Vanderbilt Baseball 2013: Preview Part 1
It’s that time of year again. Tim Corbin has closed out another masterful performance at the annual baseball banquet, showing an incredible knowledge of his players that is part savant and part parent. Through his words, we learned a little bit more about what makes each of the spectacular young men who comprise the 2012/13 Vanderbilt baseball family. Also introduced were a pair of new coaches to join Coach Corbin and Volunteer Assistant Larry Day. Replacing new Oklahoma State Coach Josh Holliday and new Cubs Pitching Coordinator Derek Johnson are Recruiting Coordinator Travis Jewett and Pitching Coach Scott Brown, formerly of Arizona State and St. Johns respectively.
This Part 1 of my annual baseball prospectus will take a look at draft and graduation attrition and introduce the new members of the coaching staff. It will also consider the factors that make Vanderbilt a recruiting power.
Click through for Part 1.
- Part 1: Transitioning to 2013
- Part 2: The New Recruits
- Part 3: Around the Diamond
- Part 4: On the Hill
- Part 5: What They’re Saying
- Part 6: Season Preview
- Part 7: Beyond 2013 – The Draft and Recruiting Classes
The New Staff
One of the hallmarks of the Corbin Era in Vanderbilt baseballhas been stability. In the last decade, we’ve seen one head coach, one pitching coach and two recruiting coordinators (along with a couple of volunteer assistants). It was the triumvirate of Corbin, Johnson and Erik Bakich that built on the foundation left by Roy Mewbourne (and Charles Hawkins, whose donation made the building of Hawkins Field possible). Their energy, determination and focus built Vanderbilt into a recruiting power and Southeastern Conference contender, including a #1 recruiting class in 2005/06 and a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament in 2006/07. Bakich left in the summer of 2009 to take over the Maryland Baseball program and transitioned this past summer to take over Michigan.
With Bakich’s departure, some worried about the loss of such a high energy, enthusiastic recruiting maven; however, Vanderbilt is a full court press team on the recruiting front. Every coach excels at selling what Vanderbilt has to offer (discussed further below). Corbin augmented the staff by hiring away Recruiting Coordinator Josh Holliday from Arizona State. Holliday was fresh off of closing #1 and #3 recruiting classes in successive seasons (per Baseball America).
The Corbin-Holliday-Johnson regime saw more excellence in recruiting and on the field. Vanderbilt pulled together two #1 recruiting classes (2011/12, Baseball America; 2012/13, Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball) and the school’s first ever trip to the College World Series in 2011. Collectively, the Corbin era Commodores have gone 410-217 (160-133 in conference play) and have been to the NCAA tournament for seven consecutive years. Additionally, the team has utilized its traditional speed and pitching focus to thrive in the AAA dimensions of Hoover Metropolitan Stadium and the SEC tournament (with a title in 2007 and six finals appearances overall).
This past summer has finally seen the opportunistic attrition that Vanderbilt fans have long feared, despite knowing a transition process would be in place. Josh Holliday got his dream offer at the end of the 2011/12 season, given the reins to a Oklahoma State Cowboys program for which he started over four seasons as a player. Meanwhile, during the fall, Theo Epstein and the Cubs came calling with Derek Johnson’s dream job. Johnson takes over organizational control of the Cubs’ minor league pitchers.
The hole left by these two titans of the assistant coaches ranks wasn’t going to be easy to fill. Holliday was immediately named by Baseball America as the nation’s top Head Coach under 40, despite having never coached a game in the driver’s seat (Erik Bakich finished third on that list). Meanwhile, Johnson was widely considered the top amateur pitching coach in America and was the 2004 Collegiate Baseball Pitching Coach of the Year and the 2011 ABCA/Baseball America Assistant Coach of the Year.
So who to tap to replace the pair? Well, Vanderbilt is believed to be one of the highest paying jobs in America for an NCAA baseball assistant, has facilities widely regarded as among the very best in the nation (including a pitching lab that is unmatched and a brand new batting video lab) and is stewarded by a man in Tim Corbin who demands excellence of himself, his team and a very supportive Vanderbilt administration. Those characteristics, and years of networking and planning for when Holliday and Johnson might move on had Vanderbilt poised to snap up two of the top assistants in America.
Again, Vanderbilt looked west for a recruiting coordinator, tapping Arizona State’s Associate Head Coach Travis Jewett. Jewett had been at Washington State and the University of Washington and recruited Tim Lincecum, among others, in years prior to his work with the Sun Devils. He brings an upbeat, high energy approach to the position, 19 years of NCAA coaching, and a decade as a Pac-10 recruiting coordinator and batting coach. He’s built off the binders full of
women prospects Holliday handed over and has been recruiting gangbusters for the classes of 2013/14, 2014/15 and 20015/16.
Embedded below is a video of Coach Jewett coaching up players at the ASU Youth Baseball Camp back in the winter of 2010.
For the more complex job of replacing a Vanderbilt institution in Johnson, Coach Corbin looked to New York City and St. John’s Scott Brown. Brown was known among sources in the New York NCAA community as the top pitching coach in the Northeast, having tutored four major leaguers and 15 drafted pitchers in nine years with the Red Storm. Early word is that he is adapting well to the transition with one of the most promising stables of arms in America.
Embedded below is a video of Coach Brown discussing his coaching system while at St. John’s during the 2011/12 season.
Both coaches share three core elements which bode well for their integration into the Vanderbilt baseball family. First and foremost, they love recruiting. While Jewett succeeds Holliday and Bakich as recruiting coordinator, the process is a team effort in which all four coaches play a major role. Secondly, they are hard-working and good at taking players under their wing. If there is one thing that will not fly at Hawkins Field, it is a lackadaisical attitude toward getting the job done, an attitude that filters from the Head Coach on down to the student managers. Finally, both Jewett and Brown are happy leaders. They keep the team loose and simplify matters, making baseball and academics in the high stress environment of SEC Baseball and an Ivy-caliber university more easy to tackle.
Baseball America polled all Division I head coaches and found Brown as the 14th best and Jewett as the 17th best coaching prospect in America. It is not hard to deduce that Coach Corbin is set to continue building his impressive coaching tree.
Annual Attrition and the Best of 2012
Vanderbilt saw limited attrition over the course of the last seven months, relative to a 2011 MLB Draft season that saw an SEC-record 12 Commodores selected. Vanderbilt graduated two Seniors both from the University and their playing careers: infielder Riley Reynolds and catcher Drew Fann. Fann will continue to be no stranger to fans of the program as he was named the Director of Baseball Operations at the same time as Coach Brown’s hiring.
To the Draft, the Commodores lost southpaw Sam Selman (2nd Round, Kansas City), righty Drew Verhagen (4th Round, Detroit), shortstop Anthony Gomez (6th Round, Miami) and righty Will Clinard (19th Round, Detroit). Offsetting the departures was the coup represented by the returns of outfielders Mike Yastrzemski and Connor Harrell, who eschewed offers from Seattle (30th Round) and Detroit (31st Round), respectively. The pair will continue to man right field and center field this Spring.
Vanderbilt saw three additional members leave the team. Junior Outfielder Will Johnson refocused on becoming a regular Vanderbilt student and retired from NCAA baseball, at least for the time being. Junior infielder Josh Lee and Sophomore designated hitter Connor Castellano both made decisions, based on playing time, to transfer. Lee completed a stellar season of summer ball (batting around .500) and moved to Central Arizona College. Castellano, who was projected to be a significant contributor as a platoon DH, sought time in the field as an infielder and left fielder at Santa Fe College in Florida.
At the annual baseball banquet on February 9, several of the departed were in attendance, with Clinard, Fann, Gomez and Selman joining fellow former ‘Dores Brian Harris, Russell Brewer, Taylor Hill, Bryan Johns, Mark Lamm and Corey Williams for the festivities. Following a standout highlight reel produced by student manager Will Hinson (@TheVUCount) (one which I hope ends up on Youtube) and Coach Corbin’s masterful 100 minute, no teleprompter rundown of the details on each Vanderbilt coach and player (including the names of every family member in attendance), the 2012 Baseball Awards were handed out. Coach Corbin honored the players as follows:
- Rookie of the Year – Brian “Dramamine” Miller
- Best Defensive Player – Spencer Navin
- Best Offensive Player – Anthony Gomez
- David Price Best Pitcher – Sam Selman
- Charles Hawkins Most Inspirational Player – Mike Yastrzemski
- Jeff Peeples Most Valuable Teammate – Anthony Gomez
The highlight reel and the awards reminded those in attendance or watching online that the Commodores of 2012 provided a magical second half of the season, despite the woeful nature of the first half. After finishing with a 22-9 end run to the season and a final ranking of 25th in the USA Today/Coaches poll, there is very real momentum building up to the 2013 season, demonstrated by preseason rankings as high as 2nd in the nation.
Another Recruiting Crown and What Makes Vanderbilt Special
Baseball America lauded Vanderbilt’s recruiting prowess in announcing that the Commodores would be the first team in the history of the publication’s reporting to be named the recruiting crown winner in back-to-back years, and the first to win for a third time overall. Vanderbilt has reeled in top 25 classes each of the past eight years, per Baseball America. The publication has ranked no class lower than 13th in the last six years. A fellow baseball enthusiast who covers the Texas Longhorns recently asked me to explain how it is that Coach Corbin i) keeps bringing in great classes and ii) avoids significant draft decimation of those outstanding classes. Below I’ll try to lay out the key components.
So what makes Vanderbilt such an attractive location for high school seniors? Baseball America cites the combination of smart targeting of academically-minded recruits, the juxtaposition of a top 20 education with a power program in the SEC, and one of the finest coaching staffs in America. Those three factors all focus on the personality of the program and the student athletes who join it. Perhaps most importantly, Coach Corbin has always targeted true student-athletes who value the college experience and what a $250,000 Vanderbilt degree can do for them both on and off the field.
The ideal example of this targeting process was Pedro Alvarez. In 2008, the New York Times profiled Alvarez and his decision to attend Vanderbilt. Coming from a Washington Heights family led by a Dominican immigrant who drove a livery cab in New York to make ends meet for his family, Pedro Jr.’s decision to turn down a seven figure offer from the Red Sox could not have been easy. Pedro Sr. always emphasized academics as a path to the American dream, sending Jr. not to one of the local baseball institutions, but to academic powerhouse Horace Mann (this author’s rival high school) to join a mediocre baseball team with the dream of a better life through education made possible through a baseball scholarship (Horace Mann’s 2012/13 annual tuition is approximately $40,000 per year throughout grammar and high school).
Alvarez was a possible first or second round pick, impressing scouts with a wood-bat display of upper deck power in Yankee Stadium the month prior to the draft. Yet Coach Corbin stayed true against worries about losing Alvarez to the draft, preparing with a financial planner a thick binder explaining the cost-benefit analysis of attending Vanderbilt vs. accepting a seven figure bonus out of high school. Corbin has followed this strategy consistently and, while there is no guarantee a Commodore will achieve a higher draft pick or bonus as a Junior or Senior than they could get immediately, the long term benefits of three plus years at Vanderbilt pay off in the long run when considering earnings potential over a lifetime.
Furthermore, the coaching at Vanderbilt is more personalized and attentive in Nashville (and at other high level institutions) that one would receive in the minor leagues. Alumni David Price and Sonny Gray are among the many individuals who have discussed that factor and noted the superior facilities seen at the Hawk relative to the long bus ride world of minor league ball.
The family atmosphere at the Hawk also makes a difference. It’s been discussed often in the past the relationship developed between the coaching staff and players, and the emergence of leaders from within the player ranks. These things may not exist solely at Vanderbilt, but Corbin’s program is a model example. What is unique to Vanderbilt among SEC schools is the recruiting advantage of Nashville (one of America’s fastest growing cities, which was named America’s “It City” for 2013 by the New York Times). Football Head Coach James Franklin has used Nashville to make Vanderbilt a recruiting force in football, so it is no coincidence that Coach Corbin reportedly meets with every football signee, undoubtedly providing his well-schooled pitch for Nashville and the power of the Vanderbilt experience.
Joining those factors is one advantage that Vanderbilt holds over its SEC opponents is the private nature of the institution. In addition to being ranked the 17th best university by US News and World Report, Vanderbilt is ranked 13th in “best value” among private institutions. With a full, all-in cost of about $70,000/year to attend, one would think it would be difficult for the university to attract baseball players with just 11.7 scholarships to be divided among up to 27 players on the 35 man roster. But therein lies Vanderbilt’s second type of arms race.
While the facilities and coaching salary arms race dominate discussion among SEC institutions, Vanderbilt has an endowment-reliant competition with their academic peers (notably, the Ivy League schools such as Harvard and Yale). About a decade ago, Harvard decided to put their multi-billion dollar endowment to use in ensuring that no Harvard graduate would be overburdened by the cost of tuition, instituting a massive grant program. A few years later, Vanderbilt tapped into their $3 billion endowment to institute a similar program. In addition to merit based scholarships available to all students, Vanderbilt’s financial aid office provides grants (instead of loans) to “meet 100% of a family’s demonstrated financial need.” This means that, unlike at other SEC institutions, *all* Vanderbilt students (including athletes in partial scholarship sports such as baseball) are not burdened by loans to cover financial costs so long as and to the extent that the algorithm used by Vanderbilt’s admissions office reflects demonstrable financial need.
Rival fan bases (particularly the one to the East) have bemoaned this perceived advantage; however, it is an institutional policy provided to all Vanderbilt students regardless of athletic talent. Furthermore, it is no different than a state school providing a massive discount to in-state students (providing schools like Florida a tremendous advantage when recruiting within their talent-rich state). Finally, the financial aid grant policy reflects the fundamental mission of the University as a whole, one which has been embraced by the athletics teams at Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt values the future of all students and seeks to provide their graduates with the principal advantage of graduating with little or no student debt. They also seek to integrate student-athletes into the college community at large, ensuring that they are enriched by the intellectual, opportunity and demographic diversity that is Vanderbilt.
Joining these core reasons for Vanderbilt’s success in recruiting is the support from the university administration. Vice Chancellor David Williams is a fixture in row four behind home plate, and the restructured Office of Student Life and the Athletic Department he heads has given Coach Corbin the freedom and resources to build an elite power program where one did not exist 10 years prior. ESPN recently chronicled Vanderbilt’s rise to elite status in a must read article.
All in all, these factors allow Vanderbilt to attract the finest student-athletes in the nation, and the reputation of the school and baseball program has made Draft Day a celebration above all else. Vanderbilt has produced eight first rounders and 65 total draftees over the last nine years, which in part is a product of Vanderbilt’s ability to get high schoolers through the draft. While some Commodore signees have inked with pro teams (notably Matt Olson and Collin Wiles this year and Adam Milligan, Kyler Burke, Ryan Westmoreland and Kyle Waldrop in years past), Vanderbilt signees tend to spurn the draft. The biggest factor therein is signability. Quite simply, the “Corbin Calculus” demonstrating the value of the Vanderbilt experience (on the field, in the classroom and around campus and Nashville) make it more expensive for a Major League team to buy a high schooler out of a commitment to VU.
Reportedly, Coach Corbin’s recruiting strategy involves keeping an idea of what number they would consider life-changing money, but not disclosing that number to MLB teams even after being drafted, so as to maintain maximum negotiating leverage. This was well exemplified by Tyler Beede and Jason Esposito in the past. Both reportedly held firm in the face of seven-figure offers from Toronto and Kansas City after being drafted highly. In each case, it is believed that last minute offers actually came close to the “magic” number the families were looking for, but that both stood firm with their commitment to Coach Corbin.
The end result of this strategy is that a team will not draft a Vanderbilt signee highly unless they know or feel confident that they can sign them. This is one of the reasons guys like Sonny Gray were able to drop to the Cubs in the 20th Round of his high school draft year and fellow likely future Major Leaguer Curt Casali went undrafted despite being a top 60 prospect per Baseball America. Signability is also the main reason that draft selection spots are not the best gauge of actual talent, and yet, despite this fact which tends to depress the draft status of many Vanderbilt signees, Coach Corbin’s 2013 Commodores will include an NCAA-high 18 players who have been previously drafted.
All in all, Vanderbilt’s rise has been borne from a combination of outstanding commitment from the University with respect to coaching salaries, facilities and program freedom, along with academic excellence, student support, financial aid, outstanding coaching, a family atmosphere, Nashville’s magnetism and the self-fulfilling prophesy of a program that breaks through to elite status. Ultimately, though, it’s about the people; the fundamental person who stands at the middle of it all is Tim Corbin. He is the person who is able to surround himself with the nation’s elite coaches and to sell the value of the three- to four-year experience at Vanderbilt to carefully selected student-athletes.
Stay tuned for part 2, which will look at the actual set of student athletes reeled in by Coaches Corbin, Holliday, Johnson and Day in their last year together as the Commodore staff.