Thoughts from Beyond the Bleachers – 4/22/13
Another thrilling week of Vanderbilt baseball is in the books, though the four games did see two contests end in a bit of frustration. That said, the week saw the Vanderbilt bats continue to stay relatively hot, outscoring opponents 30-18, while walloping eight home runs. The week saw two multi-homer games (Rhett Wiseman on Tuesday and Zander Wiel on Saturday), a feat performed only by Connor Harrell over the past years (Stanford in 2012 and Missouri in 2013).
While I’d like to spend some time discussing Zander Wiel and his spectacular SEC starting debut on Saturday and Sunday, a couple of other issues have taken precedence, namely an homage to Tony Kemp and the need to address a question I received on why Vanderbilt inserts a pitching ace in the starting lineup as designated hitter. I’ll discuss those two topics, preview the upcoming week and remind folks that dropping a pair of games in a row is no big deal.
Click on through to read. (Header photo credit: Don Boyles)
Tony Kemp is the hero Nashville needs.
OK, that might be overstating things a little bit in the wake of seeing the Boston Police department perform admirably and Boston citizens, Marathon staffers, medical personnel and first responders put in Herculean efforts to treat the victims of last week’s bombing; nevertheless, Tony Kemp is the most exciting baseball player I have probably ever seen. The man does things so easily that we often don’t realize just how remarkable the things he does really are.
This past Sunday, Kemp had three plays at second that left one’s jaw agape. I had the good fortune of watching the game while utilizing a video capture tool that allowed me to watch replays and grab a few of the highlights for YouTube. In the fourth inning went into foul territory to catch a deep pop up and turned and fired a strike to Spencer Navin to hold the runner at third, ultimately keeping TJ Pecoraro’s then shutout in place (video here).
In the 8th inning, Kemp pulled off what should simply be known as “The Catch”. One-time Vanderbilt player Curt Powell flicks a Brian Miller pitch over Kemp’s head into shallow right. Kemp covered a tremendous amount of ground and then jumped into the air with incredible vertical leap, barrel rolling on the ground with the ball in hand. Both he and Mike Yastrzemski just stood there for a second with a “did that just happen” look on their faces, before hugging. If you haven’t seen it yet, click here immediately.
Kemp was not quite done yet. I’m not sure I have the video on this, but he also performed a flawless, Derek Jeter-style jump throw in the ninth inning. To the extent that anyone still had doubts about Kemp’s ability to play second base after transitioning from left field in the last few months of 2012, those doubts should long have been quieted. In fact, they should be replaced by calls to give the man the NCAA equivalent of the gold glove (an honor that was last bestowed on a Commodore, I believe, when Sonny Gray won for pitchers in 2011).
Kemp’s prior superman effort came as a Freshman in his SEC Freshman of the Year campaign in 2011. With the bases loaded and a four run lead late against Alabama, Kemp made a spectacular play down the line, just short of the Green Monster at Hawkins Field. It was what VUCommodores.com called perhaps the greatest catch in Vanderbilt baseball history (watch the video here). It has, perhaps, been surpassed by its own author.
What is so remarkable about Kemp’s spectacular defense is that he is so very much the picture of calm at the plate. Kemp looks positively disinterested when a pitcher throws a ball or a strike he doesn’t care for. And when Kemp swings, it is with a smooth, compact swing that packs surprising gap power. But once that ball leaves the bat, all bets are off. Kemp flies out of the box and already holds the Vanderbilt career record for triples in a career with 19 (a total that is just two shy of the all-time SEC conference record). He also has a whopping 56 career steals and 155 career runs scored.
Almost as important as his production on the field is Kemp’s status as the ambassador of Vanderbilt baseball. While he’s never held the spotlight alone, he is often the name on people’s mouths after Vanderbilt comes through a town for a weekend series. It was the case this past weekend, and it was even more so following the opening road weekend at Oregon, where Kemp reached something akin to cult-hero status among Duck fans, if his twitter mentions were to be believed.
As I said on Twitter last night, the day that Tony Kemp plays his last NCAA game will be a sad day for College Baseball. Unfortunately for fans of the game, Kemp is likely to be a relatively high draft pick in the June MLB draft. I haven’t completely ruled out hope of his returning for a senior year as Connor Harrell and Mike Yastrzemski did this Fall, but I encourage all Vanderbilt fans to pack the Hawk for the final regular season home series against Mississippi State (this weekend) and Alabama (May 16-18) and for the Nashville regional and prospective Nashville Super Regional. Those could be the final times you get to see an athlete who justifiably should be considered alongside the greats like Shan Foster, David Price and Zac Stacy in their representation of the Vanderbilt University name, both on and off the field.
Do not fear the occasional loss.
Vanderbilt dropped a pair of games on Tuesday and Friday after winning 14 in a row over the prior four weeks. Yes, the two losses came to teams with rough RPIs (Tennessee Tech at 132 and Georgia at 147), but the nature of baseball is that good teams lose games from time-to-time, even against lesser opponents.
Two teams seem to be belying that fact this year. North Carolina is 37-2 with its two losses coming to RPI 12 Miami and RPI 13 Clemson, while Louisiana State is 37-4 with losses to RPI 64 BYU, RPI 10 MSU, RPI 61 Arkansas and RPI 32 Alabama. While Vanderbilt has taken care of business with a 35-6 record, our Dores do have losses to three teams outside the RPI top 100 (TN Tech, Georgia and RPI 138 Long Beach State), to join losses to RPI 53 Middle Tennessee, RPI 18 Florida and RPI 9 Oregon. As a result, Vanderbilt is likely to be the consensus #3 team in all of the polls this week, behind #1 North Carolina and #2 LSU. [EDIT NOTE: VU is 3rd in the Baseball America and Perfect Game rankings, but dropped behind Fullerton to 4th in the Coaches poll and Collegiate Baseball ranking]
Bad losses do happen in a high variance sport like baseball, but the Commodores have taken care of business to an incredible degree this season, as reflected by a 10-0 record in weekend series (tied for best in the nation) and a stellar 15-3 record vs the top 100 teams in the RPI. Those numbers help bolster Vanderbilt’s position as the #4 team in RPI and a 16-2 SEC record that leads LSU by one game and leads the SEC east by five games (over South Carolina).
Vanderbilt has an outside shot at tying or besting the best conference record in history (25-5 by South Carolina in 2000) and is in good position to best the school record for most wins (22-8 in both 2007 and 2011). The overall wins records are also in reach. The previous bests for the school are 2011’s 54-12 record (.818 winning %) and 2007’s 54-13 (.806 winning %). The overall SEC record of 57 wins (LSU’s 57-13 in 1997 and South Carolina’s 57-18 in 2002) and winning percentage of .848 (South Carolina’s 56-10 in 2000) are also in reach if Vanderbilt can finish strong in its last 15 games and carry that over to the SEC tournament in Hoover and the Nashville regional and any subsequent NCAA games.
Above all else, the last time Vanderbilt lost back-to-back games (MTSU midweek and Florida that Friday), they proceeded to run off 14 straight wins. So don’t sweat the small stuff.
What’s with the DH?
Got a question via twitter asking why Coach Corbin starts Kevin Ziomek or Tyler Beede in the DH role for most games. For those unfamiliar, the starting lineup usually features one of our two staff aces in the designated hitter spot. When the DH spot comes up in the order, Vanderbilt pinch hits and sends up, usually, Rhett Wiseman to take the hacks. It’s no mystery as to the fact that Ziomek or Beede are not going to swing the bat (no matter how many #LetTyHit hashtags we use), so why do it?
Well, first let’s consider that the ace listed as DH is one that is not starting that day (meaning Ziomek is the DH on Tuesday and Saturday and Beede on Friday and Sunday). As such, inserting the ace into that role means he will not be available to throw that day, which he would not have in any event.
So what benefit does it give? It’s not gamesmanship as no one is fooled as to the fact that a pinch hitter will come in, nor is there any mystery as to who will be hitting. If it’s not Rhett Wiseman, it will be John Norwood, Kyle Smith or, now apparently, Zander Wiel. Yes, that means a couple extra guys get extra scouting scrutiny, but that’s not much of an advantage and you’re not going to try to adjust your starting pitcher based on one lefty-righty matchup. What it does allow is for Coach Corbin to have flexibility to decide who to use based on the situation. If the DH comes up in a clear bunting role (which actually has not yet happened this year), he can decide to insert Andrew Harris to sacrifice a runner over.
Where did we encounter the strategy? Last year, Stanford used this during our visit to Sunken Diamond in the opening road weekend of the year. Coach Corbin started aping the strategy toward the end of last year and it has carried through during the 2013 season.
Did Stanford invent the practice? No, legendary baseball mind Earl Weaver is generally credited for popularizing the rule for a 15 minute period that lasted about as long as Rebecca Black’s “Friday” fame. He began using it in Major League play to the frustration of opposing managers. Major League Baseball quickly adapted and created a rule to prevent the practice, requiring that the starting lineup DH make a plate appearance unless the opposition changes pitchers prior to the DH coming up in the lineup.
So, in internet TL;DR speak, the answer is #LetTyHit.
Where things stand.
Below listed is the current SEC standings. Despite the 2-2 week (10-9 loss to TN Tech and 1-3, 15-4 and 5-1 results at Georgia), Vanderbilt remains fully in control of its own destiny with respect to SEC tournament and NCAA seeding.
Here is the breakdown on Vanderbilt’s two, top-flight opponents this week.
|Last Week||Top50 W-L||51-100 W-L||WN RPI||WN NPI||WN SOS||Boyds RPI||Boyds ISR||Boyds SOS|
Louisville went into Lexington and took a game from suddenly reeling rival Kentucky, before dropping their weekend series to St. Johns. Meanwhile, Mississippi State recovered from a Friday loss to steal a weekend series from Auburn.
As you can readily see, Vanderbilt is incredibly even with the two teams it’s playing this week. Some of the top opponents to watch in Louisville tomorrow and at the Hawk this weekend include:
- UL Jr 3B Ty Young (.390 BA, 34 R, 3 HR, 42 RBI, 1.040 OPS, 18-22 SB)
- UL Jr LF Coco Johnson (.327, 22 R, 2 HR, 24 RBI, .954 OPS, 11-19 SB)
- UL Jr CF Adam Engel (.277, 36 R, 1 HR, 17 RBI, .722 OPS, 31-39 SB)
- UL Soph RHP Closer Nick Burdi (2-2, 7 saves, 0.89 ERA, 20.1 IP, 5 BB, 41 K, .178 BAA)
- MSU Jr RF Hunter Renfroe (.407 BA, 37 R, 13 HR, 42 RBI, 1.300 OPS, 8-11 SB)
- MSU Jr SS Adam Frazier (.347, 40 R, 0 HR, 20 RBI, .879 OPS, 7-10 SB)
- MSU Soph 1B Wes Rea (.305, 19 R, 4 HR, 22 RBI, .912 OPS, 0-0 SB)
- MSU Sr RHP Kendall Graveman (5-3, 2.06 ERA, 65.2 IP, 15 BB, 44 K, .243 BAA)
- MSU Soph LHP Jacob Lindgren (4-1, 2.54 ERA, 46.0 IP, 13 BB, 53 K, .204 BAA)
- MSU Soph RHP Closer Jonathan Holder (1-0, 12 saves, 1.61 ERA, 28.0 IP, 7 BB, 52 K, .163 BAA)
In particular, keep an eye on Burdi (who flashes America’s best fastball) and Renfroe, who joins Tony Kemp as one of the most thrilling positional players in the game. Also look for emotion, as the annual Battle for the Barrell between Vanderbilt and Louisville has turned into a true rivalry game, in part because of this epic finish from 2011 when Jason Esposito walked it off in the 17th inning.
I hope to do another blog post later this week. In the meantime, Anchor Down.