Vanderbilt in talent don’t really emerge easily. Fitt has publicly agreed that Commodores are probably the superior team — he also noted that he thinks Florida might have the most talented team, a sentiment I agree with as well. Here are the basic, full season team profiles for the Commodores and Beavers.
|WN RPI / SOS||2 / 30||12 / 53|
|Boyd ISR / SOS||1 / 52||8 / 37|
|Vs Top 50 RPI||16-5||12-5|
|Vs Top 100 RPI||21-5||20-7|
Now, the takeaway is that both of these teams are excellent. They both pitch well and field well (.973 for Oregon State, .972 for Vanderbilt), but the offenses are not comparable and neither are the scoring margins against roughly equal schedules. Fitt cited series against Brown (227 RPI, 3 games, +7 scoring margin) or UIC (207, 3, +6) as condemning of Vanderbilt; however, he saw no such problem with Hartford (291, 4, +44), Seattle (229, 2, +1, loss) and Portland (226, 2, +15) on the Beaver’s slate. Of Oregon State’s +107 scoring margin on the year, +60 comes from those eight games. For Vanderbilt, only +13 of their +182 scoring margin in 2011 is attributable to those six games.
He also cited San Diego as emblematic of weak scheduling by Vanderbilt, though they ranked 28th and 31st in the preseason rankings from Collegiate Baseball and the Coaches Poll and had the fourth best recruiting class according to Baseball America – a class that has fared far worse than Vanderbilt’s 12th ranked cadre. In fact, based on Intended Strength of Schedule calculated at Boyd’s, both teams tried to put together tough slates, with Oregon State ranked 15th and Vanderbilt 17th in intended difficulty. The supposedly weak Commodore out-of-conference schedule ranked 67th in intended strength, compared to Oregon State’s 122nd (note that there is no updated ranking of out-of-conference schedule strength).
Even if you argue that Vanderbilt’s schedule is “weak”, there is no denying that they have taken care of business. Their five losses are two to South Carolina (4 RPI) and one each to Stanford (18), Arkansas (19) and Mississippi State (26). Oregon State’s ten losses include two to Fresno State (23) and one each to Arizona (31), Washington State (39), UCLA (44), Long Beach State (67), Oregon (92), UC Santa Barbara (103), Texas A&M Corpus Christi (113) and Seattle University (229). Without controlling for being on the road or at home, each Oregon loss other than the two to Fresno State are considered “worse” for RPI purposes than Vanderbilt’s worst loss, which was to a team on the periphery of the RPI top 25.
In any respect, this is not an exercise in arguing which team is better. That will be determined by the end of the year and, at this point, seems agreed upon by both Vanderbilt supporters and Fitt. What is worthy of minor indignation is resting upon the crutch of a supposed ranking rule to transpose the rankings of two teams when you publicly state a belief that the lesser ranked team is superior. If that rule is firmly adhered to, one might not have a problem; however, to rely on it only when convenient is another matter. Again, I respect Fitt greatly and take some bemusement out of watching the squabble over this ranking evolve over the last three weeks. My point is not that it matters, but that Baseball America looks rather ridiculous to rank teams based on any system other than how good they actually think they are – particularly this late in the season.
For more weekly honors, check out AnchorOfGold‘s Rookie of the Year-themed awards.
Best Offensive Player
This one was easy. Though he didn’t enjoy the greatest Sunday, Aaron Westlake was a beast on Friday and Saturday, setting the tone for the weekend with three massive home runs. His weekend totals included five hits in eleven at bats. He scored seven runs and tallied a double to go along with his three solo shots. For the season, Westlake is now second in the SEC in batting average (.382), slugging percentage (.689), on base percentage (.508) and home runs (9). He leads the league in walks (34), is third in total bases (102) and fourth in runs scored (43). When considering conference play only, he slips to 16th in batting average (.346), but leads the league in slugging (.731) and home runs (7).
For the opponents, there were no worthy batters this week; however, Khayyan Norfork deserves great credit for seeming to be the only Volunteer who wanted to be out there.
Sonny Gray of the Week
This week’s award goes to the senior, Taylor Hill. Each of Gray and Garvin threw well on the weekend, but Hill was simply masterful in moving to 4-0. He hit 94 on the gun several times with painted four-seam fastballs on the outside corner and had his two-seamer and curve ball working. It was a question only of when Coaches Corbin and Johnson would replace Hill for want of getting Ziomek, Williams, Lamm and Moore some work on the week. With Hill throwing a shutout, this move was delayed perhaps an inning more than would have been optimal, but the long bottom half of the sixth inning sealed Hill’s day at six scoreless innings, four hits, one walk and six strikeouts.
For as unworthy as the Volunteer batters were, the pitchers were more so. Although Steven Gruver showed promise on Friday, I’ve decided to award Aaron Westlake this honor for his performance on Sunday. Of all 14 batters to come to the plate for Vanderbilt, only pinch hitter Spencer Navin (0-1, walk), pinch hitter Bryan Johns (0-2) and Westlake (0-3, run, walk) failed to get a hit. As Navin and Johns only entered after the Commodores had put their foot off the brakes, Westy gets the honor of being the rally killer and Volunteer stopper on Sunday, a fitting cap for an outstanding week.
Rankings and Metrics
Baseball America: 4th (Virginia, South Carolina, Oregon State) (LW: 4th)
ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll: 2nd (Virginia) (LW: 2nd)
NCBWA: 1st (LW: 2nd)
Collegiate Baseball: 3rd (South Carolina, Virginia) (LW: 3rd)
Perfect Game: 3rd (South Carolina, Virginia) (LW: 3rd)
Warren Nolan Metrics
Simulated RPI: 2nd
Nolan Power Index: 2nd
Strength of Schedule: 31st
Boyd’s World Metrics
Simulated RPI: 3rd
Iterative Strength Rating: 1st
Strength of Schedule: 52nd
Records including Tuesday games. Rankings per the Coaches Poll.
|#3 South Carolina||35-8||17-4||—|
The Week Ahead
Vanderbilt travels to Lexington this weekend to face off against the SEC’s cellar dweller. They are 20-25 on the year and just 4-17 in conference play. They are sitting right on an even margin, scoring 5.5 runs per game to 5.4 allowed. Their Warren Nolan RPI stands at 136, NPI at 195 and ISR at 141 against Boyd’s 71st toughest schedule. They’ve gone just 2-17 against teams in the top 50 of the RPI and are coming off of a three game sweep at the hands of the Louisiana State squad that Vanderbilt easily dismissed the week before. Since March 23, Kentucky is just 6-17, with the lone highlight being stealing a weekend series from Arkansas.
As a team, Kentucky bats .293 in a relatively hitter friendly park. They are led by left fielder Chad Wright (.331, 4 HR, 29 RBI), designated hitter Braden Kapteyn (.310, 6, 39), shortstop Taylor Black (.324, 2, 31), and third baseman Thomas McCarthy (.311, 4, 23). The lineup is also very balanced, with eight batters hitting at least .275 and having no fewer than two home runs.
On the hill, there also is some talent there. The staff is led by Friday ace and potential top 15 draft pick righty Alex Meyer (4-5, 3.32 ERA, .225 batting average against), who is leads Sonny Gray in the strikeout category, 91 to 86. He’s followed by lefties Corey Littrell (5-4, 5.80, .292) on Saturday and Taylor Rogers (2-6, 5.43, .305) on Sunday. Midweek starter Jordan Cooper (3-1, 4.37, .315) could also see time this weekend, but is a right hander and not a preferable match up against the Commodore lineup.
The bullpen is somewhat shaky for the Wildcats, with solid performances turned in by Alex Phillips (2.08 ERA in 26 innings), Trevor Gott (2.52 in 25) and Walter Wijas (3.73 in 31.1). But no clear closer has emerged for Kentucky. The team ERA stands at a respectable, but mediocre 4.43.
Vanderbilt should continue to counter with Gray, Garvin and Hill, with a fully rested bullpen after no midweek games. If Gray can out-duel his draft board rival in Meyer, Vanderbilt should cruise to the weekend sweep.
Baseball America – Top 25 Tracker Page (updates when posted by BA)
VandySports.com – Baseball Page (multiple stories and previews, including great Mike Rapp photo sets)
College Baseball Daily – Vanderbilt Tag (including Drew Fann’s weekly blog)
Let me know what you think, as I always appreciate feedback (even if just to note a typo). You can comment below, share this article on Twitter or Facebook. And remember to follow me on Twitter (my baseball tweeting account or this website’s feeds).
And a special thanks to Mike Rapp at VandySports.com. He is the best photographer of Vanderbilt sports and an even better person. Without him, this site wouldn’t have most of its sports art.