Andrew Vaughn’s Special Bat Puts Him In Rare Air

Andrew Vaughn started hearing doubts about his size seven or eight years ago. It started when he was in middle school and he was told he was “too short, too slow.”

Vaughn doesn’t hear that criticism much anymore. Not because the California first baseman has outgrown it necessarily —USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team last summer listed him at 5-foot-11, 214 pounds—but because his bat has drowned out the chorus.

“It leaves a little chip on my shoulder,” Vaughn said. “Now I go out and really don’t care how big you are when you’re holding the bat, you can still hit it over the fence. I just take that into account and try to do as much damage as I can.”

Vaughn’s bat has done plenty of damage throughout his college career. Last year as a sophomore, he hit .402/.531/.819 with 23 home runs, 44 walks and 18 strikeouts. He won the Golden Spikes Award, becoming the first player to do so in a year he wasn’t eligible for the draft since Michigan lefthander Jim Abbott won as a sophomore in 1987. Vaughn carried that momentum into the summer, when he excelled against Cape Cod League pitching before reporting to Team USA.

Vaughn this year was voted a Preseason All-American by MLB scouting directors and got off to a strong start to his junior season, hitting two home runs in four games on Opening Weekend at the Angels College Classic in Tempe, Ariz. He also drew nine walks and struck out just once.

Vaughn is the type of player who can make everyone in the ballpark sit up and pay attention when he’s at bat. He is perhaps the best pure hitter in the draft class and couples that with plus raw power and premium plate discipline, an overall package that leaves few ways to pitch to him.

“He’s so good,” Cal coach Mike Neu said. “Having a guy that doesn’t strike out, he can get a hit when he needs it, he’s obviously got the power—he’s a special kid that can really hit at this level.”

For all that can be said about Vaughn’s hitting ability, he still presents scouting directors and executives with a bit of a dilemma.

Few are saying Vaughn is too short or too slow anymore but when a player is in consideration to become a top-five draft pick, where the pick value exceeds $5 million, he is going to get picked apart. For Vaughn, that means evaluating his profile as a short, righthanded hitting, college first baseman.

Finding a player with a similar profile who has been drafted as highly as Vaughn is now expected to go—he ranks fourth on the Top 200 Draft Prospects list—is a challenge. Frank Thomas and Mark McGwire were both top-10 picks and righthanded hitters, but they were also both at least 6-foot-5. Will Clark and Yonder Alonso were both top-10 picks and are just 6-foot-1, but they’re also lefthanded.

In his playing days, Neu was a righthander listed at 5-foot-10 who was the closer for Miami’s 1999 national championship game and reached the big leagues, pitching in 33 games over two seasons. He knows as well as anyone how baseball has traditionally regarded undersized righthanders.

“There’s not too many undersized righthanded anything (in pro ball),” Neu said. “(Vaughn’s) definitely a little bit different from that standpoint. The comps for him are not a lot, but there’s not a lot of comps for what he can do with the bat and the type of power he has.”

In the end, Vaughn’s rareness as a hitter will likely win out over his smaller frame. Over the last decade, baseball has become less fixated on traditional profiles. Just last year, Nick Madrigal broke into the top five picks as a college second baseman listed at 5-foot-7. So, while Vaughn would be rejected by central casting as a power hitting first baseman, his bat will carry him up draft boards.

Vaughn’s size would be much less of an issue if he played elsewhere on the diamond. Vaughn was playing shortstop when Neu started recruiting him as a sophomore in high school. He’s gotten a lot bigger since then, but still may have enough athleticism for third base. Vaughn worked there some in fall ball, but he has not played anywhere but first base for the Golden Bears.

“I definitely think I could play third and the outfield,” Vaughn said. “I did it in the fall a little bit and in the (preseason). I’ve been a good staple at first for Cal, so I’ve stuck there. I talked to Mike Neu and that’s going to be my position unless something happens, but I definitely think I could play third base or the outfield.”

Vaughn is lauded for his work ethic and, with enough practice in pro ball, he might be able to make himself into an adequate defender at third base or in left field. But, at the same time, his offensive ability is so advanced that letting him stay at first base and race through the minor leagues may be the preferred path.

But all of that is still a few months down the road. Vaughn is trying to push the draft talk off as long as possible and focus on his season and trying to help Cal reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015.

“I’m just trying to stay more consistent, stay more in my bubble and go about the game the right way,” Vaughn said. “Really, I just want to go to the playoffs, personally and for the team. I haven’t got to go there yet, haven’t seen a regional atmosphere.”

Cal has a new-look lineup around Vaughn after losing its four best other hitters from last year’s team.

The Golden Bears have some intriguing young talent, but if they’re going to make it to regionals, some new players are going to have to step up to help Vaughn.

If Cal isn’t able to provide some protection in the lineup for Vaughn, he may get the same treatment as another Bay Area slugger. If any player in college baseball would get pitched to like Barry Bonds did at the pinnacle of his career, it may be Vaughn.

He said last year he noticed during Pac-12 Conference play that he got a steady diet of offspeed pitches early in the count and a lot of fastballs out of the zone. None of it got him to abandon his approach at the plate.

David Esquer coached Cal and Vaughn before taking over as head coach at Stanford after the 2016 season. He said he doesn’t see a good way to pitch Vaughn given his power and plate discipline.

“You hope he’s not up in situations to hurt you that way,” Esquer said. “To his credit, the other thing he does really well is he’ll take a base hit. He’s not just selling out to homer or not homer. If the defense overplays and there’s a hit to be had, he’ll take a base hit. He’s just so good that way.”

Vaughn has long had his disciplined approach at the plate. His power has not always been as apparent, however. He hit just one home run for Maria Carrillo High in Santa Rosa, Calif., though he did get to his power better in summer ball.

Still, it was something of a surprise when Vaughn homered 12 times as a freshman to tie for the Pac-12 lead. He then tied Xavier Nady’s program record with 23 as a sophomore. He needs to match that total again this spring to break Nady’s career home run record.

Vaughn said he hasn’t focused on hitting for more power. Instead, the added pop has come as he matures both physically and as a hitter.

“Obviously, hitting the weight room helped a whole lot,” he said. “Fine-tuning my swing, getting pitches to hit, put in the air, being more selective, that really paid dividends for my swing and helped me get the ball out.”

That power progression helped fuel Vaughn’s historic 2018. But while it was happening, he didn’t have much time to think about what he was doing. Once Team USA’s schedule came to an end in the middle of July and he returned home for an extended stretch for the first time all year, he was able to reflect on his accomplishments. Until then, he had been playing baseball nearly nonstop since school had begun in January.

That was the way Vaughn wanted it. The Golden Spikes Award ceremony was held in Los Angeles at the end of June. Team USA’s schedule was just beginning in North Carolina and Vaughn left the team to attend the ceremony with the other finalists.

The award presentation was broadcast live on SportsCenter, and when Vaughn’s name was announced he said everything stopped for a moment. The next morning, however, that moment was quickly gone. He was on a plane back to North Carolina to rejoin his summer team.

“I really didn’t get to soak it in,” he said. “I got on a plane the next day and headed back and restarted playing. That was what I wanted to do, and I enjoyed it the most that way.”

That kind of focus comes as no surprise to his coaches. Vaughn is a baseball rat and the consummate teammate ready to help with anything, on the field or off. During Opening Weekend, he dyed his hair pink to support a teammate whose mother is suffering from breast cancer.

Trying to find a comparable player for Vaughn may be an impossible task. Instead, the player once thought of as too short and too slow is proving just how much impact he can bring to the diamond.

“He’s just one of those once-in-a-lifetime type guys you get a chance to coach who’s beyond his years,” Esquer said. “You hope the other guys just feed off of what he does because his work ethic is just exemplary, really, and his whole baseball persona is exemplary.”

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