WISM Special: The Greatest VU Baseball Team of the Corbin Era
As we head into the stretch run of the 2013 season, one of the more interesting questions for fans looking for something to ponder in advance of the big weekend series at South Carolina is comparing the three greatest Tim Corbin squads at Vanderbilt.
The three Commodore teams that have held the #1 ranking in one poll or another have been the 2007 Nashville Regional squad, the 2011 College World Series team and this current crop of Dores. The 2007 team headed by All-Americans David Price and Pedro Alvarez held down the consensus #1 ranking for most all of the season, before faltering in the Nashville Regional. The 2011 squad led by Sonny Gray and Aaron Westlake was in the top 4 of all the polls for most of the season, alongside SEC East rivals South Carolina and Florida (who vanquished the Dores in Omaha). And this year’s Commodores, led by Kevin Ziomek and Tony Kemp, are just now starting to jump from the #2 spot in the polls to the pole position after a record setting 19-2 start in SEC play.
A comparison of the three is made difficult in that each is a fundamentally separate cohort participating in different baseball eras; a fact that is true even for the 2011 and 2013 squads which were comprised of several common key players. In this blog post, I’ll try not to get lost in a bevy of data and will endeavor to make an argument for the team I think, at this moment, is the best in Vanderbilt history.
Click through to read my perhaps too extensive analysis thereof.
Before I get started, I want to run a little experiment on how persuasive both the data and my closing argument is. Before you read any further, please answer this poll will your preconceived notions of what Vanderbilt team was best. You will be asked to complete a second poll at the end of this post.
Factors and Assumptions
Among the factors that differentiate the eras, none is more important than the BBCOR bats. Instituted prior to the 2010-11 academic year, the BBCOR standards greatly reduced the ball speed coming off swings of the bat in an attempt to more accurately replicate wood bat performance. This creates a great gap in both the offensive and pitching numbers between the 2007 team and the more recent dominant squads.
When comparing the performance of teams in the 2007-2010 pre-BBCOR era and the data sets for 2011 and 2012, you see a that the bats from 2007 had a dramatic impact on run production (2011 NCAA trends measured against 2007 see a 3.1% drop in batting average, 8.5% drop in scoring, 23.5% drop in home runs and 8.7% reduction in ERA); however, the difference is not quite as bad as I had expected. It turns out that scoring saw a dramatic spike from 2007 to 2010, a jump that one might attribute to the practice of bat rolling (though we’d have to ask the 2008 Fresno Bulldogs and the 2010 Tennessee Vols to be sure). As a result, from 2007 to 2010, numbers spiked (batting average by 4.8%, scoring by 14.4%, home runs by 38.2% and ERA by 16.2%). As a result, we may tend to overemphasize the difference in the BBCOR-era bat performance between 2007 and 2011; nevertheless, it is a factor to be noted and one that should be considered, particularly with respect to power numbers. Because I tend to focus on OPS as a statistical measure, rather than home runs, I hope to discount this marginally.
It should also be noted that the 2011 squad was in the first year of BBCOR, while the current crop of Commodores have had more time to adjust to the new bats and have been recruited to play with the less lively offensive game. Despite this, it does not seem that offense is trending back up. Quite to the contrary, it seems pitchers are learning to trust defenses more (justifiably so, as there is a linear climb over the past 33 years in overall NCAA fielding percentages from .948 to .965 last year) and perhaps how to pitch to the BBCOR bats. Although I do not have current overall numbers trends for the NCAA in 2013, offenses were well down in 2012 as against 2011, indicating that while the Commodores may have been built around the new bats this year, the NCAA as a whole has not adjusted.
Furthermore, average statistics for all SEC teams do not, however, bear out the argument that 2013 teams should be better-adjusted to hit with the new bats, so I will only consider the difference in bat for the 2007 squads. I posit and theorize that poor weather conditions throughout the Southeast may have impacted the performance of offenses this year, but because I cannot empirically show this, I will concede that argument and suggest that equipment is on a level playing field between 2011 and 2013. That said, I do believe we’re just now seeing the best of the 2013 Vanderbilt offense, which has heated up along with the mercury. Unfortunately, there is an equal likelihood that offensive output increases will be met with similar increases in opponent offenses, notwithstanding the excellence of the Commodores arms down the stretch.
Trend data can be found here (PDF file). Park Factor data from BoydsWorld also indicates that Vanderbilt has more or less played as an average park for offensive purposes throughout the last decade, never ranging more than a standard deviation from the median.
Another major difference is the installation of the AstroTurf GameDay Grass 3D (GameDay Grass) prior to the 2012-13 academic year. As a very fast playing surface with true hops, I posit that this should improve fielding percentages marginally, while have a small impact on increasing ground ball hits and triples. While the GameDay Grass allows runners a minor boost in speed, I believe this factor has been offset on the base paths by the steep learning curve with respect to over sliding bases on wet turf, leading to a net zero difference in base stealing and base running, due to the wet conditions throughout 2013. Defense also should be assisted on the infield with the shift to BBCOR bats between 2007 and the 2011/2013 teams. This difference is, however, marginally and generally limited to fielders at first and third base, positions that all three teams excelled at defensively.
Perhaps the most intriguing factor is the strength of competition, most particularly in the SEC East. Here, the 2011 team clearly faced the most difficult schedule, with a strength of schedule (per BoydsWorld.com) of 17, versus SOS of 43 in both 2007 and so far in 2013. Vanderbilt’s 2013 strength of schedule will go up as the Commodores travel to South Carolina and Kentucky, host Alabama and play in the SEC and NCAA Tournaments, but that projection cannot be read against performance to date.
Please note that I used Boyds’ ISR-based strength of schedule numbers, rather than the RPI. The ISR favors cross-regional matchups in determining strength of schedule, but is not influenced by the recent change in the RPI that rewards road game performance (impacting the 2013 team, but not the prior two squads). The main reason for using ISR-based SOS is admittedly because I couldn’t track down archived RPI data. RPI data for each of the three seasons would account for slightly higher strength of schedules than is reflected in the ISR-based numbers.
In all three seasons, Vanderbilt’s primary competition in the SEC East has been South Carolina and Florida. While in 2011, Florida and South Carolina matched Vanderbilt in every step of the season (eventually besting Vanderbilt to compete for the national championship), providing the three best teams in the nation in the same division. They were joined that year by a moderately good Georgia team and slightly subpar Kentucky and Tennessee squads. Vanderbilt also avoided on its schedule a down-year Ole Miss squad (30-25, 13-17 SEC) that finished last in the SEC West.
In 2007, Vanderbilt avoided a solid Mississippi State team (38-22, 15-13 SEC) that finished second in the West. Furthermore, it faced little real competition in the SEC East, with solid South Carolina and Kentucky teams finishing 5.5 and 9 games back, respectively, and just alright Florida and Tennessee teams finishing 7.5 and 8.5 games back, respectively.
Thus far in 2011, the SEC East has been a runaway, due in large part to Vanderbilt’s ridiculous dominance, but also due to a subpar SEC East with Vanderbilt able to take 8 of 9 games against Missouri, Tennessee and Georgia teams that have a combined record of 49-76 (17-45 SEC). They also avoided two solid SEC West teams in nationally elite LSU and pre-season #1 Arkansas. That is not to say that Vanderbilt has not had the opportunity (and taken it) for signature wins in 2013 or in prior years, as I will discuss below.
Ultimately, the greatest determination of a great team is its performance, so let’s look at how the teams actually did. While the jury is still out on the 2013 squad, it is the overwhelming favorite to take the SEC East, the SEC regular season crown and host a regional, the three great accomplishments a team can have in the regular season. Those achievements were equaled by the 2007 and 2011 squads, though the 2011 squad shared its SEC East and regular season crowns with Florida and South Carolina. The 2013 team will also likely join the 2007 and 2011 squads with a national seed ranking, and may match the 2007 squad’s award of the #1 overall seed in the tournament.
Vanderbilt Team Data and Records
|Record||54-13 (80.6%)||54-12 (81.8%)||39-6 (86.7%)|
|Pythagorean||52-15 (77.6%)||57-9 (86.4%)||38-7 (84.4%)|
|SEC Record||22-8 (73.3%)||22-8 (73.3%)||19-2 (90.5%)|
|Home Record||34-4 (89.5%)||33-4 (89.2%)||27-3 (90.0%)|
|Road Record||12-8 (60.0%)||16-5 (76.2%)||12-3 (80.0%)|
|Neutral Record||8-1 (88.9%)||5-3 (62.5%)||0-0 (NA)|
|Strength of Schedule||43||17||43|
Metrics and Performance
Each of the three teams was incredibly accomplished (please note that I will use the past tense to describe all three teams together, even though the 2013 team is obviously a work in progress). All three had an RPI of 2 and ranked in the top 3 of the ISR (data per BoydsWorld.com). Using the Pythagorean method to predict records based on scoring and runs allowed, the 2011 squad squeezes by the 2013 team as the most dominant squad based on the record you’d expect them to have. The Pythagorean method, though, thereby indicates that the 2007 and 2013 teams played above their level of dominance, while the 2011 team slightly fell short. Please note with respect to the 2011 squad, however, that part of the 2011 team’s under-performance is directly tied to their nemesis, discussed below.
From an conference record perspective, the comparison can only be viewed as either a) premature, until 2013 finishes its last three series or b) a runaway for 2013. While the 2007 and 2011 squads tied for the best conference record in Vanderbilt history (and the fifth best record in SEC history, since moving to a 30 game conference slate), the 19-2 start for the current Vandy boys is the best of all time in conference play.
Meanwhile, all three squads hovered around 90% at home, but the 2007 team fell short on the road, with just a 12-8 record (compared to 16-5 and 12-3 records for 2011 and 2013, respectively). The 2007 team did, however, dominate in neutral settings thanks to the tournaments in Houston and Hoover.
Weekend Series and Marquee Wins
The 2007 squad was 13-1 in weekend series and swept through the Minute Maid Houston College Classic and the Music City Classic weekend tournaments. Their lone series loss came at Arkansas by a 2-1 margin. The big series wins included home sweeps of Florida (by a whopping 40-12 scoring margin), Tennessee and LSU. The marquee out-of-conference performance was in the season opening Minute Maid tournament, where VU vanquished preseason #1 Rice, preseason #6 Arizona State and a Baylor team that was, I believe, in the top 25 as well. Please note that the 2007 team played more weekend series because it preceded the institution of a uniform start date.
The 2011 team was 11-2 in weekend series and swept through four games in the San Diego Petco Park opening weekend tournament. Their lone series losses came to elite compatriots South Carolina and Florida (both by 2-1 margins). The biggest series wins included the Music City Massacre (a 39-5 scoring margin over Tennessee in three games), which followed a home sweep of LSU in which VU had a 31-11 scoring margin. Vanderbilt also had a home sweep of Alabama and a road sweep of Auburn. The out of conference slate was led by a home series win over then #8 Stanford, while the West Coast trip to San Diego featured three games against a Toreros team that disappointed that year and one game against a San Diego State team that was not up to snuff. Also in the out-of-conference, Vanderbilt had an impressive win at rival Louisville in the last meeting before the initiation of the Battle of the Barrel series.
The 2013 team is not short of impressive victories, with a perfect 11-0 weekend series record this year. Among the five SEC series sweeps, two were on the road (Auburn and a ranked Ole Miss team) while three were at home (Tennessee, Missouri and a ranked Mississippi State team). After the sweeps of the two Mississippi schools, the most impressive performance so far has been a series win at a top-10 Oregon squad in which a rare 8th inning bullpen collapse cost the Commodores a demonstrative road sweep in the out-of-conference schedule. Perhaps Vanderbilt’s stiffest challenge comes this week, though, with a trip to rival South Carolina. The Commodores also impressed with a dominating win over Louisville in the Battle of the Barrel.
The next query one comes to is postseason performance. It seemed clear that the 2007 squad had some performance anxiety, losing its opening SEC Tournament game to Tennessee, before rebounding with five straight wins to take the Tournament crown. The 2011 squad was perfect until meeting the bane of its existence (Florida) in the finale, falling one game short of the Hoover title. The current Commodore squad will likely end up as the 1 or 2 seed in the SEC Tournament and is well structured to go deep into the Tournament, particularly given that it will avoid the opening round elimination game.
From an NCAA perspective, the 2007 squad’s failure to escape the Nashville Regional is well documented. Finishing with a 3-2 record, it choked against a Michigan squad that was a low-end 2-seed, in no small part due to having to burn David Price and Casey Weathers in a matchup with All-American RHP Shawn Kelley of 4-seed Austin Peay. The 2011 squad had no such difficulty, steamrolling the Nashville Regional and Nashville Super-Regional in perfect form before defeating North Carolina twice and losing twice to nemesis Florida in the opening week at the College World Series.
The 2013 team is certain to host a Nashville Regional and, if awarded a National Seed as expected, would host a Super Regional if they advance through the first round.
Fatal Flaws (or how I learned to stop worrying and love the Nemesis)
One factor to consider in looking at performance is the existence of a fatal flaw in each of the 2007 and 2011 squads. In the case of 2007, Vanderbilt seemed to beat itself with nerves. This was shown with Ryan Flaherty being picked off of third in the Nashville Regional and David Price serving up a 3-1 fat fastball to Alan Effing Oakes in the fateful Regional final. It also was reflected in a major upset in the loss to Tennessee in Hoover.
The 2011 squad’s nemesis was far clearer. Florida simply had Vanderbilt’s number. The Commodores lost five games to the Gators by a combined 26-13 score, while earning one 14-1 win against the Gators. While it most certainly is cherry picking, if you remove the six games against Kevin Sullivan’s squad, the 2011 Dores were 53-7 (88.3%) with a Pythagorean record matching that 53-7 record.
The current Commodore’s nemesis appears to be either the weather or the free pass; however, neither has come back to bite the team thus far. The conversion to GameDay Grass has allowed Vanderbilt to avoid what might have been up to 10 rain outs (including entire series against Tennessee and Florida). Meanwhile, a walk rate that ranks 218th in the nation has not translated to runs scored, but is something we continue to keep an eye on. One element in that walk rate appears to have been, well, the elements. As the weather has warmed, the greatest culprits in the wildness game (ace Tyler Beede and freshman phenom Walker Buehler have greatly reduced their walks).
Each of the three Commodore squads has been statistically dominant; however, it is here that one must truly factor in the BBCOR bats. The 2007 hitting and pitching numbers should be normalized down to account for the hot bats that existed prior to 2010-11.
Vanderbilt Statistics, All Games
Using the NCAA trend data ratios I discussed above, one can normalize the overall performance of the 2007 team as follows:
Normalized Base Statistics, All Games
|All Games||Raw 2007||Norm 2007||2011||2013|
The normalization clearly brings down to Earth the lofty 2007 offensive numbers, and indicates that the pitching may not have been quite as much of an outlier. To assist in the normalization, I have included the average statistics for SEC teams below. As such, you can note the differential between Vanderbilt and the average SEC squad in each year with the knowledge that the average SEC squad is generally a well better than average NCAA team. You will note that the statistic that is perhaps best reflective of offensive performance of individual players (RC/27) is not available for SEC teams as a whole, because I’ve been granted this data for Vanderbilt players through the calculation of VandySports.com’s Chris Lee.
Average SEC Team Statistics, All Games
What becomes readily apparent is that the 2007 squad was not as much of a statistical anomaly relative to SEC competition in 2007. Given that the 2007 squad is generally regarded as one of the top NCAA teams of the last decade (as noted by Aaron Fitt in his Monday, April 29, 2013 Baseball America chat, he regards the squad as the best regular-season SEC team in recent memory), one likely can point to two factors to explain this disconnect. First, the hotter bats may have been an equalizer, minimizing statistical dominance by any given team. Second, the 2007 squad was one more dominated by star power, rather than depth, which I will discuss below.
More color can be provided by looking at each squad’s rank in the NCAAs and the SECs in five core statistical categories: winning percentage, scoring, batting average, earned run average and fielding percentage. While I would have preferred to use OPS (slugging percentage plus on-base percentage) and RC/27 over batting average, those rankings are not readily available.
Vanderbilt Statistical Ranks, NCAA and SEC
|2007 NCAA||2007 SEC||2011 NCAA||2011 SEC||2013 NCAA||2013 SEC|
From a ranking basis, the general excellence of all three teams is apparent, particularly with respect to rankings in the ultra-competitive SEC. Scoring margin would have been a preferable replacement for pure scoring, and I suspect Vanderbilt would have been among the national elite in each year, as reflected by the scoring and ERA rankings.
All in all, the statistical performance of all three teams is remarkable; however, the 2011 and 2013 squads appear to be greater outliers, with the 2011 squad having done that against greater competition thus far. When considering greater competition, I have also included data using only the SEC game subset.
First, I present the numbers for the Commodores:
Vanderbilt Statistics, Conference Games
Again, I have normalized the 2007 base statistics to try to account for the BBCOR bat differential.
Normalized Base Statistics, Conference Games
|SEC Games||Raw 2007||Norm 2007||2011||2013|
And, to show added context, the SEC average performance against league competition (noting that certain categories such as runs scored and runs allowed per game will zero out):
Average SEC Team Statistics, Conference Games
Here, the 2011 and 2013 squad against show their greater performance against the norm. On both offense and defense, the Commodores in those years really were outliers, as against a 2007 squad that really feasted on non-conference opponents, starting 19-0 before opening conference play against Ole Miss.
In particular, the 2011 team seemed to really pick up their statistical dominance over the competition during conference play. While one might consider this to be bloated by the dominating six game run against LSU and Tennessee in which Vanderbilt outscored their opponents by 70-16 score, it is also somewhat offset by having to have faced South Carolina and Florida. During these three years, it is perhaps not too outrageous to consider the SEC to have had six elite teams (the three Vanderbilt squads, the 2011 Gamecocks and Gators and the 2013 LSU Tigers). In other words, in both 2007 and 2013, Vanderbilt avoided having any elite SEC teams on their regular season calendar.
Let’s look at each of the three teams’ core players next. Although plate appearances would have been a better statistic through which to look at eligible players, I have used at bats to cut off which players played a somewhat regular role on each squad. For 2013, I have cut this number off at 20 at bats (permitting the inclusion of recently injured outfielder Kyle Smith). For 2007 and 2011, I set the cutoff at 26 at bats to include Jack Lupo.
In each case, I placed the regular starters in order (positions 1-9 on the defensive field), and listed reserves by number of at bats with their primary position.
|De La Osa||RF||249||0.378||1.199||65||20||62||20-26||10.87|
Let’s quickly look at each position on the diamond. For offensive performance, I am focusing on the Runs Created (RC/27) statistic that Sabermatricians love. It postulates the number of runs a team comprised solely of a particular player would generate if given 27 outs (or a full nine innings). This seems to be a fair measuring stick, though it does ignore the intangibles of factors such as “clutch” or RISP hitting (something that seems to most clearly be missed in Anthony Gomez’ statistic, which belies just how amazing Gomer was at coming through when needed).
Shea Robin was a very good, but not elite catcher. He permitted 79.7% of base runners to steal, while making 9 errors for a .984 fielding percentage. His 4.68 RC/27 serves his role as an average bat.
Curt Casali was an excellent bat with pop, featuring a 7.18 RC/27. He was an excellent defender, committing only 2 errors for a .996 fielding percentage, while allowing only 68.1% of base stealers to succeed.
Meanwhile, Spencer Navin has been simply stellar. His 8.02 RC/27 leads the bunch, as does his 56.5% success rate for would be base thieves. He has a .993 fielding percentage and has committed just 2 errors.
Given Casali’s outstanding handling of the pitching staff (including calling all of his own games), this should be a push, but statistical analysis gives a slight edge to Navin, bolstered by his intimidation factor against opposing running games.
Brad French was a stellar defensive player, but his bat was nothing to write home about. His 4.18 RC/9 was the lowest of any starter on any of the three teams.
Conrad Gregor, meanwhile, actually enjoyed a better offensive year as a freshman DH than he has as a junior first baseman. His 7.77 RC/27 is not, however, anything to shake a stick at.
There is really no competition here, though. While all three were outstanding defensive players, Aaron Westlake’s 2011 season was the finest of any Commodore in the Corbin era, with a whopping 11.39 RC/27.
Second has been one of the finer positions for the Commodores, but as with first base, there is also no competition here. Tony Kemp is one of the truly elite, with outstanding defensive skills and a team leading 10.75 RC/27 in 2013.
Both Alex Feinberg (6.02 RC/27) and Riley Reynolds (5.97 RC/27) provided consistent offense and great defense at a position where offense is often a luxury ill afforded, but neither produced anywhere close to Kemp.
Finally the star power of the 2007 squad shines through at third base. Quite simply, there was only one Pedro Alvarez. His 10.93 RC/27 was incredible and ranks second only to 2011 Westlake during the Corbin era. He also was a plus defender.
Jason Esposito was also outstanding (particularly defensively), but neither his 7.69 RC/27, nor Xavier Turner’s 6.23 RC/27 (and well above average defensive play) can compare to El Toro.
As noted above, perhaps one of the surprising statistics is the degree to which Anthony Gomez’ high level of play did not translate to Sabermetric excellence. In large part because he did not walk much, Gomez’ 5.72 RC/27 ranks third among our relevant shortstops. The maestro of the hidden ball trick, Gomez was also an above average defender.
While Vince Conde has been excellent both at the plate (7.54 RC/27) and in the field (where he has really clicked since moving over from third base), he falls short of one of this author’s favorite all-time Dores. Ryan Flaherty had an elite season in 2007, flashing an 8.55 RC/27 and a fine fielding performance.
It says something when a player is the best at two different positions on two different years, but Tony Kemp is just that. As a freshman, his defense was almost as spectacular as it has been this year at second base, and he was the sparkplug to the 2011 offense, registering an outstanding 8.18 RC/27. That year, he was named the SEC Freshman of the Year.
Falling short of Kemp was average defender Matt Meingasner in 2007 (7.22 RC/27), who shared time in left with Ryan Davis (5.88 RC/27) and Jonathan White (6.02 RC/27).
In 2013, the excellent defense of Jack Lupo cannot account for his lack of extra-base punch, which is what holds back his otherwise solid 5.60 RC/27.
In our final two defensive positions, we have incumbents in 2013 facing off against their 2011 performances and their 2007 counterparts. In center field, Connor Harrell has been outstanding defensively throughout his career, but this year has seen an offensive explosion (8.75 RC/27) that far exceeds his 2011 performance (6.65 RC/27).
Particularly considering the BBCOR bats and Harrell’s Gold Glove caliber defense, David Macias’ 6.43 RC/27 performance was not quite on Harrell’s level in either year.
As with Harrell, Mike Yastrzemski has improved on his 2011 numbers with a solid senior year. His RC/27 has moved from 7.44 to 8.74, while his defense remains a stellar constant.
Nevertheless, nothing can compete with Dominic De La Osa’s 2007 campaign. Of the Bear had a whopping 10.87 RC/27, the third best number in the Corbin era, while playing good (but not outstanding) defense during a consensus First Team All-American season.
The DH slot has not been manned consistently by a single player through most seasons at Vanderbilt. In 2007, Andrew Giobbi (5.84 RC/27) shared time with Ryan Davis (5.88 RC/27) and Jonathan White (6.02 RC/27), and even occasionally the regular left fielder Matt Meingasner (7.22 RC/27).
In 2013, the DH role has been a freshman parade. Rhett Wiseman (7.68 RC/27) would be considered the predominant DH due in large part to Xavier Turner’s shift to third base and the small sample sizes enjoyed by Zander Wiel (10.90 RC/27) and Kyle Smith (16.06 RC/27). John Norwood (7.29) has also seen time both at DH and in left field.
Notwithstanding the gaudy numbers put up by all five, the overall performance by Conrad Gregor in 2011 remains the best DH job during the Corbin era. He was a consistent force and registered a 9.41 RC/27 that ranks 9th best during the Corbin era.
In the reserve category, while accounting for the more limited sample sizes, it is clear that the 2013 team has the greatest depth. It is not a stretch to assume that reserves including Chris Harvey, Joel McKeithan, John Norwood, Dansby Swanson, Tyler Campbell, Zander Wiel and Kyle Smith would all start for Tennessee if they could be moved over to the evil squad to the East.
While the 2011 squad had some great reserves and the 2007 team had solid options for the left-field / designated hitter role, there simply is a different level of depth on the 2013 team. One might honestly question if you couldn’t form two regional quality squads when splitting this year’s club in half. I don’t doubt that you can.
Arbitrarily grading each position on each squad, I’ve come up with the following grades, in which the slightly superior starting lineup of the 2011 squad is overcome by the tremendous depth of the 2013. Both the 2011 and 2013 teams outshine the star power of the 2007 squad with their top-to-bottom strength. While there is little doubt that going through Flaherty-Alvarez-De La Osa was the toughest task (realistically, scarier than Esposito-Westlake-Casali and well ahead of Yastrzemski-Harrell-Gregor), having a lineup that never ended was a hallmark of the 2011 and 2013 teams.
Arbitrary WISM Grades of Position Players
While the 2013 roster of position players is certainly the deepest, one can question whether the reserve category really should matter much, as there are only so many at bats to go around. In each of 2011 and 2013, you had a relatively consistent lineup down the stretch and limited pinch hitting opportunities once roles were established. There was more movement in 2007, but that was in large part due to the lack of elite level play from top-to-bottom in the order. Notwithstanding this fact, depth is insurance against injuries. This year, starting SS Joel McKeithan and primary reserve Dansby Swanson both went down to injury, but were replaced by a second or third team All-SEC candidate in Vicente Conde.
Next up is a look at the pitching staffs. I have listed the pitchers by innings pitched and will discuss their roles thereafter. While I’d love to use a Sabermetric stat like fielding independent pitching or component ERA, I don’t have access to those at the moment. I have placed the cutoff for inclusion at 17 innings pitched, arbitrarily allowing Jack Armstrong’s inclusion while not cutting off any of the regular 2013 pitchers, with the exception of Adam Ravenelle (0-0, 2.89 ERA, 9.1 IP, .270 BAA) who missed the first half of the season, but has been excellent of late, touching 97 MPH on radar guns.
Let’s take a look at this by breaking down the starting pitchers, closers and bullpen. When doing so, I note that each staff has featured 1st round draft picks among their ranks. In 2007, Price, Minor and Weathers were all eventual first rounders. In 2011, Gray and Garvin were first rounders and Ziomek may follow suit. In 2013, Beede was a first rounder out of high school, and he will almost certainly be a first rounder next year, possibly to be joined by Ziomek, Fulmer and Buehler in their respective draft years.
This list starts and ends with David Price. He had, quite simply, the greatest season of any Vanderbilt athlete in history and possibly any SEC male athlete in history. His 13.1 K/9 and 133.1 IP stand out with his 11-1 record and 2.63 ERA in the pre-BBCOR era.
The 2011 and 2013 staffs featured aces who actually were exceeded in certain regards by their Saturday counterparts, but were dominant enough to be called either 1A and 1B with equal regard. In 2011, Sonny Gray was an All-American with a 12-4 record and 2.43 ERA. This year, Kevin Ziomek was the top pitcher in America in the first half of the season and has kept it going with an 8-2 record and 2.12 ERA, with an astounding .164 BAA overall.
It’s tough to have to choose among three A+ performances, but Price remains the stalwart here.
Each of the three staffs featured a second ace who would easily be numero uno if the need arose. Thus far, Tyler Beede would be the front runner of the three. Like Price, he’s just been an A+ with an extra plus on it, and he would probably be the National Pitcher of the Year if voting ended today due to his 11-0 record and 1.63 ERA in 11 starts.
The other two Saturday starters were also A+ pitchers, though. 2007 had SEC Freshman of the Year Mike Minor (9-1, 3.09), who Corbin considered the most polished freshman he’d ever coached on the mound. Meanwhile, 2011 had SEC Pitcher of the Year Grayson Garvin (13-2, 2.48 ERA). That Beede is a slight tick ahead of Minor and Garvin is a testament to just how great he’s been this year.
Sunday and Midweek Starter
While the 2007 and 2013 staffs moved around their Sunday and midweek starters, 2011 featured a reliable third guy in Taylor Hill (6-1, 2.73 ERA in 99 IP). His performance striking out 13 against Belmont in the Nashville regional may have been the finest of any starter in the 2011 season, assisting him in getting a leg up on the competition. Hill was complemented by the excellence of TJ Pecoraro as the predominant midweek starter in a Freshman All-American performance. I list Pecoraro here despite the fact that Corbin generally used midweek games as “staff days” to allow his bevy of bullpen arms work.
In 2007, Bret Jacobson, Nick Christiani and Cody Crowell all saw starting duty with solid, if not entirely Hill-esque reliability. Meanwhile, Philip Pfeifer, Walker Buehler and Tyler Ferguson have been excellent in 2013, but not to the same degree as Hill. Like Pecoraro, Buehler is likely to earn Freshman All-American honors. The X-Factor here is TJ Pecoraro. He has the caliber to be a front-line starter, but is just now getting back into the groove coming off injury, but if he pitches to his capability, he has the potential to match his or Hill’s 2011 performance down the stretch.
All in all, the 2007 and 2013 staffs cannot compete with the consistent excellence of Hill and Pecoraro (et al), providing the first leg up when comparing pitching staffs.
Vanderbilt has enjoyed two All-American performances among closers among the three relevant seasons. Casey Weathers was Mr. Everything in 2007, earning 1st Team honors with a whopping 12-2 record and 7 saves over 49.1 innings. He has been matched, however, by 2013’s sidewinding Brian Miller. Dramamine Miller is on pace for an even better season than Weathers enjoyed, with a 5-0 record and 12 saves in 39.2 innings of unflappability. Both were multi-inning save guys, giving Corbin a weapon out of the pen.
Amazingly, All-SEC closer Navery Moore (4-2, 11 saves, 29.2 IP) has trouble keeping up despite numbers that match up equally well, in part because he was joined by a myriad of closer quality arms in the pen, limiting his duties to some degree. As with the Friday and Saturday starters, Vanderbilt enjoyed three A+ options, just with two that were A++.
The 2007 team falls short of the other years in its setup corps and the back end of the pen. The 2007 team relied on Price and Minor to dominate the first two games of a weekend, and then turned to their core group of spot starters. They simply lacked the deep stable of setup men. Other than Weathers, Vanderbilt was hampered by a down year from previously excellent setup man Steven Shao and the lack of any true secondary closers.
2013 has a great stable of arms and Carson Fulmer is developing into a wunderkind in the setup role, but he and the other primary setup man (Jared Miller) have, at times, struggled with control. While Steven Rice has also excelled in the setup role, the ability to depend on any number of dedicated relievers is not quite as astounding as in 2011.
The Vanderbilt College World Series squad had a never-ending list of shutdown arms. The man on the staff with the worst numbers (Corey Williams) was the team’s best overall pitcher in the NCAA tournament, and guys like Ziomek, Clinard and Lamm were all rocks in getting the ball to Moore. Even Jack Armstrong was unhittable (though his lack of control kept the former Saturday starter out of most clutch situations).
Arbitrary WISM Grades of Pitchers
The ultimate depth of the 2011 staff reigns supreme in my rankings here. Quite simply, there was no weakness in the group. From Gray to Garvin to Hill to Pecoraro through the setup guys to Moore, this was a staff without weakness (with perhaps the exception of Corey Williams’ kneecap). In hindsight, and even with the remarkable season start of Ziomek and Beede, there is still a difference between the two.
Perhaps the only realm in which the 2007 team is on top is in the star power category. You had four first team All-Americans in Price, De La Osa, Alvarez and Weathers and a second teamer in Flaherty. Four of those five (all but De La Osa) would be drafted in the first round of their respective MLB draft, as was Minor. When I say star power, it’s not just name recognition. It’s general consensus that the player is among the top 2 or 3 players at his position nationally, and in no season was this more readily apparent than in the 2007 season. A star positional player feasted on the mediocre and the excellent competition, while a star pitcher could shut down even the best bats.
The 2011 team had plenty of star power, but not on the same level. It was headlined by Gray, Garvin, Esposito and Westlake (and the SEC Freshman of the year in Kemp), but featured the greatest draft depth in SEC history, with 12 players drafted and an additional player signing a free agent contract during the 2011 MLB draft process.
The 2013 team has a good deal of stars and future stars. Despite this, on the offensive side, only Tony Kemp is having a sure-fire first team All-American season, though Connor Harrell may have a chance at national honors as well. The star power comes from the rotation, with Beede and Ziomek both contending for Pitcher of the Year honors and numerous freshman who should earn consideration for both national and SEC Freshman All-American honors.
Therein lies one question, does depth or name recognition truly earn praises. I was tweeted at by a few of the Mississippi State fans who chose to follow @VUHawkTalk last weekend that they weren’t sure if Vanderbilt was excellent at anything, but they were darn good at everything from top to bottom. As Saturday turned to Sunday, the dismissal of elite ability quieted and most generally acknowledged the Dores were the best team MSU had faced all year, but for some reason only Kemp (even over Ziomek and Beede) tends to draw the tremendous fear and admiration that guys like Price, De La Osa and Alvarez once wrought.
Nevertheless, team RC/27 data seems to indicate that you don’t need multiple guys with gaudy offensive abilities to have a dominant lineup. In fact, it is quite clear that the 2011 and 2013 Commodore squads both were superior offensively to the 2007 team, even if two of the three best offensive seasons in Corbin-era history were chalked up during that year by De La Osa and Alvarez. More anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that the gritty, never ending style of play perfected in 2013 and also evident in 2011 has a greater cumulative effect, even if it does not strike as much immediate fear.
One interesting side question on the difference between the star power of 2007 and the incredible depth of 2011 and 2013 is if such depth provides evidence that Vanderbilt’s decision to adopt a Princeton/Harvard model of need-based grants is correlated to increased depth becoming the permanent norm at Vanderbilt. The 2011 and 2013 teams both fully benefited from the program, which was announced in December 2008, while the 2007 squad had the far more difficult task of asking kids to assume enormous student loans regardless of financial need. For those unfamiliar with the program, please click here (and further note that the program is intended to benefit the academic rankings of the school, rather than the athletic ones).
WISM’s Closing Thoughts
Ultimately, I’m somewhat dismissive of star power as a form of criticism and more valuing of great depth, though some disagree with me there. If you give me nine Mike Yastrzemskis, I’d beat the Miami Marlins in a seven game set (well, maybe not, but we’d be competitive, particularly if you let David Price, Mike Minor and Sonny Gray headline my rotation).
The 2011 and 2013 Vanderbilt squads could all play from spot 1 to 27 on the weekend rosters (and, especially with 2013, through to 35 on the full roster). We’ve not seen much of guys like Nevin Wilson, Tyler Campbell, Luke Stephenson and Pat Delano, who would be among the prize recruits of just about every team in the nation. Heck, even Dansby Swanson (who many believe is a sure fire Major Leaguer) has been relegated to bench duty as he comes back from a broken foot early in the year.
In 2011, many of the same problems were present, but mostly on the pitching staff where innings were not easy to parse out due to the remarkable depth of the staff. One could argue convincingly that great depth beyond the starting lineup if less important with respect to positional players because you are less inclined to make changes in your lineup than you are on the mound. As such, the superior bullpen depth of 2011 trumps the greater bench depth of 2013, at least so far.
I didn’t break out defense because I genuinely believe there is little difference between the three defenses. All featured plus defenders at the corners and second on the infield, and the outfield defenses were stellar (particularly in 2013, where Lupo-Harrell-Yastrzemski may be the best defensive outfield of the decade in the SEC). Perhaps some measure of recognition should be granted to Spencer Navin’s elite defense at catcher (even over the excellent Curt Casali), but as a whole I feel all three teams were generally plus defensively. Overall, you’re inclined to give a slight advantage to 2013 on the defensive front.
All told, though, choosing between the three teams is like choosing a favorite among your three kids. You don’t really want to do it, even as you acknowledge that each child has his or her own strengths. 2007 was the first-born and paved the path at the local schools to help his younger siblings catch the eye of teachers. But like a dumb pot bust during Senior week (the Michigan losses in the Nashville Regional) and a lack of extra-curricular activities (lineup and bullpen depth), 2007′s shortcomings leave him as the one who never quite lived up to his potential. We all still look up to him, even if he’s been surpassed in accomplishments.
2011 is the studious future English major and prom court member, whose pitching staff penned great poetry and whose brute power on the field hockey pitch (AKA, having to go through Esposito-Westlake-Casali) was impressive. Her punch may not have quite matched her older-brother’s gridiron glory days, but the versatility, along with her pitching prose, made that Princeton acceptance letter a reality.
All that is left is the baby of the family. The product of SAT and LSAT prep classes (also known as back-to-back #1 recruiting classes), young 2013 does everything well and has no weaknesses. Yet, as the regular season winds down, it is 2013 that has to prove itself in the real world of the playoff season.
Right now, it seems that middle sister 2011 is the one with the most A grades on the refrigerator, but it can be surpassed by its younger brother named 2013. Meanwhile, 2007 will stand off to the side, knowing that while it didn’t realize all it could, it can stand with pride and marvel at the success its own accomplishments made possible.
For those who need it spelled out, as of this date, I’d rank the teams 1) 2011, 2) 2013 and 3) 2007; however, you really prove yourself in the postseason and there is little difference between the two teams outside of 2011’s ability to reach the College World Series. I will revisit the question at the end of the season.
So what do you think, now having read my thoughts. Have you changed your mind? Answer below and comment in the box below with your thoughts.