Vanderbilt Baseball 2013: Preview Part 4
After previewing the position players and setting forth a projected opening day lineup, it’s time to step up on the mound and take a look at the 17 young men who make up the inaugural Scott Brown pitching staff at Vanderbilt.
This Part 4 will briefly set forth the role expected for each young man, as well as scouting his arsenal of pitches.
Click through for Part 4.
- 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
As always, I’ll be tweeting from @VUHawkTalk and posting on VandySports.com throughout the season. Also be sure to follow Chris Lee on Twitter (@ChrisLee70) for more great Vanderbilt baseball coverage.
Vanderbilt enters 2013 needing to replace three of the core pieces of its 2012 pitching mix. Starter Sam Selman was among the most dominating pitchers in America in the second half of 2012, eventually being drafted in the 2nd Round by Kansas City. Meanwhile, 4th Round draftee of the Tigers Drew Verhagen was the “flex role” pitcher for Coach Tim Corbin, filling in where needed while flashing some of the best pure stuff on the squad. Also gone is Will “the Weatherman” Clinard (18th Round, Detroit), who was a fixture in the Commodores bullpen over the past three years. The three combined for a whopping 22-9 record on a team that went 35-28 for the season, meaning some new faces will need to pick up the win-loss slack.
Unlike last year, however, new Pitching Coach Scott Brown has a core stable of arms with experience. Whereas in excess of 80 percent of the innings thrown in 2011 were graduated to the MLB Draft, Vanderbilt can rely on several pitchers who logged key, pressure packed innings during the lean first half of 2012 and the remarkable comeback experienced in the second half of the season.
Candidates to Start
The projected Friday, Saturday and Sunday guys for this weekend against Long Beach State were not always locks to start this Spring. There was a hearty competition between seven candidates for weekend roles; however, it is believed that Coach Corbin will turn to Junior Kevin Ziomek on Friday, Sophomore Tyler Beede on Saturday and Junior TJ Pecoraro on Sunday. They are thought to have edged out Sophomores Jared Miller and Philip Pfeifer and Freshmen Carson Fulmer and Walker Buehler for the weekend roles.
Ziomek (6’3”, 200 lbs from Amherst, Massachusetts, Amherst High) will enjoy his second consecutive opening day start and the third opening weekend start of his career (he was a spot starter in a rain-threatened game against San Diego State in the opening weekend of 2011). The lefty is no stranger to Commodore fans by now, as the team’s active leader in career innings pitched. Despite this familiarity, his statistics as a Sophomore in 2012 do not tell the whole story. His 5.22 ERA in 79.1 innings (79 K, 29 BB, .260 BAA) was the highest on the team among pitchers with more than 20 innings pitched; however, he also has the ability to be among the most dominant arm on the staff. With a fastball that touches the mid-90s, a solid change-up and a dominating curve and slider combo, the southpaw can shut down a lineup, but last year struggled in allowing the one big inning. Part of this was poor infield defense at the start of the year and some control issues that led to pressing, but he figured things out in the Cape, where he was an All-Star with a 1.27 ERA and 36 strikeouts against 6 walks in 28.1 innings. To the extent that Ziomek clicks as he did for Cotuit this summer, expect the highly-regarded draft prospect to be an All-SEC and All-American candidate and a day one draftee. Ziomek earned pre-season All-American honors from Baseball America, after being a Freshman All-American in 2011.
Projected to take the ball for the first Saturday game of the year for a second straight season, Beede (6’4”, 215 lbs, Auburn, Massachusetts – Lawrence Academy) carries all the same hype as Ziomek. He is an elite arm currently regarded by both Baseball America and PerfectGame as the number two draft prospect for the 2014 MLB Draft (trailing Carlos Rodon of NC State in both rankings). While Ziomek struggled with the one big inning, Beede’s up-and-down Freshman campaign in 2011 (4.52 ERA, 71.2 IP, 68 K, .287 BAA) was marred up by an abnormally high batting average on balls in play (a number unlikely to be repeated for a guy who can alternately pitch to soft contact or go for the punch out) and some struggles with keeping good weight on (Beede was down 15 pounds off his playing weight at one point last year). The weight loss led to an inconsistency in velocity (sitting between 86 in the early part of the year to 93 midseason), but the issue seems to be resolved. Turning down an invitation to the Cape League, he spent the summer working the weights with Eric Cressey (trainer to more than 100 baseball professionals) in hometown Boston, resulting in a truly college-ready body with “good weight” that should last the season. After also working with Jamie Evans of BaseballVelo.com, Beede is now consistently throwing in the mid-90s; in January, he was recorded by Cressey as throwing a regulation ball 99 MPH on a Stalker gun. With increased velocity, Beede will have a little more leeway with location. For secondary pitches, the righty has a filthy change-up and a sharp overhand curve using a new grip that Johnson switched him to when he got to campus in August 2011. After he was named to the SEC All-Freshman team last year, the expectations for the Massachusetts native are sky high in 2013..
Likely to get the Sunday start is Pecoraro (6’0”, 170 lbs from Dix Hills, New York – Half Hallow Hills West). Pecoraro made waves as a 2011 Freshman All-American before falling to a torn UCL and Tommy John surgery during a late season series versus Georgia. Remarkably, Pecoraro came back after less than 12 months to throw 53.0 innings in 2012 (3.40 ERA, 34 K, .236 BAA) and gave Vanderbilt a huge boost down the stretch. Pecoraro is Mr. Consistency. He will not blow you away with Beede’s mid-90s heat or Ziomek’s Boston Massa-curve, but he has plus stuff all around with a fastball in the 89 to 92 range, a tight overhand curve and reliable change-up. Most importantly, he pitches without fear and hits his spots, meaning you can bank on Pecoraro giving you a quality start just about each time out. In many respects, Pecoraro might have the most trust factor on the staff and he could thrive in the Sunday role in a manner similar to which Taylor Hill dominated as a Senior in 2011. Pecoraro may not get quite the headlines that his weekend compatriots do, but he also ranks as a potential top five round draft prospect and there are fewer question marks surrounding the New York native than just about any pitcher on the Vanderbilt staff.
To the extent any of the opening weekend starters falters, Coaches Corbin and Brown will have a ready stable of elite arms to which they may turn. First among them is Jared Miller (6’6”, 235 lbs from Avon, Indiana – Avon High). Miller is an intimidatingly large southpaw with a huge personality that endears him to teammates and fans alike. Making him more valuable is his utterly unhittable slider that competed against Selman’s slider throughout 2012 for the coveted hashtag #SliderPorn (do not Google, just use on Twitter – trust me). Much as food porn and real estate porn are niche words for the best in their respective fields, Miller’s slider ascends to a celebrated title in 2013. After working with Evan’s BaseballVelo.com last offseason, Miller has also seen a big tick up in velocity on his fastball, allowing him to move from the mid to high 80s to the 90 to 92 MPH range on his fastball when in relief. On hearing of his increase in velocity, Chris Lee of VandySports.com remarked that such a fastball-slider combination would be simply unfair, and I do not disagree. While Jared Miller was reported to be one of the two most dominating arms in early Spring practice, he provides Corbin and Brown with great versatility as a weapon in the “flex role” – a designation for the staff “stopper” who can throw wherever needed in a starter, long relief, setup or closing role, as the situation dictates. After logging a 3.06 ERA and .235 BAA in 32.1 innings as a Freshman, Miller’s time on the hill should be more dominant and more plentiful in 2013.
Joining Jared Miller in reports of Spring dominance was the Freshman Fulmer (5’11”, 190 lbs from Lakeland, Florida – All Saints’ Academy). One of the most celebrated arms in the 2012 high school class, Fulmer reminds some of Sonny Gray, I anticipate Fulmer will be used by Corbin in a manner similar to how Coach utilized the Smyrna Bulldog in 2009. This will involve some midweek starting action and end of game shutdown relief. Fulmer is reported to have a killer instinct on the mound, tremendous competitive spirit and an uncanny leadership ability. A mid-90s fastball and one of the best breaking pitches in the draft are certainly more than just icing on the case for the 2012 PerfectGame All-American Game participant.
Alongside Fulmer as one of the gems of the top ranked 2012/13 Recruiting Class is Buehler (6’1”, 160 lbs from Lexington, Kentucky – Henry Clay High). Both righties feature the ability to crank the fastball into the mid-90s and have highly regarded overhand curveballs. While Fulmer has a more stout, powerful frame, Buehler is slight of body and accentuates his velocity with a deceptive and smooth delivery with solid repetition between his fastball, curveball and plus change-up. Although not entirely clear this early, it is anticipated by some that Buehler will be the primary mid-week starter for the Commodores, though he likely will log key weekend innings as well. When blessed with deep staffs resulting in a need to spread out innings among many pitchers, Coach Corbin has turned to a mid-week starter by committee in the past (e.g., in 2011 when Pecoraro and Ziomek generally started and threw about three to four innings before being relieved). This strategy will allow some of the younger pitchers to gain experience while also keeping pitchers like Buehler fresh for setup innings against SEC opponents in the second half of the season.
Rounding out the primary starter candidates in the Spring was Pfeifer (6’0”, 195 lbs from Knoxville, Tennessee – Farragut). The winningest pitcher in Tennessee high school history, Pfeifer assumes a nasty, competitive persona on the mound that reminds me a bit of David Price as a Sophomore and Junior. He knows he’s good and he’s going to try to beat you with his best stuff – when he does, he might also let you know he enjoyed it. With a low 90s fastball from the left side, a plus curve and solid change-up, Pfeifer (3.24 ERA, 16.2 IP, .250 BAA) has the endurance to be a starter; however, his confidence and history of success gives him an ideal psyche for an end-of-game and pressure situations. As a result, I expect Pfeifer will be directed to the weekend pen, called upon to close the door or eliminate rallies in the seventh or eighth inning. In 2011 he was ranked among the top 60 high school seniors by PerfectGame and it is not a stretch to imagine that 2013 is the year he makes his presence felt in the SEC.
The Experienced Pen
Last year, Vanderbilt had talent, but little experience in the bullpen, putting some stress on the starting rotation. In 2013, despite losing key cogs Verhagen and Clinard, the pen is bolstered by greater experience among the returning arms and a tremendous infusion of right-handed talent in the Freshman class.
While the closer may come from among Fulmer, Pfeifer or Jared Miller, the glue guy who holds together Vanderbilt’s relief corps for the second straight year is Sophomore Brian Miller. Dramamine, as he is lovingly known in this part of the web, is an octopus on the mound, with arms flying in all multi-jointed directions on each delivery. With a fastball that tops out in the upper 80s, Miller (6’4”, 200 lbs from Franklin, Tennessee – Independence High) uses a deceptive, off-putting delivery with arm angles that go from side-arm to 3/4s to baffle both right- and left-handed batters. His best pitch is a frisbee slider, but he can also go over the top on curves and has a two-seam fastball and change with tremendous movement. As a Freshman, Miller appeared in a team high 34 games, with a 3.26 ERA in 60.2 innings (49 K, .269 BAA). He tied Clinard for the team high with five saves and is, once again, expected to be utilized in all roles, particularly when Coach Corbin needs someone he can rely on to throw strikes and get out a tough righty batter.
While Brian Miller may get the tough assignments from the right side and Jared Miller will see the bulk of the tough lefties, Junior southpaw Stephen Rice has also proven to have filthy stuff and will see key innings in relief. An All-Fitt Team candidate at 5’8”, 185 lbs from Crawfordsville, Indiana (Crawfordsville High), Rice has the staff’s most lethal curveball, though there were appearances last year when the bark was sharper than the bite. When the curve was on and Rice commanded the strike zone, he was literally unhittable (3.38 ERA, 21.1 IP, 21 K, .215 BAA); however, 17 walks meant he was not always sharp. During the summer in the NECBL, Rice improved his command, earning a 36:8 strikeout to walk ratio over 30 innings. A year later, it is not asking too much to expect a big leap forward from Rice. A utterly dominant high school pitcher, Rice’s smaller frame still cranks out good velocity (87 to 90 MPH) to compliment the curve and his solid change-up. To the extent he more consistently stays on top of the curveball and hits his spots in the strike zone, Rice should assume a much larger role in 2013.
Another player seeking to find consistency in the zone is Sophomore Adam Ravanelle (6’2”, 190 lbs from Sudbury, Massachusetts – Lincoln-Sudbury High). Currently recovering from an injury that will likely keep him out of the lineup for the first several weeks of the season, Ravanelle features the most electric fastball on a team filled with electric fastballs. His fastball is the type of pitch that people stop to watch due to its explosive nature; however, virtually all of that watching was on the sidelines in 2012, as Ravanelle had yet to harness its power from a locational perspective. In five innings over six appearances, the Massachusetts native yielded just three hits and struck out six batters, but he walked six, hit three batters and uncorked three wild pitches. While that’s what one might presume to be effective wildness when looking at the 1.80 ERA, it also prevented the righty from extended appearances and being placed in pressure innings. As a starter in the NECBL last summer, Ravanelle’s numbers didn’t shine, but he got 27.1 innings of valuable work, striking out 37 and walking 17. Having not thrown this Spring, Ravanelle’s role in the 2013 is difficult to determine, but it is just a matter of time for his Major League arm to be put to good use on West End, whether this year or next.
Much like Ravanelle, another golden-armed Sophomore is waiting for the location to click to join a staff full of potential aces. The fastball unleashed by Nevin Wilson (6’2”, 190 lbs from Scottsdale, Arizona – Chaparral) has the southpaw pop that you saw on Corey Williams’ fastball in 2011. The pitch has zip. While his slider and change are not as advanced as Williams’ were, Wilson’s issue in 2012 was location within the strike zone. In limited action (2.2 innings in two appearances), the talent was still readily apparent. During the summer with Laconia in the NECBL, the inconsistency proved ever true, as Wilson alternated between outstanding performances and ones which were kindly referred to as less than outstanding. He struggled more with location in the zone than walks (though there were some of those), but when he was on, he dominated, including one stretch of three relief appearances in which he allowed just three hits and one walk over 8.0 scoreless innings. It’s difficult to say if Wilson will click in 2013, but like Ravanelle, he has an arm that should play both at this level and in the professional ranks.
From two kids with electric fastballs, we turn to the team’s top change-up, owned by redshirt Junior Keenan Kolinsky (6’0”, 195 lbs from Knoxville, Tennessee – Christian Academy). Kolinsky is a solid athlete, built like a high school linebacker, who is crafty on the mound. Not unlike Rice, his Vanderbilt career has been a little bit sprinkled between days where his out pitch (a lethal circle change) is working and when it is not. While Kolinsky has excellent control (just one walk in 16.1 innings in 2012), but, because he is not going to blow fastballs in the mid to upper 80s by any hitters, he needs his change-up to have good deception and movement. When it does, Kolinsky can be equally effective against right- and left-handed bats. Because of the somewhat inconsistent stuff, it’s hard to really project Kolinsky’s role in 2013 (much as is the case for Ravanelle and Wilson). In the immediate couple of weeks, it will likely be on the bench, as Kolinsky is nursing a sore hamstring that will keep him off the mound for the first few series of the season.
While the last three returning hurlers have some uncertainty in their roles, the previously discussed Jared Miller and Pfeifer will be key cogs for late inning situations. While their Freshman compatriots Buehler and Fulmer will also see some starting duties, they lead the charge of seven solid right-handed arms in relief of the weekend starters.
Another Recruiting Haul
While the top ranked freshman class of 2012 featured an impressive array of arms in Beede, Pfiefer, the Millers, Wilson and Ravanelle, split equally among righties and lefties, the incoming class is less balanced with seven impressive right-handed arms. We’ve touched on two (Buehler and Fulmer), but we’ll likely see significant work put in by the remaining five as well. They were discussed in greater depth in Part 2 of this preview, so I’ll mostly just give an overview of the roles they likely will see.
First among them is Tyler Ferguson (6’3”, 215 lbs from Fresno, California – Clovis West). The righty has a classic Corbin build – big, athletic, powerful and right-handed. He has the ability to hit the mid-90s with his fastball and saw his stock soar during summer ball play before arriving on campus. He should see immediate time as a relief pitcher in the middle innings and could earn his way toward end-of-game relief if his talents live up to their billing.
Even bigger than Ferguson is Pat Delano (6’6”, 275 lbs from Braintree, Massachusetts – Braintree High). Just 30 or so months off of Tommy John surgery and in the midst of a body transformation that has firmed up his frame (he likely no longer carries all of his listed 275 pounds, and many pounds he retained are now toned muscle), Delano is still working on regaining the velocity and projection thereon that he featured as a Sophomore in high school. While inconsistency in his fastball speed may be a bit discouraging, what is not is the revelation that his fastball is not reliant on speed. In both his height and his movement, Delano may remind some of the lither Jack Armstrong – foremost in the fact that he is an effective pitch-to-contact arm. Like Big Jack, Bigger Pat uses a heavy fastball (whether two- or four-seamed) to induce contact off the sweet spot of the bat. As we move toward warmer weather, I anticipate we’ll see Delano earn more time on the hill, beginning the season likely in a midweek relief role to build confidence and allow his arm to warm up with the season.
Like Delano, Kyle Smith (6’3”, 220 lbs from Old Hickory, Tennessee – Mt. Juliet High) will likely grow into a role as the season progresses. As was the case with another Mt. Juliet-to-Vanderbilt star (Stephen Shao), Smith will be a two-way player for the ‘Dores as a utility guy and reliever. Although his high school award case included many pitching honors, Smith was recruited by former coordinator Josh Holliday as a position player (and he has great potential both in the field and as a power hitter). Coach Corbin attributes protestations from new Pitching Coach Scott Brown as earning Smith a shot on the mound. With a fastball that projects to hit the low to mid 90s in the next couple of years, Smith will likely be transitioned into the ‘Dore bullpen slowly, like Delano. Both will have the potential to see increased action as the season progresses.
The fourth of the classic, Corbin era-built righties is Luke Stephenson (6’2”, 205 lbs from Fairland, Indiana – Triton Central High). With college-level and pro potential that matches his classmates, Stephenson is still refining his mechanics with Coach Brown. His scouting report out of high school noted his drop-and-drive technique left him with an electric fastball, but, as is often the case with young pitchers who implement Roger Clemens’ leg intensive delivery, the secondary stuff hadn’t caught with to the lower body push off the rubber due to some arm drag. As a result, Stephenson will probably see most of his work in the pitching lab during the first third of the 2013 season, refining his delivery. How quickly he progresses off the diamond will determine how soon he gets on it.
Last but not least, we have the quirk in the class. Christian Raasch 6’1”, 175 lbs from Norcross, Georgia – Norcross High) is a sidewinder, sitting in the mid-80s and featuring a frisbee slider and low angle of delivery that won’t light up radar guns, but will be utilized strategically – potentially immediately. Raasch is likely to fill a situational role (brought on to eliminate one or two right-handed batters who struggle with sliders). While he may not rack up the innings in bulk, he could see significant action if he can throw his slider away and spot his fastball consistently for strikes. Reports are that he’s had good and bad outings in the Spring, so don’t expect him to supplant Dramamine Miller anytime soon, but also don’t be surprised if we see Raasch out on the hill more often than some of his classmates.
That wraps up the player profiles for all thirty-five Commodores, but the previews are far from over. Up next is a special treat, as I had the opportunity to ask media members from across Nashville and the nation what they thought of the Commodores in 2013. I’ll have their answers and my own analysis before opening pitch this afternoon.