Vanderbilt Baseball: Fourteenth Week Behind, Week Ahead
Two things you cannot argue with: a regular season is a great success if a) you finish as the co-champion of the finest conference in the land and b) you end up with the fewest losses of any team in the country. Vanderbilt ended their regular season by winning yet another road series at Georgia this past week and have been rewarded with a ranking as high as second in the coaches’ and national sportswriters’ polls. Without further ado, let’s take a look back on this regular season.
The Immediate Progression: The Regular Season
Looking back on the 2011 regular season, you see a team that was, by all means, as good as any in Vanderbilt history. It may not have had quite the star power as the 2007 squad, but it steamrolled the competition like no other prior Vanderbilt team. In sum, Vanderbilt will ride into the SEC Tournament at Hoover with quite the resume. They are ranked first in both the Nolan Power Index and the Boyd’s World Iterative Strength Rating. Warren Nolan places them 4th in the RPI against the 32nd best Strength of Schedule. Boyd’s has them at 5th against the 40th best Strength of Schedule.
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Vanderbilt was ranked in the top four all season by the Coaches poll and held the top spot for two weeks. They averaged 7.1 runs per game against 3.0 allowed, for an average margin of victory of 4.1, good for second in the nation to Virginia. Their .319 team batting average ranked eighth nationally and atop the SEC. Opponents batted just .218 (fifth nationally), a full .101 worse than the Commodores. Only Clemson (at .092) and Virginia (at .090) were even close to that differential. The 2.55 team ERA was sixth nationally and atop the SEC.
Vanderbilt went 22-1 in non-conference play, the only blemish being a Sunday loss to Stanford. Despite eight losses, the numbers actually got better in SEC play – at least offensively. Vanderbilt outscored their conference opponents by a margin of 234 to 96. That is a staggering average of 7.8 runs scored to 3.2 allowed. Of their losses all year, none were by a margin greater than three.
The team was, above all else, balanced. By the heart of SEC play, the lineup was set and it was incredibly balanced. Behind the plate, you had the consistent stewardship of Curt Casali (.325, 5 HR, 45 RBI, .900 OPS). At first, Aaron Westlake (.360, 13, 43, 1.117) became a conference player of the year candidate. Riley Reynolds (.325, 0, 15, .753) reestablished himself at second and Anthony Gomez (.341, 0, 37, .754) joined with him in the double play combo. Jason Esposito (.346, 6, 48, .949) shrugged off a slow start and continued his stellar defense at the hot corner. In left, freshman Tony Kemp (.342, 0, 24, .859) became a sensation. Connor Harrell (.291, 6, 26, .841) had a second coming at the plate after suffering through a dreadful midseason swoon. Mike Yastrzemski (.309, 2, 335, .834) blossomed into a Mr. Everything role in right field. Not to be left out, Conrad Gregor (.341, 3, 25, .917) joined Kemp as a legitimate freshman of the year candidate. The lineup was bolstered by contributions throughout the bench, even as Jack Lupo, Bryan Johns and Joe Loftus all battled through injuries.
On the mound, the consistency was no different. Only one pitcher who appeared for more than an inning had an ERA over 3.16. It all started with the starters. Sonny Gray (9.3, 2.17 ERA, 95.1 IP, 105 K, .193 BAA) was Sonny Gray, leading the charge with his competitive fire. Grayson Garvin (11-1, 2.32, 89.1, 79, .216) evolved into the nation’s second best Saturday starter (behind only UCLA’s Trevor Bauer). Taylor (4-0, 3.16, 77, 67, .249) enjoyed his finest season as a Commodore in his senior season as the Sunday guy. Not to be completely outdone, TJ Pecoraro (7-0, 1.73, 36.1, 38, 1.92) became a superstar in five shorter, midweek starts and in occasional relief apperances. His freshman counterpart Kevin Ziomek (2-0, 1.82, 39.2, 43, .228) enjoyed similar success in five stars and 17 relief appearances.
The bullpen was bolstered by Pecoraro and Ziomek, but relied mostly on the veterans. The man at the top was Navery Moore (4-2, 9 saves, 1.32 ERA, 27.1 IP, 25 K, .182 BAA), whose numbers are simly phenomenal despite one very poor weekend against Florida. His primary setup man was Mark Lamm (5-0, 1, 2.25, 24, 19, .260) whose fifth-year senior smarts and live arm at a three-quarter angle shut down opponents all year. The primary setup men were actually among the least effective from an ERA perspective. Corey Williams (1-0, 2, 5.76, 29.2, 28, .234) was effective for most of the season, with the major exceptions being instances in which he was asked to navigate a lineup twice. Will Clinard (1-2, 2, 3.08, 26.1, 30, .267) was more consistent and really emerged with a new cut fastball. Battling injuries and wildness, Jack Armstrong (0-1, 0, 2.81, 16, 15, .100) ended the season with his worst and best performances of the year. While Sam Selman (0-0, 0, 1.42, 6.1, 6, .208) didn’t see much action of late, he has been on roster and should see some time on the hill if Vandy is forced to go deep into a tournament format.
The SEC coaches rewarded the Commodores’ performance in the postseason awards. Garvin was named SEC Pitcher of the Year in a minor upset over Michael Roth of South Carolina. Meanwhile Tony Kemp was duly acknowledged as the freshman of the Year, inching out Florida’s Karsten Whitson. Westlake and Tim Corbin found themselves just short in their bids for Player of the Year (Mike Zunino of Florida) and Coach of the Year (Ray Tanner of South Carolina), respectively. Earning First Team All-SEC honors were Westlake, Kemp and Garvin. Esposito, Gregor and Gray all earned Second Team nods. Ziomek joined Kemp and Gregor on the All-Freshman Team, while Gray and Esposito were honored for their defensive prowess.
All things considered, it is unlikely that that is the extent of the hardware this Commodore team will earn, though they expect to have a tough draw in Hoover, at the very least.
The Week Behind
Thursday: Georgia 5, Vanderbilt 4
The Thursday matchup between staff aces Sonny Gray and Michael Pallazone didn’t play out quite as expected in Athens. Vanderbilt hopped on Pallazone early with three runs in the second and a fourth run in the third. Highlighting the rallies were a double by Curt Casali in the second and a Ruthian home run by Westlake on a hanging curve in the third. But something was not quite right on the other side of the hill as Gray struggled with wildness and an inability to spot his out pitches.
Gray’s stuff was not bad. It wasn’t quite as electric as normal, but, especially in the sixth inning, he just couldn’t spot much of anything. His final line of nine hits, three walks, four earned runs and six strikeouts over six innings was among his worst of the year and he left on a lukewarm note. He walked in the tying run and went 3-0 on the next batter before battling back to force a 4-3 putout to end the bulldog threat.
Unfortunately for the Commodores, Will Clinard (1.1 IP, H, ER, BB, HBP) struggled, permitting the go ahead run to score on a wild pitch in the seventh. Meanwhile, Michael Pallazone had completely settled down, keeping the Commodore bats at bay after the fourth inning. He used pinpoint control on a solid curve ball to keep Vanderbilt off balance and carried through with a 118 pitch complete game. It was his ninth win on the year and gave Clinard his second loss. Westlake paced the Dores with a 3-4 performance with a double and solo home run.
Friday: Vanderbilt 9, Georgia 3
On Friday, Grayson Garvin went for his twelfth win of the year and tried to become the first SEC pitcher in history to record a perfect 10-0 record in conference starts. Heading into the second inning, that looked possible. Vanderbilt again struck early with a run in the first and three in the second for a 4-0 lead, but the wheels had fallen off for Garvin. Quite simply, the SEC’s most consistent pitcher had zero consistency in the admittedly tight strike zone. After walking a season high five batters and allowing four hits and three earned runs, Garvin was pulled after just 2.2 innings. It was a disappointing end and no decision for the tall lefty from Georgia.
TJ Pecoraro took the ball and made sure that the no decision for Garvin would not become a loss for the Dores. For 3.1 innings, the righty from New York mesmerized the Dawg bats. Through the sixth inning, he permitted just two hits and a walk against six strikeouts, en route to his seventh win against no losses. He was followed by an amazingly efficient three innings for Kevin Ziomek, who needed just 28 pitches to earn his first collegiate save. The Omega Man allowed just a hit and a walk in his stint.
On the offensive side, Vanderbilt put up five late runs to put the game away. Batting leaders included Curt Casali and Connor Harrell, who each launched their fifth home run of the year. Casali went 2-4 with a pair of runs and RBI, while Anthony Gomez and Westlake added a pair of hits apiece. Mike Yastrzemski went 3-4 with a walk, run and two RBI out of the five hole.
Saturday: Vanderbilt 17, Georgia 7
In a familiar sight, the Commodores jumped out early again in support of Taylor Hill on Sunday. Entering the bottom half of the sixth inning, Vanderbilt led 6-0 and Taylor Hill was cruising; however, the Dawgs got the bats going in the bottom half of the frame. A lead off home run and a pair of additional hits and an error and suddenly Hill was excused with just one out recorded. Will Clinard came on and surrendered a hit and hit by pitch before Corey Williams finally brought the inning to a close with four runs having been scored. In the next frame, Williams gave up a one out, two run home run to tie the game and a solo home run for the lead to the next batter. Mark Lamm came in to stem the tide and pitched well for 1.2 innings, permitting just 2 hits.
In that span, Vanderbilt erupted for eleven runs and a multitude of hits. Against Georgia’s vaunted 16-save closer Tyler Maloof, the Commodores played tee-ball, collecting five hits and two walks with just two outs recorded. Craig Gullickson fared no better, permitting five of the six batters he faced to get hits and score. The final blow was a mammoth, two run shot from Westlake that was struck with such fury against kudzu hill that the California native may actually have figured out a way to stop the kudzu from growing out of abject terror. The long ball was the third of the day for the Dores, with Esposito and Harrell each hitting their sixth of the season.
Lamm earned his fifth win in support of Hill (5.1 IP, 8 H, 4 R, 2 ER, 3 K, 2 BB). The Commodores’ 18 hit, seven walk attack was led by Tony Kemp (4-6, 3 R, RBI), Harrell (3-3, BB, 3 R, 3 RBI) and Reynolds (3-5, 3 R, RBI). The victory also sealed a piece of the SEC championship for the team. With South Carolina already having won and Florida to win an hour later, each of the three Beasts of the East fittingly ended at 22-8 for the shared crown. By virtue of tie-breakers, South Carolina earned the top seed in the SEC tournament and would face the winner of four and five seeds, coincidentally Vanderbilt and Georgia.
Apologies, Corrections and Indignation
Apologies this week go out to Aaron Fitt. True to Baseball America’s form, they followed their formula and dropped Virginia, Oregon State and Florida State due to lost series. South Carolina was the ultimate beneficiary, earning the end of regular season top ranking, with Texas, Florida and Vanderbilt rounding out the top four. The ranking system used by Baseball America is not biased (as has been alleged by some) so much as it just is flawed in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately regard. Fitt has noted that they take a particular regard for winning weekend series. That explains how North Carolina (which swept Virginia to end the season and featured the nation’s top RPI against a top three strength of schedule) ends up as low as 12th in the BA ranking. This is despite the fact that the Tarheels have just 12 losses. How that happens is that UNC lost four weekend series, thereby dropping them in the rankings four times despite the qualities of the resume and wins. That’s also why Vanderbilt is just fourth despite having arguably the best resume of any team – blemished only by weekend series losses to the top and third ranked teams in BA’s poll. And poor Virginia, who had been drafted by the entirety of the baseball world virtually all season falls to fifth after stumbling really for the first time all year. The flawed ranking system that relies on series wins as a crutch really ought to be replaced with one which actually features an ordered set of teams as the pollsters believe them to be; however, such a system might more easily permit bias, and that, we know, is not the case with Mr. Fitt.
Corrections this week go out to Pallazone. I somewhat hedged my language last week in describing his stat line, despite knowingly presented it as skewed by his nightmare performance against Kentucky two Saturdays ago. On just four days’ rest, he was brilliant against Vanderbilt and clearly reflected the all-SEC caliber player whose candidacy for those conference teams was eliminated only after he was beaten by Alex Meyer. Pallazone is the real deal and I will be thrilled to watch him face off against the Dores again on Wednesday.
Indignation belongs once again with the ridiculous standards for scholarships in NCAA baseball. Recent discussion has surrounded the upcoming decision expected to be made by the Big 10 and then other conferences to increase athletic scholarship amounts to provide what amounts to a “living wage” for football players and other “scholar”-athletes. While this may mean an incremental increase in the money granted with fractional baseball scholarships, it does not right the incredible wrong of permitting only 11.7 total scholarships per team. In the only sport which provides such draft and roster uncertainty, it is darn near criminal that baseball players continue to be second-class athletes in the NCAA. Fortunately, Vanderbilt’s tuition grant system for all students alleviates the burden on those Commodore athletes (like their non-athlete classmates) whose families require aid to help make tuition payments. If only the NCAA would permit the administration to do more for our diamond Dores.
Position Player of the Week
There were plenty of players to choose from again, but Curt Casali earned special recognition for his performance behind and at the plate this weekend. With Gray and Garvin both struggling with command and bouncing several pitches at the plate, Casali was a dynamo at blocking balls and saving wild pitches. Meanwhile, at the plate he was hitting bombs going 5-11 with three walks, two doubles, a home run, four runs and five RBI. Even the Georgia announcers seemed in awe of his prowess both defensively and offensively as he shifted into the cleanup spot in the order.
On the other side, former Commodore Curt Powell lived up to the hype in his first shot at his former teammates. He enjoyed three multi-hit games and tallied two doubles while manning third for Georgia.
Sonny Gray of the Week
It is a rare moment when you cannot reasonably call on any of Gray, Garvin and Hill and note a fine performance from any of them. Alas, Commodore fans need fear not because the dynamic freshman duo of TJ Pecoraro and Kevin Ziomek are here to stay. On Saturday, the two saved the Commodores’ share of the SEC crown with 6.1 brilliant innings pitched. Pecoraro blew things by the Dawg batters, while Ziomek played magician, forcing bad swings in early counts for quick outs. Combined on the year, the two are 9-0 and have an ERA well under 2.00.
On the opposition side, it is no surprise that Pallazone takes these honors, for reasons described above.
Rankings and Metrics
Warren Nolan Metrics
Simulated RPI: 4th
Nolan Power Index: 1st
Strength of Schedule: 32nd
Boyd’s World Metrics
Simulated RPI: 5th
Iterative Strength Rating: 1st
Strength of Schedule: 40th
Rankings per the Coaches Poll with records through Saturday night games.
|#1 South Carolina||44-12||22-8||—|
The Week Ahead
It’s SEC tournament time. With Ole Miss being one of the four teams to miss the cut and the only team Vanderbilt did not face in the SEC this year, I’ve already given a look at each of our potential opponents. As such, I won’t give a rehash of the Georgia, South Carolina and Auburn, our immediate opponents. The full calendar is posted in the image below. You can click it to see a full sized version.
VUCommodores.com – On Mark Lamm, Old Age and Baseball
VandySports.com – Interview with Shawon Dunston Jr.
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 feed).
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.