Vanderbilt Baseball: Five Questions to Answer Entering 2021
Vanderbilt is operating at an extremely high level right now. Just in the last handful of years, it has won a national championship, had top-five picks in back-to-back drafts in J.J. Bleday and Austin Martin, and convinced the likes of righthanders Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter to come to campus rather than begin professional careers straight out of high school.
At the same time, because it lost a number of foundational players after each of the last two seasons, it’s a program that will go into 2021 with a rather inexperienced team, and that will always lead to some questions about what to expect.
Here are five questions that Vanderbilt will look to answer as it moves toward the 2021 season.
What’s next for Kumar Rocker?
What’s next for the third-year sophomore pitcher who has already accomplished so much and whose value is so clear?
This offseason, part of his focus was on making sure he has four quality pitches to pull from. In addition to a well-established mid 90s fastball and power breaking ball, Rocker is now confident that his changeup, which he says he had a particularly good feel for in his 12-strikeout start against Illinois-Chicago last season, is up to par with those first two pitches. To top it off, he’s working on a cutter as a fourth pitch.
There are also the finer points of pitching to be worked on, things like sequencing and working more efficiently.
“As of right now, I think I’ve got four legitimate pitches that I’m ready to feel comfortable throwing in any count,” Rocker said. “Right now, it’s a matter of just sequencing and learning how to pitch rather than just throwing.”
Already a polished arm, Rocker developing into an even more well-rounded pitcher in 2021 is certainly bad news for the rest of the SEC.
How good can a rotation led by Rocker and Leiter be?
With the presence of Rocker and second-year freshman righthander Jack Leiter, Vanderbilt has to be considered the favorite to have the best rotation in the country.
Rocker’s successes are well-documented. Leiter is a little tougher to read simply because he didn’t see much time on the mound before the 2020 season was canceled. At times he showed off his tantalizing potential, like when he struck out 12 South Alabama hitters in five no-hit innings in his college debut. Other times, he looked the part of a freshman, like when he allowed four hits, four walks and three runs in 4.2 innings against Texas Christian.
Like Rocker, Leiter’s stuff is among the best at the college level. He throws a four-seam and two-seam fastball, the former getting into the mid 90s in terms of velocity. His curveball projects as a plus offering and he also features a slider and changeup, giving him an arsenal much more varied than your typical college pitcher.
When asked for a comparison between this pair and his former players recently starring in the MLB playoffs, like the Dodgers’ Walker Buehler and the Braves’ Dansby Swanson and Kyle Wright, Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin highlighted some similarities.
“I’ve never seen situations that become too big for any of them,” he said. “I think they contain their adrenaline really well. I think they control their adrenaline, and I just think they have great internal belief, but they’re all very similar in that regard. Then, Kumar, you throw in that group, too. It’s very similar in that regard.
“I just haven’t seen enough of Jack, but yeah, Jack’s got those fibers. He’s got high believability in himself. He’s more internal, but yeah, I do (think he has those traits). We only had Jack up until March, but I think in the short term, you know how he’s wired as well.”
How does an inexperienced roster handle the rigors of the SEC?
Due to blanket eligibility relief in college baseball and a shorter draft, the 2021 season will feature extraordinarily experienced teams all over the country, but Vanderbilt won’t be one of those teams.
It had 13 players drafted after the national championship in 2019, and in 2020, it had four more selected and three others signed as free agents. In other words, this offseason was something close to a normal offseason for Vanderbilt in terms of player departures, and as a result, a majority of the current roster has zero SEC experience.
Talent typically wins out in college baseball, and Vanderbilt has more than enough of that to go around, but there could be an adjustment period for this group as they get accustomed to the conference in a year when just about everyone else is overflowing with experience.
“There’s a lot of kids on that field that have never played an SEC game before,” Corbin said. “They may have played in the early season last year, but we’re very inexperienced. I’m not going to say we’re young, but we’re not old. We’re older on the mound, but yet there’s a lot of inexperience out there, and I know from what I see and what’s come back in the league that everyone else is very old. So we’ve got a tall mountain to climb now.”
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Who is the breakout star in the lineup?
There are a few candidates here. Before the Commodores’ Black and Gold World Series last weekend, Corbin highlighted the likes of versatile third-year sophomore Tate Kolwyck, second-year freshman infielder Parker Noland, second-year freshman shortstop Carter Young and third-year sophomore first baseman Dominic Keegan as players who he has seen take a step forward since arriving back on campus.
Fourth-year junior outfielder Cooper Davis is another name to throw in the mix, but for our purposes, we’ll exclude him and Young from this discussion because they were two of the most consistent hitters in the lineup last season as it was.
After the Black and Gold World Series, it’s hard to look at anyone but third-year sophomore outfielder Isaiah Thomas as the top breakout candidate in the Vanderbilt lineup. Thomas, the 47th-ranked college prospect in the 2021 draft rankings, has had his moments, including a walk-off home run against Hawaii as part of a two-homer game on March 1 of last season, but he now looks poised for the type of season that makes him a star nationally.
In the three Black and Gold World Series games, Thomas went a combined 7-for-10 with three doubles, two home runs and nine RBI. In the finale of the series, he drove in all eight of his team’s runs.
Another name worth mentioning in this discussion is second-year freshman catcher Maxwell Romero, Jr.
Fellow second-year freshman backstop C.J. Rodriguez figures to get the bulk of the time at the position, but Romero’s power sets him apart and that could earn him some playing time elsewhere for sake of getting his bat in the lineup.
He hit two home runs in game 1 of the series and had already spent most of the fall practice period impressing Corbin with his prodigious raw power.
“I’m not going to compare him to Pedro Alvarez, but when you see him swing the bat, there’s some bang in his bat and you say ‘Okay, that’s different. That sounds good coming off of his bat and that certainly looks good when it crosses the street,’” Corbin said, describing Romero’s ability to hit balls that could cross 25th Avenue, which runs behind right field at Hawkins Field.
Through four weeks of the 2020 season, the Vanderbilt offense was still finding its footing and was inconsistent from game to game. Having breakthrough campaigns from some subset of the aforementioned hitters would go a long way toward making the 2021 lineup more productive.
How will Enrique Bradfield have an impact?
The No. 66 player on the BA 500 going into the 2020 draft, true freshman outfielder Enrique Bradfield was thought of as the fastest high school player in the country last season, and those wheels will give him a chance to have an impact right away.
“I think it’s going to be all in his legs. He absolutely flies,” fellow outfielder Cooper Davis said. “(He’s) already a special defender, and I think he’s getting a lot better and he’s working a lot on his offensive game, working on bunting, doing little things like that. I think he’s going to be able to help our team just with his legs.”
With Austin Martin having now vacated the center field position, the opportunity for Bradfield to slot in there right away is available. During the Black and Gold World Series, he hit leadoff and played center field for his squad in all three games, and while reading into things like that can sometimes be fool’s gold, it’s just as often a preview of how the coaching staff views certain players and their most likely role.
In this case, it’s easy to see Bradfield having that type of prominent role come the 2021 season. His speed will make him a catalyst in the lineup, especially if he can master things like getting bunts down and making consistent contact, and will help him run everything down in the outfield. Perhaps added strength and maturity in the years to come will develop his offensive game into something more, but for now, what he is as a player is quite enough to have a big impact.