Thoughts from Beyond the Bleachers – 5/16/13
Another day, and it’s another long blog post. OK, so this one is a little delayed in the making, but I’m allowed a social life every once in a while. Because I wrote this one rather quick, you’ll have to forgive me the somewhat jumbled nature of the opening segment, which discusses the number one ranking achieved by the Dores this week, as well as the series of records that they have tied and are on the cusp of breaking.
What I lack in numbers of posts, I make up for in substance, I promise.
Click through to keep on reading.
This week saw the Vanderbilt baseball team capture a series of team accomplishments. Yes, it was also notable that Tyler Beede tied Grayson Garvin for the all-time Vanderbilt single season wins record at 13 (also tying the NCAA record for most wins in 13 starts – though I can’t seem to find what the NCAA record is for most consecutive starts won is) and that Tony Kemp tied the SEC career record for triples at 21 (in 180 games, or 61 fewer than Brian Duva of Florida). Nevertheless, what makes this Vanderbilt squad so dominant is the manner in which it truly is a team, from top to bottom. I’ll have more on that in my next blog post.
Last Saturday against Kentucky, the Commodores bested the 2007 and 2011 squad’s team record for conference wins in a season. Their 23rd win (which was Beede’s 13th victory of the season) moved the Commodores ahead of the 22-8 standard previously set by those other elite squads. With Kevin Ziomek’s victory on Friday, the Dores had moved to 22-2 and, due to losing a game to rain out, had actually guaranteed they would finish with the best conference winning percentage in team history.
Vanderbilt captured their third overall SEC regular season championship, joining the dominant 2007 team and the 2011 squad that shared the title with South Carolina and Florida. Vanderbilt accomplished this feat by defeating Kentucky on Sunday, meaning they have three SEC games to play to extend that lead over LSU. With the win against Kentucky, Vanderbilt also ensured that it could finish with no more than 5 losses, which would tie the mark for fewest losses during an SEC season since the conference went to a 30 game schedule.
On Tuesday, with a 6-1 victory over Belmont, Vanderbilt again pushed the record books. They tied the 2007 team’s record for most regular season victories in a season, again with three games to play. At 46-6 (tied with North Carolina for the best record in the nation), Vanderbilt will have three cracks to best this mark.
This Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Vanderbilt will face Alabama. With just one win, the Commodores will set a new SEC record for the highest SEC winning percentage in conference history (since the SEC went to a 30 game schedule). Currently sitting at 24-2 in conference play, the Dores can set a new standard for most victories in conference play by winning two games and besting the 2000 South Carolina record of 25-5.
Secondary to these accomplishments is the unification of the polls. Back in 2007, there were four major polls: the NCBWA (writers) poll, the USAToday/ESPN (Coaches) poll, the Baseball America staff poll and the Collegiate Baseball ranking. Since that time, the PerfectGame ranking has become accepted as a fifth major poll. While the 2007, 2011 and 2013 squads had all achieved #1 rankings in at least one poll, the last Vanderbilt consensus number one team was the 2007 squad as it entered post-season play. With Vanderbilt’s sweep of Kentucky and Georgia Tech’s series upset over North Carolina, the USAToday/ESPN, Baseball America and PerfectGame rankings fell into line with the NCBWA and Collegiate Baseball in awarding the Commodores top honors this week.
Also impressive is that Vanderbilt has unified the five major empirical metrics with a number one ranking. The Commodores have inched in front of North Carolina for the top spot in the BoydsWorld.com Ratings Power Index (RPI) and Iterative Strength Ratings (ISR), the WarrenNolan.com RPI and Nolan Power Index (NPI) and the official NCAA RPI. They have done so against the 36th toughest strength of schedule (SOS) in BoydsWorld.com ISR formula and the 17th ranked SOS in WarrenNolan.com RPI formula.
On Monday in the Baseball America podcast, BA Editor John Manuel said Vanderbilt was worthy of its ranking (using the Greek term “ἄξιος”). Aaron Fitt agreed, noting that Vanderbilt was nearly the number one team in the nation in the pre-season, in which case it would have held the ranking all season, as it had not yet lost a weekend series.
Eric Sorenson of Easton’s College Baseball Today has adopted a different moniker than Manuel for these Dores. He has taken to calling them the Terminator… ruthlessly and consistently crushing opponents without emotion or mercy. Sorenson was eventually won over by Tony Kemp’s post-game smile on Saturday and admitted that Vanderbilt did, in fact, have fun while winning. In any respect, Judgment Day is coming.
Edit: Jeff Lockridge has a great piece this morning that notes the following additional points:
- With a win Saturday, Beede would be the first pitcher in SEC history to win all 10 SEC starts in a season, and the first SEC pitcher to win his first 14 starts in overall play.
- Vanderbilt is on a 13 game winning streak, after having 14 and 13 game streaks earlier in the year.
Jeff’s piece also reminded me that I forgot to note that the Dores’ seven SEC sweeps also tied South Carolina’s 2000 team for most in a season. A sweep of the Crimson Tide would set a record that is difficult to match. Without looking it up, I’m also willing to bet that no SEC team ever gone 10-0 in weekend series before (I know South Carolina did not in 2000 and will confirm over the weekend that no one else has).
Judgment Day Is Here, Well, Kind Of
Two weeks ago, I posted an article that received tremendous response. The WISM special compared the Vanderbilt squads of 2007, 2011 and 2013 in an effort to determine which was best. Many of you voted and the general consensus was that 2011 squeaked past 2013 on the basis of a dominant bullpen that had tremendous experience on its side. Much of that determination was perhaps influenced by my arguments which somewhat loaded the comparison. I want to lay out some quick thoughts on faults in the post.
First, as I noted therein, it wasn’t really fair to gauge 2013 yet. I referred to it as an incomplete record for 2013, with no postseason record to reflect on. This remains true and I stated a belief that 2011 currently is the reigning champ, but that 2013 could emerge as the best ever if it reaches Omaha (and certainly if it brings home a title).
Second, I don’t believe I provided enough guidance to indicate that there are many ways in which you can determine which team was best. The four primary ones would be: a) which team had the best performance over a complete season, including playoffs or just simply in the regular season; b) which team most dominated the competition; c) which team would be best in a weekend series or d) which team would be best in a regional format. I’ll revisit this at the end of the year, though I think each team has an argument for top billing in some form.
Third, I most certainly discounted the importance of star power, as pointed out by one of my fellow fan friends. While I go into the discussion with an assumption that balance is better than star power, one must wonder if the 2011 or 2013 lineup would create more runs against a Michael Roth or Brian Johnson or if a lineup grounded by Pedro Alvarez, Dominic de la Osa and Ryan Flaherty would be better capable of scoring off a dominant arm. I think an argument can be made than an uber-elite athlete like Alvarez, DLO and Flash would have more success against the elite than a balanced lineup without a sure fire big-league bat in it would. While I strongly believe the 2011 and 2013 team has players who will play every day in the majors, Alvarez and Flaherty were can’t miss prospects and DLO was one of the most dominant collegiate bats of the last decade.
Finally, I must admit that I sold the arms on the 2007 squad a bit short. Their numbers don’t match up with the 2011 or 2013 bullpens, but guys like Cody Crowell and Ty Davis were, at times, filthy on the mound. They may not have been as amazing as the latter squads, but the 2007 pitching staff was also great.
In any respect, over the summer, I will revisit the post and run another analysis, hopefully made moot by a National Championship.
Thoughts from the Last Week
I’m going to go with some quick hitters here before diving into Bama.
This was not just a great media week in the polls. Vanderbilt had three phenomenal, high profile articles on the baseball team.
First, Ryan Schulz penned an epic tome on the journey of Connor Harrell for the Commodore Nation magazine that arrived on my doorstep yesterday. Read it here.
Then, in last week’s Sports Illustrated, SI Senior Editor Mark Bechtel, a Vanderbilt alumnus (and WhenItStrikesMe season preview prognostication contributor) spent three pages of the nation’s premiere sports magazine discussing the Commodore pitching legacy carried on by Kevin Ziomek and Tyler Beede. It is not yet available online, so I highly recommend you try to dig up a hard copy of last week’s issue for the must read.
Finally, Vanderbilt alumnus and New York Times senior baseball writer Tyler Kepner wrote about the heart and soul of the Commodores, Mike Yastrzemski. The article was featured on the front page of the Grey Lady’s national edition and the front page of the sports section in the New York Metro edition last Sunday (yes… the freaking cover of the Sunday Times). You can read it here.
As always, you should also be reading Chris Lee’s Baseball Coverage at VandySports.com, Jeff Lockridge’s at the Tennessean.com and Jerome Boeetcher’s at NashvilleCityPaper.com. They all do a tremendous job on the beat. Oh, and it never hurts to read me, too.
Unfortunately, Dansby Swanson’s freshman campaign is done. While the season was mostly missed due to a break in his left foot in month one, Dans’ season ended due to surgery on his non-throwing shoulder this week. The injury kept him on limited action during February and apparently lingered on a bit. The surgery was a success, but Swanson will miss summer ball this year. He should be back at 100 percent in time for fall ball.
Nursing an injury is Jack Lupo. As Jeff Lockridge of the Tennessean tweeted earlier on Wednesday, Lupo strained his groin early in the game against Belmont on Tuesday and was relieved by John Norwood as a pinch hitter in the bottom of the second. Lockridge indicated that Lupo likely would be held out of the Alabama series beginning on Thursday.
Most of the team is otherwise healthy. Xavier Turner did bang up his wrist a week ago, but he seems to generally healthy. I would attribute his absence from the lineup on Tuesday as more of an issue of trying to get Kyle Smith (who had just one at bat since his concussion last month) some playing time.
There are no other reports of lingering injuries, to my knowledge.
Zanderbilt in the Wiel House
As a quick note, Vanderbilt DH Zander Wiel has taken the SEC by storm. While his batting average has dropped below .300, this is in no small part due to an abnormally low batting average on balls in play (just .262 vs. a team average of .363, per Chris Lee of VandySports.com). Nevertheless, Wiel still delivered 18 RBI in his first 10 starts for the Dores, highlighted by his two home run debut in the second game against Georgia.
Wiel caught me by surprise as much as you all. Though I follow this team closely (perhaps obsessively), I just didn’t know much about his baseball game. I knew his father was basketball hero Randy Wiel (former head coach of Middle Tennessee State and an assistant at North Carolina) and that he was a stout, athletic young man who progressed well during his red shirt season, but the freshman’s prodigious start shocked me.
I caught up with some players and folks close to the team who simply said that this is the power stroke that Wiel has consistently displayed in practice, plus a little lightning in the bottle. That the practice and BP shows would translate so quickly to live action was a surprise to just about everyone, but Wiel doesn’t get cheated on his at bats. He works pitchers deep into counts, fouls off tough pitches and punishes the mistakes. I don’t expect to see him vacate the DH role, though I do admit that I would like to see a return to the blank DH spot in lineup cards, if for no other reason than being able to call for Ty to hit. I also think we could stand to insert Rhett Wiseman in for a few more at bats against right handed pitching.
The Bullpen Glory
The bullpen has been stalwart down the stretch. I mean really, Carson Fulmer… are you serious. Fulmer has been right up there with Holder and Colby Suggs as the most utterly dominant reliever in the conference for the last month.
But it doesn’t stop with Fulmer. Jared Miller worked out a mechanical glitch that hampered his early season performance and is now burying the slider and pounding the zone with the fastball, making him virtually unhittable and easing the burden on Brian Miller in late innings.
Add in that Adam Ravenelle is finally realizing the potential in his golden arm and that Steven Rice is back to getting on top of the curve ball, and Vanderbilt has five great options out of the pen for late inning situations, joining flex-role (meaning starter-reliever combo guys) TJ Pecoraro, Philip Pfeifer and Walker Buehler.
Among the flex pitchers, expect Buehler and Pecoraro to split starts going into the post-season, though Philip Pfeifer snapped out of mini funk with a decisive and dominant performance against Belmont on Tuesday.
Also along for longer relief outings are talented freshman Tyler Ferguson and crafty red shirt junior southpaw Keenan Kolinsky.
Aberration Equals Dominance
Vanderbilt’s offense continues to out-perform against SEC opponents. Why the Dores are battering SEC pitching at a rate that exceeds their out-of-conference performance probably is most attributable to the nasty weather experienced throughout the non-conference season in Nashville. The unusually cold and wet spring has warmed along with the Commodore bats.
Also playing a role is the solidification of roles. Though there is little question that bench players like Kyle Smith, Rhett Wiseman and John Norwood have punished the ball all year, the steady 10 man rotation in the lineup adds extra confidence among Vanderbilt hitters.
#Kemp4SECPOY and the duo for Pitcher of the Year
Heading into the final weekend of regular season play, the contests for SEC Player and Pitcher of the Year are heating up. In each case, it’s settled into a battle of four true contenders, with three of the eight total nominees hailing from Vanderbilt and three from West leader LSU. The two “fifth men” in the races (i.e., the guys who fell just short in my estimation) are outfielder Mike Yastrzemski of Vanderbilt and closer Jonathan Holder of Mississippi State. Do note that Ole Miss catcher Stuart Turner also will get some moderate consideration here. But in the meantime, let’s get to the candidate.
The first up for player of the year is SEC and National Freshman of the Year Alex Bregman of LSU. Bregman does a little bit of everything and has hit in the three spot in LSU’s potent lineup all year. Quite simply, he is the best shortstop West of North Carolina State’s Trea Turner and, when North Carolina’s Skye Bolt went down for several weeks with an injury, Bregman locked up what should be a unanimous ballot for every Freshman award in the nation. That Freshman award will likely steal votes from Bregman and discount that he plays the most premium defensive position of our bunch (and plays it well).
Also causing a vote problem for Bregman is that he will split ballots with the man who hits immediately behind him, first baseman Mason Katz of LSU. Katz started off the season on fire, eclipsing Vanderbilt’s Connor Harrell as the nation’s premiere run producer after about 20 games into the season and never looking back… well, until SEC play hit. Katz’ numbers are gaudy, but he plays a non-premium defensive position and saw a steep drop in his numbers from non-conference play to league competition.
The hometown hero and favorite of the CSS crew of Matt Stewart and Rusty Ensor is Vanderbilt second baseman Tony Kemp. The flair for the dramatic sets Kemp apart as he probably ranks second only to San Diego’s Kris Bryant in his ability to disrupt a game, cause excitement and leave people shaking their heads – and Kemp does so both defensively and offensively. It also does not hurt that he performs on the nation’s and the conference’s top team.
Rounding out the field is the statistical dominator in both overall and conference play. Mississippi State right fielder Hunter Renfroe is having a first team All American season and has done it all, all year. His power advantage has helped him blow away the competition from an OPS and RC/27 perspective. The only negative for Renfroe is that Mississippi State has generally disappointed from a performance standpoint as a team.
Here are the statistics for the candidates in all games.
And, here are the statistics for SEC play only.
Because the readership of this blog will almost certainly vote for Tony Kemp by a wide margin, I’ll ask you to vote for one of the three non-Vanderbilt candidates… for the role of guy who you think should finish second to Kemp.
On to the pitchers, let’s jump right into the candidates.
First up is Vanderbilt’s own Tyler Beede. The Saturday starter is Stewart and Ensor’s CSS Pitcher of the Year and is a front runner for National Pitcher of the Year. He has won every game he’s pitched, has been the hardest guy to actually hit in the league and has been onions with runners on base. The only knocks against him (from a voter perspective) are that he is a Saturday starter (therefore not facing the opponent’s ace) and that he’s walked a large number of opponents. Counters to that are that Grayson Garvin won Pitcher of the Year as a Saturday guy in 2011 and that walks have yet to hurt him, thereby discounting their value as detraction.
Next is Louisiana State’s Aaron Nola. Perhaps the most work-horse-like dominator of the four, Nola is an innings eater who threw four consecutive complete games during the heart of SEC play. Opponents hit him slightly better than the other three candidates, but he is far superior in both walk rate and walks to strikeouts. As the only candidate from the best team in the West, Nola joins Beede as a favorite for this award. Nola will not pitch this weekend for LSU in an attempt to rest for the playoff run, perhaps hurting his chances.
Ole Miss’ Bobby Wahl is the dark horse here. Wahl has somehow managed to start an extra league contest (I have no idea how) and has been the stingiest of the pitchers on this list; however, he, like Beede, has a high walk rate and, more importantly, has five no-decisions in SEC play. On a team that has disappointed, Wahl may be the first drafted in this year’s Major League Draft, but he is not a front runner for this award.
Rounding out the candidates is Kevin Ziomek. With the only two losses on this list, Ziomek likely will not get the nod for pitcher of the year, despite gaudy numbers, work-horse status and the two best pitching performances of the year (which complete game outings occurred in the non-conference season). No small factor in that is that he’s been decidedly less dominant in SEC games than during the non-conference slate, where he was the nation’s top pitcher.
Here are the overall stats for the pitchers.
And now I present the conference-only numbers.
As there are two Commodores on the list, I’ll first ask which of the Dores do you give the nod as pitcher of the year.
And, because I’m sure Beede and Ziomek would thrash Nola and Wahl head to head, let’s see who finishes third in the hearts of Vandy fans.
Acknowledging my biases in favor of Vanderbilt, I will just say that I think the battles come down to Kemp and Renfroe for Player of the Year and Beede and Nola for Pitcher of the Year, respectively.
I expect the All-SEC team will look something like an LSU-Vanderbilt pickup game. My top candidates for 1st Team honors are:
- Catcher: Ole Miss’ Stuart Turner and Vanderbilt’s Spencer Navin (toss up)
- First Base: LSU’s Mason Katz
- Second Base: Vanderbilt’s Tony Kemp
- Short Stop: LSU’s Alex Bregman
- Third Base: Georgia’s Curt Powell
- Outfield: Vanderbilt’s Mike Yastrzemski
- Outfield: Vanderbilt’s Connor Harrell
- Outfield: Mississippi State’s Hunter Renfroe
- Designated Hitter: South Carolina’s LB Danzler
- Starting Pitcher: Vanderbilt’s Tyler Beede
- Starting Pitcher: LSU’s Aaron Nola
- Starting Pitcher: Ole Miss’ Bobby Wahl or Vanderbilt’s Kevin Ziomek
- Relief Pitcher: Mississippi State’s Jonathan Holder
The only note I really want to pop in here on this is that, while South Carolina’s Tyler Webb and Vanderbilt’s Brian Dramamine Miller both have outstanding cases for the closer role on this team, Holder’s numbers are simply staggering, with 70 strikeouts in 39.0 innings pitched, with a 1.15 ERA and .158 BAA. He’s been even more dominant in league play, with a 0.36 ERA in 24.2 innings pitched.
A new feature I will debut this weekend is the mailbag. I’m not going to try to get to it now, as this post has run long, but I’ve got some great questions from Twitter that I will address soon.
The Final Weekend
Alabama comes to Nashville for games at 6:30 on Thursday and Friday and 1:00 on Saturday (all times central). All games will be streamed on VUCommodores.com All Access. Reminder folks, pay attention to the start date of Thursday, as is the tradition for the final weekend of the season.
Here are the current SEC standings, with Vanderbilt having clinched the East and the overall SEC title, with Alabama still jockeying for seeding position in the SEC Tournament.
Vanderbilt has won an astonishing 17 weekend series in a row now, dating back to last April. 10 of those weekend series were won by sweep, including eight in SEC play (LSU last year; South Carolina, Missouri, Ole Miss, Tennessee, Auburn, Mississippi State and Kentucky this year). However, if you look back to last April, the last team to unseat the Vanderbilt boys was, indeed, the Crimson Tide.
Can Alabama do it again? Well, it’s a remarkably similar Alabama team (even if Taylor Dugas is no longer hitting leadoff), but the Commodores are far from where they before the start of that 17 weekend series stretch. Here are the metrics for the two squads to date. Note that I include midweek games from this week and last week in the “Last Week” category.
|Last Week||Top50 W-L||51-100 W-L||WN RPI||WN NPI||WN SOS||Boyds RPI||Boyds ISR||Boyds SOS|
Notable here is that Alabama has struggled with elite competition, recording only 9 wins in 25 games against top 50 foes.
Here are the top line stats for each team.
While the offensive pop clearly weighs toward Vanderbilt, do not sleep on the fact that Alabama has shut down running games more effectively than any other team in the conference. Catcher Brett Booth has only allowed 53 percent of base stealers to succeed, while starting pitcher Spencer Turnbull is a maestro at holding runners, allowing only one of 13 would be base stealers to succeed. The Crimson Tide’s reputation has not preceded them, though, as the 77 attempted steals pales relative toward Spencer Navin’s personal intimidation factor, which has resulted in only 25 steal attempts against him (with a 60 percent success rate).
The other statistic that jumps out immediately is that Vanderbilt should be able to work walks this weekend against the Alabama staff. Vanderbilt did not walk much against a strike throwing Kentucky staff last weekend and opted to swing early and often. Facing a bullpen with solid depth, Vanderbilt may not be primarily concerned with working the starters’ pitch counts as a focal point, but do expect more plate discipline and free passes this weekend.
From an offensive standpoint, no Alabama player with more than 12 at bats is hitting over .300. And there is no help on the bench. Each of the reserves with at least 20 at bats is hitting well under .200, meaning the Crimson Tide will likely have to dance with the dates they brought in the lineup card. Among those, only one has an OPS in excess of .800. That is Ben Moore, who is a speedster with a bit of pop (.298, 4 3B, 4 HR, 38 RBI, .823 OPS, 16-19 SB). Providing support are catcher Brett Booth (.264, 6 HR, 30 RBI, .716 OPS) and Austen Smith (.275, 6 HR, 34 RBI, .781 OPS).
On the mound, Vanderbilt will face senior righty Charley Sullivan (5-4, 3.06 ERA, 79.1 IP, 21 BB, 71 K, .270 BAA) on Thursday. On Friday, sophomore righty Spencer Turnbull (4-3, 3.62, 72 IP, 26 BB, 38 K, .291 BAA) will take the hill. Alabama has not announced a starter for Saturday, but I suspect it will be sophomore lefty Justin Kamplain (1-0, 4.59, 49 IP, 18 BB, 45 K, .219 BAA).
Because of the short turnaround this week and the fact that Ziomek started during the Saturday double-header against Kentucky, Vanderbilt will counter with Buehler today, before starting Ziomek and Beede on their normal weekdays.
It should be a great weekend and I encourage everyone to hit the Hawk to honor senior starting outfielders Jack Lupo, Connor Harrell and Mike Yastrzemski in their final regular season games.