Thoughts from Beyond the Bleachers – 3/29/13
So, work and life have made completion of my season preview difficult for the second year in a row. Furthermore, it’s no longer realistic to go through the complete “Week Behind, Week Ahead” process. As a result, I’m going to go with less structured “Thoughts from Beyond the Bleachers”. I’ll post when I dang feel like it (but usually Sundays or Mondays) and try to get thoughts down on paper.
I’ll kick off this one with some general thoughts and a recap of my weekend in Nashville for the series win over Florida. Without further ado, time to get into it.
Notwithstanding the season preview, I must admit there was a whole lot I wasn’t sure of in respect of what to expect. As suggested by the various folks who contributed to Part 5 of the season preview, there were a handful of names who had to step it up for Vandy to live up to the top 10 preseason hype. The names most often thrown out have delivered their contributions; notably, Kevin Ziomek and Tyler Beede have been utterly dominant.
Through the first five weeks of the year, Kevin Ziomek was probably the best player in America. At one point, batters were hitting a clean .100 (12-120 against him). For the better part of the season, Ziomek has had masterful control over a plus spotted fastball between 88-93 MPH, a plus change up and a plus plus Boston MassaCurve (which actually switches between a slurve and a slider, depending on the circumstances). It was that start that had Ziomek ranked as the top pitcher in America according to Perfect Game’s Kendall Rogers. While a subpar fourth inning and a fat fifth inning fastball to Taylor Gushue of Florida have flattened Ziomek’s ridiculous start to a more normalized 5-1 with a 1.59 ERA, he is still among the national leaders with a .144 BAA, 45.1 IP and 52 strikeouts.
Backing up Ziomek in the swing start position on Saturdays has been Vanderbilt’s top draft prospect, Tyler Beede. The former first round pick of Toronto has been simply filthy all year with a 6-0 record, 0.70 ERA and .146 BAA in 38.1 innings. Allowing just three earned runs on the year, his biggest competition has been the strike zone. With a plus plus 2-seam fastball that has topped out at 98 MPH and sits in the low to mid 90s, a plus plus change up, a plus cut fastball and a plus hammer curve, Beede has dominated without having all four pitches working in a single game this year. The frightening thing about Beede is how much more dominant he can be on those days where he locates all four pitches.
The two starters have been complemented by three others who have dominated in the early season. None has been more consistent than closer Brian “Dramamine” Miller. With a Frisbee slider and sneaky-fast two seam fastball, Miller has been one of the few pitchers on the year who has had no argument with the strike zone. With a 0.40 ERA in 22.2 innings and a 0.179, Miller has walked only two and finished each of the 15 games in which he has appeared, leading to a 3-0 record and 8 saves. He has been, quite simply, the constant on this Vanderbilt squad which ranks a woeful 223rd in the nation in allowing walks (at 4.36 per nine innings).
On the offensive side, Connor Harrell has played impeccable center field for the Dores, but has been inconsistent at the plate in his first three years. One of the key elements in his offensive woes was a lack of patience at the plate, with just 55 walks against 157 strikeouts. In 2013, he’s drawn 17 walks against 22 strikeouts and is well on his way toward setting career highs with 5 homeruns, 22 runs and 30 RBI, while batting .287 with a robust .984 OPS.
Joining Harrell as the top producer at the plate is all-everything second baseman Tony Kemp. Quite simply, when Kemp goes, so goes the offense. He’s batting .389 with an even .500 OB%. When Kemp has a good day, Vanderbilt’s offense rolls. He leads the team with 27 runs scored and is closing in on the all-time SEC record for career triples. He plays great defense at 2nd and, really, has only had one difficulty all year: adjusting to the turf with respect to stealing bases.
On Twitter Monday night, I posed the question of which player has been most indispensable for the Commodores. Really, it’s hard to pick among the five. For most of the season, Harrell provided the squad’s power production and he led the nation in RBI for the first 20 games of the year. Meanwhile, as stated above, Kemp has been the engine that drives this team’s offense. Ziomek and Beede are a one-two punch that represents the top pitching duo in America. And Dramamine Miller has made offenses seasick while being the rock of a pen that has, at times, struggled a bit (on a relative basis to the starters).
I don’t know that I can say who the most important player is on the team. It’s hard to argue with a guy like Ziomek who has completed two games and flirted with no-hitters in three starts. It’s just as hard to make a case against a guy who has won every start and sports a 0.70 ERA. But what say you about the closer who has been an automatic force out of a pen that’s been inconsistent? Or what about the guy who led the nation in RBI the first quarter of the year or the little man who plays big when driving the offense? Weigh in here.
The Kid Who Stepped It Up
I’m not sure there was a singular player who bore the brunt of criticism in 2012 more than Vicente Conde. While learning a new position at third, he struggled despite progressing with his footwork on defense, flashing his plus arm and reflexes at times. At the plate, he had to adapt to SEC sliders, while showing pop against fat pitches. Over the summer, he impressed but there were still questions about where he’d fit in on 2013 scorecards.
Those questions continued in the first week of the season, but something clicked in week two. Around the same time as he ended up sliding over to shortstop due to injuries to Joel McKeithan and Dansby Swanson, Conde’s confidence at the plate and in the field skyrocketed. He was taking sliders the other way and turning into a maestro in the field. Yes, there have been some strikeouts and a few errors, including a key one against Oregon; but his play has been enough that he was regarded by the Oregon announcers as the best defensive third baseman they’d seen all year and he’s posted a very solid .846 OPS and .299 batting average while playing a solid third base and a brilliant shortstop in the handful of innings he’s seen there.
Conde looks like he’s finally realizing the talent he has and the criticisms of yesteryear have been proven more than premature; they are downright extinct. I couldn’t be happier for a player. He was ranked as one of the top prospects in his summer league and the talent has been realized. More importantly, he’s clearly having fun out there.
A second player who struggled a bit as a freshman only to step it up as a sophomore has been Chris Harvey. Harvey was simply not a very good college catcher defensively last year — after skipping his senior year of high school, Harv arrived on campus a full year early and was expected to take time adjusting. Well, he has clearly put in the hard work to adjust and rectify his defensive shortcomings, which are now strengths. He may not yet be at the level of Spencer Navin defensively, but he frames and blocks the plate at a well-above average level and is coming around to control his cannon arm. More importantly, when the Commodores needed Harvey last week (when Navin was out with an ankle injury), Harv stepped it up by playing outstanding defense and stinging the ball on offense.
Also deserving of praise is Steven Rice. After a sophomore season in which he was alternately unhittable or unable to throw strikes, he has become a demonstrably reliable southpaw reliever as a junior. His 1-0 record with a 2.76 ERA in 16.1 IP is actually not reflective of how good he’s been — the one outing where his numbers were inflated was one in which the defense let him down a bit. The biggest element toward his stepping it up largely relates to his getting on top of both the curveball and his 88-91 MPH fastball.
The Freshmen We’ve Met
While there have been three freshmen who are in line to redshirt (pitchers Pat Delano, Luke Stephenson and Christian Raasch), we’ve had the chance to see a bunch of the new kids in action. Here are some initial thoughts on them:
Walker Buehler: Perhaps the freshman with the biggest immediate impact, Buehler has been brilliant in the midweek starter role with 4 quality starts, a 2-1 record, 2.88 ERA and .217 BAA against in 25.0 innings. Buehler is as good as advertised and has no fear when unleashing a plus fastball and plus curve. Buehler is a pretty good bet to be a weekend starter next year, though he may be shifting out to shore up the weekend bullpen for SEC play after skipping a start against Lipscomb on Tuesday.
Tyler Campbell: Campbell is going to be real good. I’m not entirely sure when he’ll be a regular, with some more experienced players in the middle infield, but Campbell is talented defensively and has a solid, line drive approach at the plate. His athleticism is well established, but his tools are more advanced that one might have expected.
Tyler Ferguson: Coming off his best performance to date in earning his second win of the season against Lipscomb, Ferguson has been solid. He’s got a 3.00 ERA in 15 innings and has allowed opponents just a .189 BAA. He had slipped out of the regular bullpen rotation in the last couple weeks, but he’s probably earned a closer look with his fine performance last week.
Carson Fulmer: If Buehler has been the top immediate impact freshman, Fulmer is right behind him. He’s a veritable flamethrower out of the pen with plus plus velocity and a wipeout slider. His bugaboo has been sometimes inconsistent control (11 walks in 14.1 innings), but his 3.77 ERA and 10 appearances have reflected the early trust he’s earned.
Kyle Smith: If you’re talking about a Commodore from Mt. Juliet, you know he’s going to have an impact on the program. Smith most certainly will, though it will likely be in a limited fashion this year. He’s flashed plus power in the preseason, but hasn’t yet connected at the plate, where he trails a couple of guys in the key role of pinch hitter on the bench. On the hill, he did make one appearance and his natural talent was apparent, tossing a scoreless frame.
Dansby Swanson: Hampered by a leg injury, Swanson might actually be the most special player in a class with a ton of special players. There’s something you see in Swanson which just reeks of potential and maturity on the field. He’s missed most of the season and is likely out for a few more weeks with a broken bone in his foot, but he will impact this squad come playoff time. Whether he can break into the starting lineup after missing so much practice is a question mark, but his defensive prowess and athleticism will make him an indispensable player down the stretch.
Xavier Turner: While Swanson might be the most special player, I’m not sure there’s a more likeable one than Turner. There’s just nothing disappointing about his game. Yes, he’s had a few rough plays in the field at third, but also has shown good general skills there. More exciting is his highly advanced approach at defending the strike zone and forcing pitchers to give in, leading to a .327 average in 52 at bats, which would rank second on the team if he’d had a few more plate appearances. He also has incredible jets for a kid his size. On Sunday against Florida, the speed and determination in getting down the line by Turner and John Norwood led to huge infield hits and a win. He followed it up on Tuesday by stealing home in Vanderbilt’s second triple steal in a calendar year. Turner is behind Conde at third, but is sure to get his at bats and chances in the field in a part time role and is going to do big things at Vanderbilt.
Rhett Wiseman: Finally, there’s the guy that surprised me the most. I billed Wiseman as the most genetically gifted position player to suit up at Vanderbilt since Pedro Alvarez, but questioned how ready the cold weather player would adapt to the game as a freshman. Well, the answer is quickly. Wiseman is really, really going to be special and has been Vanderbilt’s primary starter at designated hitter. He’s had a walk off homer and an .882 OPS, but those numbers don’t reflect how solid the ball comes off his bat. He will be Vanderbilt’s starting centerfielder for the next two seasons, if things go as I expect.
Looking Around the SEC
Southeastern Conference play hasn’t been without its surprises this year. Yes, a handful of teams have been as advertised – notably, by Baseball America ranking, #3 Vanderbilt, #4 LSU, #8 Kentucky and #11 Ole Miss. However, there have also been disappointments in Florida (which looks like a slightly less talented version of last year’s Commodores) and Georgia (which is a train wreck of epic proportions right now).
Vanderbilt does luck out in that we will avoid a few of the top tier SEC West squads (#4 LSU, #15 Arkansas and Texas A&M) with a combined record of 60-18 (14-5 SEC). Instead, the Commodores have 24 games remaining against a lineup that has a combined record of just 23-27 in SEC play, though they are 130-70, overall.
In the East, Kentucky appears to be the main contender for the top spot, though South Carolina should not be underestimated. Unlike the past few years in which the triumvirate of Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Florida have dominated the league, it does appear that the balance of power has shifted back to Western hands where LSU, Arkansas, Ole Miss and Mississippi State have every bit the talent level of the Commodores or Wildcats.
Nationally, the Commodores remain well positioned to obtain a regional host and possibly a top 8 national seed. Despite a schedule that has seemed underwhelming at times, the Commodores have posted solid metrics to go along with the 22-4 record. On WarrenNolan.com, the Dores have the #3 RPI and #10 NPI against the 42nd ranked SOS. On Boyd’s World, the Dores have the #3 RPI and #5 ISR against the 66th ranked SOS.
Strengths Exposing Weaknesses
While the Commodores have left little room for criticism with early season dominance, there remain four key areas of concern that have been highlighted, at times, by the success.
Walking It Off
It is a remarkable thing to have a pitching staff that entered the week ranked 3rd in the nation by allowing just 6.43 hits per nine innings and 8th in the nation with a 2.28 ERA. It is even more remarkable to pair that with an abysmal 223rd ranking by allowing a whopping 4.36 free passed for every nine innings. Only Dramamine Miller (0.79 BB/9IP), Stephen Rice (2.20 BB/9IP) and Ziomek (2.78 BB/9IP), have excelled with control during the 2012-13 season.
That is a statistic that will catch up to the Commodores eventually, particularly with respect to the biggest violators so far (Beede at 6.10 BB/9IP, Buehler at 6.12 BB/9IP, Fulmer at 6.91 BB/9IP and Jared Miller at an even 9.00 BB/9IP). However, it is probable that Beede and J.Miller will normalize to 2011-12 season levels of 4.02 and 3.62 BB/9IP, respectively. As the weather gets warmer, expect more of the staff to find the zone with consistent regularity.
Running Into Trouble
Through 13 games, Vanderbilt ranked 5th nationally with 39 stolen bases. In the 13 games since, the rate of steals plummeted from 3.0 per game to about 1.5, with just 20 steals (5 of which came against Lipscomb on Tuesday). Against Oregon, Auburn and Florida, Vanderbilt’s offense was limited both at the plate and on the bases. As a result, Vanderbilt has gone from 8.9 runs per game during the first 13 games of the year, to 4.85 runs per game since.
While a big part of this has been a slowdown in the overall offense, with the team batting average dropping from .313 all to way to .293 and the team OPS from .909 to .827, Vanderbilt’s slower numbers on the base path reflect our inability to put pressure on opposing pitchers.
Part of the issue is facing teams with better defensive catchers, which will generally be the case when you go from the out of conference schedule to the SEC, or seeing your on-base percentage drop, but a conscious decision to bunt more (particularly with Jack Lupo, who ranks 2nd nationally with 11 #VanderBunts) also leads to a slowdown on the bases. A third factor has also been a seeming difficulty in adapting to sliding on the turf while wet. It is somewhat odd to see our confidence in sliding drop as the season goes on, but my visit to Nashville did not afford me the opportunity to see a base running clinic with the wet conditions at the Hawk.
Getting the Big Boys Going
While it’s great to see huge contributions from Kemp, Conde and freshmen like Wiseman and Turner, three of the bats that were expected to provide power punch this year have not delivered with breakout seasons. Each of Gregor, Navin and Yastrzemski have produced at a lower rate than in 2011-12. Gregor has an OPS of .779, representing a fall of .123. Navin dropped .024 to .807, while Yastrzemski has seen just a .010 drop to .800 OPS. More importantly, all three were looked to to provide punch in the middle of the order.
Now, let’s not kid ourselves. OPS numbers between .779 and .807 are very good at the collegiate level and all three batters entered the week with solid RC/27 numbers. As calculated by Chris Lee of VandySports.com, Navin, Gregor and Yastrzemski ranked 2nd, 3rd and 7th on the team with RC/27s of 8.89, 8.53 and 6.66, respectively. That said, the trio were expected to outpace their 2011-12 performances this year.
The Unsteady Pen
The final concern plaguing the team is a somewhat uncertain bullpen. Health issues have sidelined Adam Ravenelle and TJ Pecoraro from the pitching staff for the majority of the year. These two were expected to play large roles for the Commodores this year.
Furthermore, the top performing pitcher in the fall and early spring had been Jared Miller. The big lefty was expected to be either the Sunday starter or a shutdown lefty out of the pen, but what appears to possibly be a mechanical kink or a case of the yips has left J.Miller unable to throw his lethal slider for strikes at times this year. J.Miller has looked solid in his last two appearances, so this issue may have passed.
While the numbers on J.Miller and the other four pitchers who’ve seen significant time out of the pen (B.Miller, Rice, Fulmer and Ferguson) are still pretty good (and in the case of B.Miller, excellent), the bullpen has suffered two implosions (Sunday appearances vs. Long Beach State and Oregon) which cost Vanderbilt two potential series sweeps.
The panicked soul would say that Dramamine is the only solution to the unsteady pen; however, that analysis would be wrong. Yes, the wildness of J.Miller and Fulmer are disconcerting, but the stuff on the primary relievers of the Dores is outstanding. So, while I do consider B.Miller our bullpen savior, I do so because I think he might be the top closer in America, not because he’s the only reliable reliever. I think we’ll see Ferguson get more time out of the pen going forward and that we’ll see better accuracy from those who’ve stumbled thus far.
My Weekend At The Hawk
What can I say about the awesome weekend at the Hawk against Florida. It was fantastic to meet so many of my tweeting fellows and to see those with whom I’ve really valued friendships. I may have left my baseball skills behind a long time ago (as @VandyBaseball pointed out), but it was great to take in a game at the Hawk for the first time since the Fullerton pre-season game in the fall of the 2011-12 season.
The big topic of discussion during the weekend was the turf, as the wet conditions led to some interesting slides. Some questioned whether it was safe, given that the sliding around the bases was very, very fast; however, the takeaway I had from the field was that it was incredibly playable. I anticipate something can be done to slow down slides (maybe adding some clay or additional rubber pellets around the bases), but I don’t believe the field would be in such great shape if it were not synthetic turf. Furthermore, the fact that the team does not have to tarp or otherwise maintain the field improved the quality of life of the Vandy boys the moment it was put down.
The trip down also allowed you to pick up on the little things that don’t necessarily come through on All Access. Most notable in this regard is just how mature and cohesive the team is. Without going into great detail, this team does have an aura far more akin to the College World Series team than the comeback kids of last year, and that is a tremendous positive.
A few injury and other roster updates to pass along:
- TJ Pecoraro and Adam Ravenelle both saw action in the last week. Before Tuesday, Pecoraro hadn’t appeared since the opening weekend of the year due to knee inflammation, while Ravenelle made his season debut on Friday after battling an arm issue.
- Spencer Navin returned to the lineup on Friday and played all three games against Florida after suffering an ankle injury against Oregon. He struggled on Friday and Saturday, but looked healthy again on Sunday.
- On Thursday, Dansby Swanson took batting practice for the first time since breaking a bone in his foot early in the season. He’s expected to return by the end of April.
- Outfielder Will Cooper is still on an unknown timetable for return after having an appendectomy. He may be a candidate for a medical redshirt.
- Freshmen RHP Pat Delano, Christian Raasch and Luke Stephenson are all expected to red shirt after not appearing during the season so far.
- Walker Buehler did not start, as I had expected, on Tuesday vs. Lipscomb. My suspicion is that Coach Corbin has decided to shift him to the bullpen on weekends to add another reliable, strike-throwing arm with plus stuff.
- After not pitching for a few weeks, Tyler Ferguson was dominating on Tuesday vs. Lipscomb. As a result, expect him to get more looks out of the pen for the Dores. He also could be a candidate for midweek starts if both Pecoraro and Walker Buehler are shifted to the weekend bullpen. Corbin appears to favor Ferguson in matchups against right-handed batters.
- After starting the year with four dominating starts, Philip Pfeifer has failed to register a quality start in back-to-back appearances. Part of the issue appeared to be locating off speed stuff on Sunday against Florida. At this point, there is no reason to think that Pfeifer is in danger of losing his weekend starting role and I expect him to bounce back against his hometown Vols this Sunday.
As this post has gone on far longer than I anticipated, I’m going to cut it short and get it posted to the site. As always, comments and questions are appreciated below.