College Baseball

Dansby Swanson’s rise to become Vanderbilt’s best player

(First appeared in The Vanderbilt Hustler)

Sitting in his first grade classroom, Dansby Swanson’s counselor spoke to his class, talking to them about the importance of school and education. At the end of the talk, the counselor asked one last question so that everyone could leave: Who wants to go to college?

At this point, all of the children got excited, raised their hands, and got up to leave.

Everyone except for a young Swanson.

“What do you mean, you’re not going to college?” Swanson recalls the counselor saying. “I know your family; you’re going to college.”

“I’m going to be the number one draft pick,” replied Swanson.

Such is the life of Dansby Swanson. The man sets goals as high as anyone and to this date has done a stellar job of achieving them. Although he wasn’t drafted first overall out of high school, the Arizona Diamondbacks fulfilled his dream, selecting him with the top pick in June’s MLB Draft.

Vanderbilt baseball head coach Tim Corbin fondly recalls the story of when Swanson walked into his office as a freshman and told the coach that he wanted to be the best player who’s ever played at Vanderbilt.

Even for a program that’s only played at a high level for the past decade, that’s an awfully high bar to set. Pitcher David Price won the Golden Spikes Award in 2007 and was the first overall pick in the MLB First-Year Player Draft. There have been eight other first-round picks since Corbin took over in 2003.

But in his three years in black and gold, Swanson has made a strong case to earn that title.

From a results standpoint alone, he’s been named a Golden Spikes Award finalist and the Most Outstanding Player of the 2014 College World Series. He led the Commodores in nearly every offensive category in 2015. And perhaps most importantly, he helped lead Vanderbilt to consecutive College World Series Finals, winning the Commodores’ first national championship.

But to become the “greatest player who’s every played at Vanderbilt,” it takes more than just production. Swanson says as much himself:

“To me it’s more than stats,” Swanson said. “It involves a lot of creating your own legacy here. Having this place be forever changed because I was in it. I try to make a great impact on the people most importantly. The program, you just encompass everything. You can hit 1.000, but if you’re not a great person, then you’re not a winner in my book. You have every aspect of life in it: Academics, baseball and put it all together, and I wanted to be the best at each of those.”

The “it” factor

Swanson certainly wasn’t a top name coming out of high school. He was the 138th-ranked draft prospect in 2012, according to Baseball America, which is a large reason he ended up going to college instead of signing with a professional team.

“If we’re being honest here, nobody really thought I was that great in high school,” Swanson said. “But I knew baseball was going to be my career path. I just kept pursuing it, I played well in the summers, which is probably what put me on the map, but luckily Coach Corbin thought that I had a chance.”

The first time Corbin saw Swanson in high school, he saw the athleticism, the quick-twitch fibers, how he made things look easy. But it was also his attitude that became a large reason Corbin recruited Swanson to Vanderbilt in the first place.

Character plays a large role in determining how well a player will adjust to college sports.

We now see how high Swanson’s character is — Corbin has praised him for his servant leadership and how he “does everything top-shelf” — but that’s often hard to gauge during the recruiting period. People, especially parents, love to brag about their players.

“I don’t know from a recruiting standpoint if you can know everything you need to know about a kid mentally,” Corbin said. “I think a lot of it you take on their baggage, and sometimes it’s the bags that are snuck on the airplane –so to speak – that you don’t know exist.”

Corbin has developed his own strategy to evaluate prep players’ character. Foremost, he believes you can tell a lot about a player from his parents. Additionally, seeing how the player interacts with his teammates, talking to the opposition and looking at grades and test scores adds to the player’s portfolio.

But another key factor is trust. Corbin and James Beavers, the head coach of Swanson’s travel team the East Cobb Yankees, have a close relationship, and when Beavers said that Swanson was special from a personality standpoint, Corbin listened and followed up with a visit.

“Dansby’s just special,” said Beavers, who has coached a litany of great shortstops including Stephen Drew and Gordon Beckham. “He’s just a special kid in a lot of ways. We used to talk about (Derek) Jeter having ‘it.’ You don’t know what it is, it’s just ‘it.’ That’s what I’ve always felt Dansby has. You can’t put your finger on everything he does, it’s just ‘it.’ He just makes everything happen right. Good things happen to somebody like him.”

The injury

Swanson arrived at Vanderbilt to a veteran-laden team. Outfielders Connor Harrell and Mike Yastrzemski pushed off signing professional contracts a year to return for their senior seasons, Tony Kemp, Conrad Gregor, Kevin Ziomek and Tyler Beede were also established contributors, and the team made the College World Series two years previously.

But with all of the established players on the team, shortstop was open after the Miami Marlins drafted Anthony Gomez. Swanson saw this as a golden opportunity.

“Obviously I wanted to play short,” Swanson said. “It’s what I’ve always wanted to do, and I take pride in it. And I wanted to play. I wanted to help the team win, I wanted to lead. I wanted all of those things. And just how I play, I compete in everything I do. Just going to go after it, and whatever happened happened. If I was going to play left field, I was going to play left field. I wasn’t just going to say ‘screw this.’”

But almost as soon as his collegiate campaign began, it came to a sudden halt.

Playing against Monmouth in the seventh game of the season, Swanson reached first base on a walk in his first plate appearance. Chris Harvey tripled down the right field line, but Swanson took a sharp angle around second base and stepped on the bag completely wrong.

Although he ended up scoring on the play, Swanson knew there was something wrong, and he left the game. He had sprained an ankle before playing basketball, but this was worse. When he went to the trainer’s room the next day, he couldn’t put any weight on it.

A quick trip to the hospital confirmed his fears: He had fractured the base of his fifth metatarsal — the outside bone of the foot.

“I saw the X-ray at the hospital, and I knew,” Swanson said. “I didn’t really know what to think. I was just like I guess this is how it’s going to be. My mom was probably more upset than I was because I just accepted it. You can’t get mad at it; it’s in the past. You just have to move forward and try to be back out as quick as I could.”

The original prognosis for Swanson was six weeks until a full recovery, but after four, six and eight weeks, he still wasn’t feeling right. Although he did come back to play four more games in April, his non-dominant shoulder, which had bothered him going back to high school, was re-aggravated during batting practice at Louisville.

Knowing he wouldn’t be back to 100 percent that season, Swanson decided to have surgery on the torn ligament in his left shoulder so that he could be in top condition by the next fall.

Still, that left the coaching staff wondering what could have been in a lost 2013 season.

“I think he would have taken over (starting at shortstop) within a month,” Corbin said. “We had some older guys there, but I just thought it was a matter of time. But at the same time, I wanted him to play his way into it. I just didn’t want to give him the spot right away, but you could tell that within a couple weeks, that he was going to have the position if he was going to continue to play the way he did.”

Although he only hit .188 in 11 games his freshman season, there were signs of a much better player, including a .435 on-base percentage and baseball intellect beyond his years.

“The baserunning in itself was so much different than anyone else,” Corbin said. It was the awareness factor that he had that you could tell was very mature and very good. It would have been very interesting to see what he would have done with that ball club. Because you’re talking about a special player on that 2013 team that would have really added to it.”

The ascent

Swanson’s rise has been even more remarkable considering all the time he’s missed. He only played 11 games between the end of the senior year of high school and the start of his sophomore season, missing chances to play in the Cape Cod League during the summers.

But with how recently he committed to playing baseball exclusively, the quick improvement was also expected — just not to this level.

“He played basketball, so it wasn’t like he was a full-time baseball player,” Corbin said. “So I did think once he got playing baseball full-time, I thought there was a lot of progression, almost like recruiting a Midwest or Northeast kid. It just took some time because he just had been playing so many things.”

Although Vince Conde took over the shortstop job following Swanson’s injury, Swanson grabbed hold of the second base job at the beginning of the 2014 season and instantly became Vanderbilt’s best hitter.

In his first full season, Swanson led Vanderbilt in on-base percentage, runs, and steals from the leadoff position. He was named first team All-SEC, and after hitting .323 with five runs, two RBIs, three doubles, and four steals, he was named the Most Outstanding Player of the College World Series.

A natural shortstop, Swanson shifted back to his regular position in 2015 after the New York Yankees drafted Vince Conde in the MLB Draft, and he continued to rake.

The list is hard to believe at times. First on the team in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, runs, home runs, doubles, triples, and walks hitting in the middle of the lineup. Oh, and he was second in RBIs and third in steals.

“What did it for me in terms of me thinking he was elite was how he handled himself in the postseason last year,” Corbin said. “And then coming out here (this season) and playing like he did. It was like he took this experience on as if it was his. And he played so well, he’s so on point, and at that point, I figured this kid has special intangibles, special skills that you don’t see in a lot of kids.”

Reaching the top

Swanson is clearly in the conversation for the greatest player who’s ever played at Vanderbilt, neck-and-neck with David Price.

While he doesn’t have nearly the trophy case Price does — Golden Spikes Award, Dick Howser Award, SEC Pitcher of the Year, SEC Male Athlete of the Year, No. 1 overall draft pick, etc. — Swanson does have one notable edge on Price: winning.

Price led the Commodores to the top overall seed in the 2007 NCAA Tournament, but Vanderbilt did not make it out of its own regional. Vanderbilt also lost in the Atlanta Regional in 2006 and did not make the NCAA Tournament in 2005.

Swanson mentioned that being Vanderbilt’s greatest player means changing the program forever, creating your own legacy, making a great impact on the people. And with consecutive trips to the College World Series Finals and a national championship, Swanson has put the program in a much better place than when he arrived.

Although he doesn’t like to compare himself to other people, the last two years have launched Swanson to the pantheon of Vanderbilt athletes, effectively fulfilling his goal of becoming the greatest player who’s ever played at Vanderbilt.

“He’s up there,” Corbin said with a knowing smile. “I wouldn’t want to say anything in his presence right now.”

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Buehler’s new delivery shows immediate results

(First appeared in The Vanderbilt Hustler)

Pitching at a high level is all about making adjustments. For Walker Buehler, that involved changing his delivery at the biggest stage of College Baseball.

Pitching for the first time in 18 days because Vanderbilt beat Illinois in Super Regionals in two games, Buehler debuted a new wrinkle to his delivery: starting it off by bringing his hands over his head.

This was an idea that originated with Buehler coming to pitching coach Scott Brown. Months ago, the two had talked about an article on how many Hall of Fame pitchers go over their head in their delivery, and Buehler finally started implementing it, instead of just holding his hands by his waist.

Buehler had been having issues recently with repeating his landing foot and directional line, which led to him being off-kilter at times. There are several problems associated with this complication to a delivery.

“You can lose command; the ball can flatten out,” Brown said. “You don’t get quite the same life on the ball. It may read the same on the radar gun, but the perception is not the same; the margin of error is less. The ability to stay on line causes a little more deception to the hitter.”

Not repeating the same landing spot on every delivery isn’t a death sentence to a hitter, however. Buehler has been dominant down the stretch, including a five-inning shutout performance against Radford in the Nashville Regional in which he struck out seven batters and only allowed two hits.

But even with the results looking good, Brown wanted to make sure Buehler was pitching to his full potential.

“In that Radford start, I thought he pitched very well from a results standpoint and execution, but I didn’t think his stuff was quite the same that game,” Brown said. “Looking back at some film on it and just how he was at the time, I told him he needed to make a real conscious effort. I thought he was getting cross-bodied in that game, really struggling to get extended.”

Although the two didn’t know it at the time, having eighteen days off, away from live competition, proved to be good for Buehler. With mound sessions and flat grounds in practice, he had plenty of time to repeat this new delivery.

And the results showed immediately. Buehler started off Friday’s game against TCU showing some of his best velocity – 96 and 97 mph in the first inning – and better depth than usual on his breaking pitches. After the game, he said, “It’s been a while since I’ve felt like that.”

Most importantly, perhaps, he only allowed one run and four hits over 6 2/3 innings, striking out eight.

“I think he was more in rhythm,” said head coach Tim Corbin. “I think he was more at peace. I think being able to get over the rubber, stay over the rubber, and really deliver the ball over the hill, however it worked for him. He’s a tinkerer a little bit. I thought his delivery was under control, and he certainly had control of the baseball, and that’s all that matters.”

“The thing that I was most impressed with,” Brown said, “was that his foot strike was the same every time down the slope. And that was the big focus. When his hands were stationary, I thought he got drifty and got side-to-side at times. It was a concern of mine.”

In addition to giving him time to place both his drag and plant foot consistently in the right place, Buehler also found that the new delivery helped his pace on the mound and added a new layer of deception.

“I think it adds a little element of rhythm change,” Buehler said. “A few pitches you don’t go over the head or you pause a little bit longer on some. It’s nice. It’s gives you a little bit more flexibility.”

While there are certainly more adjustments to be made throughout his career, one thing is for certain: the new delivery going over-the-head will be around should the Commodores need Buehler in Game 3 of the College World Series Finals.

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The future is bright for college baseball’s top pitcher

(First appeared in The Vanderbilt Hustler)

What you see is what you get when it comes to Carson Fulmer:

An intense competitor.

A nasty three-pitch mix.

An all-out mentality and delivery.

All three of those factors have allowed Fulmer to become the most dominant pitcher in the nation, earning him SEC Pitcher of the Year and Golden Spikes Award finalist honors – the only pitcher to receive a nomination.

Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin has heaped seemingly hyperbolic praise on Fulmer – calling him a once in a lifetime player – but Fulmer has been able to back it up. His level of dominance is just striking.

Fulmer won the SEC Pitching Triple Crown, leading the conference in wins, ERA and strikeouts. To this point, his 147 strikeouts blow away LSU’s Alex Lange, who is second in the conference with 110 strikeouts.

His home ERA was a miniscule 0.80, and he gave up one or fewer earned runs in 11 of his 14 starts, eight of which were shutout performances. He struck out more batters than innings he pitched in all but one start, and he struck out at least 11 in half his starts.

But even though his college career is not over, one of the biggest nights of his life is coming up in less than a week. On June 8, he will be selected in the Major League Baseball First-Year Players Draft.

Fulmer is projected by most experts to go among the top ten picks in the draft, potentially in the top five. The average signing bonus value for a top ten pick is $4.9 million bonus, and the average signing bonus value for a top five pick is $6.3 million bonus.

Where a team ends up taking him in the draft is very much up in the air. Whereas the entire baseball industry sees Fulmer as one of — if not the — most dominant pitcher in college, opinions greatly differ on how successful he’ll be at the next level.

“The big question (I’ve gotten from scouts) was if I could either start or relieve,” Fulmer said. “I’ve wanted to start for a very long time. I kept my mouth shut and tried to help the team in any way I could. I was able to get a chance to start, and I’ve loved it ever since.”

Teams spend inordinate amounts of money to travel and scout players, but each team still has different preferences and processes and comes up with different reports on each player. Scouting is an inexact science, but how teams evaluate players like Fulmer will largely shape their immediate future on the 8th.

The makeup

If there’s one part of Fulmer’s game that the entire baseball industry can agree upon, it’s his makeup, the industry term for character. Teams have been scouting him since high school, and his reputation precedes him.

“He’s widely known to be a very positive, plus makeup guy,” said one major league executive. “He gives a great effort every time, he’s a good teammate, his makeup I don’t think is in question by any team.”

Vanderbilt’s coaches have been very impressed with this over the years. Pitching coach Scott Brown points out that he even makes every single conversation, bullpen and practice important.

Much of that attention to detail comes from the most notable aspect of his makeup: his seemingly relentless competitiveness.

“I think it goes without saying that he’s a very intense, competitive guy,” said another front office executive. “You don’t have to have a history on him to know that. You can watch him for a day and realize the guy’s a competitor. We love the makeup of the kid. Our impression of him is that he’s a great guy, and he’s obviously a fearsome competitor, and it’s one of the things that really stands out.”

Fulmer has always been deeply competitive, and it is in large part thanks to his family.

Fulmer, 21, is rather close to his family and is the youngest of five siblings. He has two older sisters, 32 and 46, and two older brothers, 27 and 31, with whom he would play outside all the time.

“My brothers and I have had some instances where’ve gotten into it,” Fulmer said. “We were always outside playing. Flag football would turn into tackle football, that kind of stuff. (My brothers were) bigger than I was at the time, and I feel like that just fueled the fire even more for me.”

His sheer competitiveness has led to another one of his signature attributes: attacking hitters at a high level throughout the game, and using an all-out, max-effort delivery for the entire game.

Some pitchers feel the need to pace themselves throughout a start to make sure they can last as long as possible. That is not the case for Fulmer.

“The beauty of Carson is he throws every inning like he’s trying to close the game out and get off the field,” Brown said. “The thing with Carson is that he also has the ability to go to another gear too. Where he does get into trouble, then boom, he’s just got this mentality where he’s just not going to let them score.”

Fulmer has put that extra gear on full display down the stretch of this season. After allowing a first-inning run against Alabama, he allowed just two hits and no runs over the final eight frames. And after allowing a third inning run in the regional opener, Fulmer didn’t allow a hit or run the rest of his seven-inning start.

Makeup may be a harder attribute to quantify than velocity or break on a curveball, but front offices pay very close attention to this aspect because even the best pitching prospects have high attrition rates.

“When you talk about makeup, you talk about competitiveness, you talk about work ethic, you talk about knowing how to play the game,” another front office executive said. “It’s all going to help you reach your potential. I think in any profession, the better the makeup, the better chance you have to succeed.”

The repertoire

Along with very good makeup, the other undeniable part of Fulmer’s game is his strong repertoire of pitches.

Fulmer has one of the better three-pitch mixes in college baseball, which has allowed him to ascend to the third overall draft prospect and top pitcher ranking, according to MLB.com’s Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo currently.

On the 20-80 scouting scale, MLB.com grades his fastball as a 70, his curveball as a 60, and his changeup as a 50. No pitcher in the draft has a higher grade on his fastball than Fulmer, and only UC-Santa Barbara’s Dillon Tate has a higher grade on his curveball (65).

“He has present velocity that other guys don’t have,” one major league executive said. “He has present pitches that other guys don’t have, he has the makeup that other guys don’t have, so there’s a lot of things that build into why a guy gets drafted where he does.”

Fulmer’s repertoire has been above-average since the moment he stepped on campus, but working with Brown and the Vanderbilt coaching staff has allowed him to gain consistency on his pitches.

Brown slightly altered Fulmer’s delivery by having him anchor his back foot to the rubber out of the windup, similarly to Sonny Gray, which helps Fulmer keep his landing foot consistently on line. Having Fulmer consistently pitching downhill allows for better downward action on his pitches compared to horizontal movement, which can be harder to control.

“That breaking ball is a legitimate fear factor out pitch,” Brown said. “It’s hard to lay off of, and it’s a pitch that I think is an above-average major league pitch for him. The difference to me this year is the ability to throw it for more strikes. He throws it behind in the count, and that’s really helped him.”

Fulmer’s one-two punch of his fastball and curveball has allowed him to dominate through the college ranks, and several front office members have pointed out those pitches and his overall polish could lead to him helping a major league team out later this year out of the bullpen, similarly to 2014 first-round pick Brandon Finnegan with the Kansas City Royals.

If he wants to have a good chance at being a starter long-term, though, further developing his changeup will go a long way to determining his success.

“Some guys can throw those two pitches and never develop that changeup, but it’s hard to go out there with two hard pitches,” one front office member said. “You can go out there and blow a guy out of the water in relief; it’s easy. You just need something else to get them off those pitches to start.”

The role

And that is the biggest question for Fulmer: Can he start at the next level?

Whichever team drafts him likely believes he can be a starter, but there are plenty of scouts who don’t see it that way, such as ESPN’s Keith Law, who ranks Fulmer as the 43rd-best draft prospect because he does not believe Fulmer will be a starter as a professional.

“I think it’s a legitimate question,” one front office member said. “I think you always have concerns about guys like that sticking as a starter. You have concerns about guys who are not as tall and short pitchers. Guys that have gone to Vanderbilt, you look at Sonny Gray. A lot of guys thought he was a reliever out of the draft.”

Shorter pitchers — Fulmer is listed at 6-foot — often are prone to giving up home runs because they aren’t able to get as good of a downward plane on pitches as taller pitchers can. This hasn’t been a major issue for Fulmer yet, however, as he only allowed home runs on 4.3 percent of his fly balls over his college career, compared to the major league average of 10 percent.

More concerning than his height to most, though, is his all-out delivery, which many believe leads to poor command and potential health concerns related to extra stress being placed on the shoulder and elbow.

“My way of pitching is a little different I guess than other guys,” Fulmer said. “Obviously I don’t have the height, but I try to get my body going towards home plate, and that’s what works for me. That’s something I’ve definitely tried to maintain throughout the year. I just try to be competitive.”

Fulmer starts his delivery with his hands high, and close to his chest. He drops his hands, brings them back up, and quickly explodes towards the plate in an almost violent motion.

“People would probably describe (his delivery) as a little bit different because it’s got a high pace to it,” Brown said. “But you’re talking about a martial arts guy that’s a black belt and has the ability to control his body at a high pace. For me, I don’t really see a guy that’s out of control. I see a guy (whose) pistons to his engine are working the way he wants to.”

Having an abnormal or max-effort delivery isn’t a death sentence to pitchers; each pitcher is different. Just as many undersized pitchers have found success, there are plenty of cases throughout history of pitchers with abnormal deliveries starting and having great careers.

“Sometimes special guys can do special things that normal guys can’t, and they can get away with it,” one major league executive said. “If you look throughout history at some of the deliveries Hall of Famers have had, you can find so many flaws with them. It’s just a matter of whether or not on a case-by-case basis certain guys can just be great. Some deliveries of Hall of Famers decades ago would terrify people today, and those are Hall of Famers.”

This distinction between starting and relieving can be a point of pride for pitchers. Fulmer would certainly like to start, as he feels he has the stamina. Back when he was a reliever, Fulmer would come into the game in the seventh and eighth inning and leave the game feeling like he had more left in the tank.

Pride aside, the value to a major league team is even more important. Good relievers will pitch 60 innings a season, and good starters will pitch 200 innings a season. That extra value shows in pitcher salaries: In 2015, 11 starters eclipsed a $20 million salary, but only one reliever surpassed the $10 million mark.

Still, in a volatile draft in which teams are generally happy when more than one draftee out of more than 40 rounds reaches the major leagues, the most important thing for a players is that they succeed, period.

“It gets to a point where that doesn’t matter,” a major league executive said. “He’s had so much success, and regardless of what role he ends up having, the important thing is that he ends up being a good pitcher – not that he’s a good pitcher necessarily in the rotation or out of the bullpen.”

The future

Although the draft may have a larger long-term impact on Fulmer than the rest of his college season, it remains on the backburner for the junior from Lakeland, Florida.

With a Super Regional against national seed Illinois beginning Saturday and a second consecutive College World Series berth on the line, the immediacy of the draft hasn’t fully sunk in yet.

Fulmer doesn’t pay attention to what the experts are saying about his draft stock, about his potential, about his future. All of his focus now is on continuing his dominance of the college game and winning.

“Every time I go out, regardless of what I’m doing to help a team, I’m just going out there and competing,” Fulmer said. “Opinions and stuff like that are out of my control, just coming to the field ready to accomplish something every day and helping my team is the biggest thing.”

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Vanderbilt Baseball Coverage

I spent eight weeks this summer covering Vanderbilt baseball’s season as the Vanderbilt Hustler’s beat reporter, which was an incredible experience. I’ve collected all of my stories on this page as an archive of sorts..

I’ve listed my 24 game stories, six features, and various articles I’ve written below, organized by their publishing date. I hope you enjoyed the extra coverage of of the Vandy Boys this summer.

Bryan Reynolds

Bryan Reynolds steals an extra base hit from Florida’s Harrison Bader

Features:

7/1: Dansby Swanson’s rise to become Vanderbilt’s best player (Dansby Swanson)

6/16: Zander Wiel: From redshirt to ‘self-made player’ (Zander Wiel)

6/4: The future is bright for college baseball’s top pitcher (Carson Fulmer)

5/26: Toffey continues a tradition of Massachusetts excellence (Will Toffey)

5/17: New swing sets up Wiseman for historic season (Rhett Wiseman)

5/13: A star outside the spotlight (Walker Buehler)

Game Stories:

6/24: Virgina tops Vanderbilt to win national championship

6/23: Virginia shuts out Vandy 3-0, sends CWS to pivotal Game 3

6/22: Fulmer sends Dores within a win of national championship

6/19: Dores beat TCU 7-1, advance back to CWS Championship Series

6/16: Pfeifer’s dominance, Wiel’s home run send Dores to CWS semifinals

6/15: Vanderbilt beats Fullerton 4-3 on Kendall’s walk-off home run

6/7: Vandy sweeps Illinois, advances to College World Series

6/6: Commodores win 13-0, now a win from College World Series

6/1: Vanderbilt eviscerates Radford 21-0, advances to Super Regionals

5/30: Swanson’s home run propels Dores to 6-4 win

5/29: Vanderbilt tops Lipscomb 9-1 in regional opener

5/24: Commodores lose in SEC Tournament final once again

5/22: Vandy mercy rules Alabama, advances to SEC Tournament semifinals

5/21: Dores fall to Texas A&M, face SEC Tournament elimination

5/20: Vanderbilt tops to Missouri on Wiseman’s walk-off homer

5/16: Buehler’s gem spoiled in Vanderbilt’s shutout loss

5/15: Vanderbilt tops Alabama 7-5, wins SEC East

5/14: Fulmer continues to dominate, Dores lock up SEC Tournament bye

5/12: Johnson shines in 5-2 win at No. 2 Louisville

5/9: Emotions fly high as No. 9 Florida comes back to beat Vandy 9-7

5/7: Fulmer dominates, shuts out Florida 2-0

5/3: Vanderbilt wins 7-3 in Buehler’s Kentucky homecoming

5/2: Sloppy defense sinks Commodores as they fall 11-5

5/1: Fulmer’s start, late rally lead Dores past Kentucky 13-3

Other:

6/24: Vanderbilt shakes up Game 3 CWS lineup

6/23: Benintendi wins Golden Spikes Award over Swanson, Fulmer

6/23: Carson Fulmer was sick the night before impressive start

6/22: The Idiot’s Guide to the College World Series

6/22: Buehler’s new delivery shows immediate results

6/15: Vanderbilt-TCU College World Series preview

6/14: Vanderbilt-Fullerton game suspended midway through game

6/14: James Franklin visits Vandy at the College World Series

6/9: More Commodores selected on Day 2 of MLB Draft

6/8: Dansby Swanson selected first overall in MLB Draft

6/8: David Price visits Vandy at the Super Regionals

6/7: Super Regional Game 2 postponed until Monday

6/3: ESPN’s Keith Law comments on Vanderbilt players’ draft stock

5/31: Vanderbilt-Radford game to be played Monday

5/25: Vanderbilt to host Radford, Indiana and Lipscomb in regional

5/24: Rain delays SEC Tournament final

5/15: What seed will the Commodores be in the SEC Tournament?

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Becoming Champions: giving Vanderbilt Football a national title-worthy roster

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Vanderbilt has a history of baseball players playing football.

Vanderbilt’s football season has come to a close, and baseball season is still a few months away, but fear not, there’s still a good reason to write about the two. Jackson Martin of The Dirty South Sports Report and friend of the program and fellow baseball nut Andrew King (Vanderbilt, Class of 2013) have come together with me to draft the Vanderbilt baseball team to play football, giving Vanderbilt football the national title-worthy roster it deserves, but maybe not the one it needs.

The rules are simple: draft a team of nine players: 1 quarterback, 5 skill position players, 1 linebacker, 1 defensive back, and 1 kicker (baseball players aren’t really built like linemen). Draft order was determined by a random number generator.

(Hat tip to Andrew King for coming up with this idea by saying Ro Coleman should be Vanderbilt’s third running back after Jerron Seymour was kicked off the team.)

Round 1:

Jackson: Dansby Swanson – ATH

  • Jackson Notes: Started off my draft the right way, by taking a player from Georgia. Dansby is the best all-around athlete available, and I’m going to use him in a multitude of roles. My offensive scheme is built around getting the ball into the best player’s hands, so Dansby will be catching passes, taking handoffs and throwing passes to make sure he gets as many opportunities to put points on the board as possible. Think of him as my Kentucky-era Randall Cobb.
  • Andrew Notes: With Adam Ravenelle and Jared Miller in the pros, Dansby has the best lettuce on the team by far. That could get him picked in the top 3 rounds by itself, but the all-around tools push him over the top. Good pick.
  • Ben Notes: He’s pretty clearly the best player on the baseball team, and he’s athletic enough to be a very good receiver.

Andrew: Jeren Kendall – RB

  • Andrew Notes: The NFL isn’t a running back league anymore, but we aren’t in the NFL so screw it, I’m going with Jeren at RB. He’s fast enough to be a home run threat on every snap, can catch passes out of the backfield, and his hockey background suggests he can handle being hit with regularity. I’ll build my team around that.
  • Jackson Notes: Fastest player on the team. Excellent pick, though I might have used him at wideout instead of running back.
  • Ben Notes: I was going to take him with one of my two picks. Fastest guy on the team, and he played hockey in high school, so I’d guess he’s pretty tough. He’d be great at either receiver or running back.

Ben: Jordan Sheffield – WR

  • Ben Notes: Sheffield should have been the first pick in the draft easy. Have you seen his high school highlight reel? Plus with his arm, I’m sure we could run a ton of Antwaan Randle El-esque gadget plays to get him involved in the passing game. I’m pretty sure most plays are going to start with Sheffield swinging around on a reverse. Also he won the Omaha Challenge this year, so that’s something.
  • Jackson Notes: The player who I initially assessed as the first overall pick. He’s actually played football, and has a strong highlight tape already. Was very hard to pass on him.
  • Andrew Notes: Ah, good Vanderbilt memories…a wide receiver named Jordan as the cornerstone of a team. Hint: not referring to Mr. Cunningham.

Round 2:

Ben: Xavier Turner – RB

  • Ben Notes: I’m getting a 6’2” 220 running back who runs a 6.75 60 time (sixth on the baseball team among times I could find), and apparently he was recruited by Ohio State to play running back before he blew out his knee in high school. Most of my offense will be pounding the ball with X.
  • Jackson Notes: I do not envy anyone who has to tackle X. He will, in fact, give it to ya.
  • Andrew Notes: ^ Well said.

Andrew: Rhett Wiseman – WR

  • Andrew Notes: Watch his running catch against Texas to lead off the 10th inning of the CWS semifinals. Or his diving catch to lead off the 9th inning against Virginia in Game 3 of the CWS Finals. He’s fast, has good hands, and has pretty good size at 6’1” 205; can’t pass up players like that.
  • Ben Notes: Rhett’s shockingly fast (6.51 60) and has good size, but he’ll probably need to bulk up if he’s taking many shots over the middle. I don’t know how many players are better qualified to make crazy catches, though.
  • Jackson Notes: You know how we use the phrase “deceptively fast” to describe white guys who can burn people dowfield? Rhett’s not deceptively fast, he’s just fast.

Jackson: Ro Coleman – RB

  • Jackson Notes: Shifty back, he’s quicker than he is fast. Getting him the ball in space will be absolutely key for my offense, so expect to see him utilized much like Darren Sproles was for Kansas State. Also planning on using this play at least once.
  • Andrew Notes: I wonder if you only picked him because Tony Kemp wasn’t on the board. He’s quick, but I worry about his durability, so I wouldn’t have taken him as the primary back on a team.
  • Ben Notes: You might just be able to hide Ro behind the line on every play. Then again, he’s not going to be able to hits like X will at running back.

Round 3:

Jackson: Zander Wiel – LB

  • Jackson Notes: I need a quarterback for my defense. Zander is built like a linebacker, and fits into this role as well as anyone else in this draft does. Would have gone higher if linebacker was a more valued position.
  • Andrew Notes: Probably would have picked him as a TE, but he’d be a scary good linebacker too.
  • Ben Notes: Going defense this early? Bold.

Andrew: Will Toffey – DB

  • Andrew Notes: I sure as hell wouldn’t want a fast, 6’2” hockey player bearing down on me in the open field. It’s a no brainer plugging him in at DB to solidify the back end of my defense. Disclaimer: I’m by far the biggest hockey fan of the three of us, so it’s no surprise I’ve picked 2 former hockey standouts in the first 3 rounds.
  • Jackson Notes: Is there any reason so many of these guys played hockey in addition to baseball? Is that just a thing people do in the north? I always thought Tom Glavine was unique for being drafted in both MLB and the NHL.
  • Jackson note #2: You’re only the biggest hockey fan because my beloved Thrashers were taken from me. #RIPThrashers
  • Ben Notes: Toffey won two New England Prep National Championships in hockey, I’ll assume he’s a tough guy too. I could see him as a hard-hitting safety too probably because he’s got some of the best power on the baseball team.

Ben: Joey Mundy – LB

  • Ben Notes: Since we’re on a run of defensive players, I’ll take someone who actually played defense in high school. Mundy was an outside linebacker for a Huntington High School team that went 13-1 and only gave up 10.2 points per game his senior year. At 6’3” 215, he’s also one of the bigger guys on roster.
  • Andrew Notes: I don’t know anything about Joey Mundy, but choosing a linebacker to play linebacker seems reasonable.
  • Jackson Notes: Ben’s on a run of taking guys who actually played football in high school. It’s times like this where I feel like a little more research could have done wonders for my team.

Round 4:

Ben: Tyler Ferguson – TE

  • Ben Notes: Tight ends are going to be a big part of my offense, and Ferguson is a big dude at 6’3” 225. I assume I won’t need to do this, but I could use him as an emergency quarterback or even use him on trick plays.
  • Andrew Notes: You have 3 players on offense alone who could reasonably lay claim to being your starting quarterback (Buehler, Sheffield, Ferguson). If there’s anything we’ve learned from former Vanderbilt Offensive Coordinator Karl Dorrell, it’s that you can never play too many quarterbacks, right? Now if only you had a redshirt to burn…
  • Jackson Notes: I mean, these are baseball players we’re talking about. They throw balls as their job (you know, a job where a shadowy organization won’t allow you to be paid for doing your job). I kind of assume all of them would make for at least passable quarterbacks.

Andrew: Drake Parker – ATH

  • Andrew Notes: I’m building my offense around speed in the open field, and I just found my Dexter McCluster. Woohoo!
  • Jackson Notes: Got the second smallest guy on the team. I’m thinking you were jealous of my Ro Coleman pick after all?
  • Ben Notes: Parker could be really useful if you can get him free in open field. I’m personally a bigger fan of players with size, but Parker’s speed is definitely exciting.

Jackson: Tyler Green – TE

  • Jackson Notes: Absolutely cannot believe Green lasted this long. He’s the tallest guy on the team, and was drafted to play hockey — so he seems like a perfect fit at tight end.
  • Andrew Notes: I’m just excited that he and Ro are on the same team. Wouldn’t you love to see the biggest guy block for the smallest guy? Me too. And he’d be a beast in the red zone.
  • Ben Notes: I’m actually really upset you took Green here. I really wanted him and was going to use him with Ferguson in my twin tight end sets. Dude is a mountain of a man, although my only concern is his 7.25 60 time.

Round 5:

Jackson: Bryan Reynolds – WR

  • Jackson Notes: Bryan has some wheels, and he’s prototypical receiver size at 6’2, 195 pounds. He’s a guy who I trust to catch the ball and make plays in space, so this is an exciting player to get in the fifth round.
  • Andrew Notes: Probably would’ve been drafted sooner, but his moustache tool graded out as a 30 on the 20 to 80 scale and scouts were concerned it would keep him from reaching his full potential.
  • Ben Notes: How did Bryan last this long in the draft? He’s got size and speed and actually catches balls in baseball.

Andrew: Kyle Smith – LB

  • Andrew Notes: Serious size at 6’3” 220lbs, solid speed, and he’s strong like bull. Sure, I’ll slot him in at LB.
  • Ben Notes: Kyle would’ve been great for tight end or linebacker. I hope is defense in football is better than his defense in baseball, though.
  • Jackson Notes: Big dude, seems like a fit at linebacker.

Ben: Walker Buehler – QB

  • Ben Notes: Walker gets the edge over Carson Fulmer at quarterback for me because he has a couple inches on Carson, and I feel like as he fills out his 160-pound frame, he may gain a little more arm strength. He’s definitely going to be a pocket passer with a 7.65 60 time (!!!!), but I’m not too worried with his arm and my first couple picks on offense.
  • Jackson Notes: I’m surprised Walker lasted this long. Has a huge arm and his favorite TV shows are The League and Blue Mountain State, so you know he can ball.
  • Andrew Notes: His big arm and thin frame reminds me a lot of Wade Freebeck, who you may recognize as a recurring contestant on Karl Dorrell’s Musical Quarterbacks. The show got terrible ratings and has since been canceled. Can you tell I’m still bitter?

Round 6:

Ben: Penn Murfee – WR

  • Ben Notes: Penn hasn’t gotten to see much of the field yet in baseball, but he’s got a great size-speed combination at 6’2” and a 6.74 60 time (fourth fastest on the team among those listed). That’s about all I know about Penn to be honest.
  • Jackson Notes: Apparently everyone in his family is a competitive swimmer. I don’t know how well that’s going to translate to football, considering it’s played on land.
  • Andrew Notes: What is a Penn Murfee?

Andrew: Ben Bowden – TE

  • Andrew Notes: He has good size for a TE, and he played PF for his high school basketball team so I presume he’s got a halfway-decent vertical and can go up and make plays in traffic.
  • Ben Notes: Great size at 6’4” 220, which should play well at tight end. He was also the Gatorade Player of the Year in Massachusetts for Baseball, so that’s cool.
  • Jackson Notes: Ben Bowden is a rock-solid name for a tight end. Not quite Heath Miller good, but definitely up there.

Jackson: Aubrey McCarty – QB

  • Jackson Notes: My insane offensive plan has finally played out to perfection. McCarty is notable for being ambidextrous, a skill I will use to full effect as my quarterback. He’s going to be rolling out to both sides, adding a great wrinkle to our hurry-up spread scheme. He also went to Colquitt County High School in south Georgia, which is coached by Rush Probst (of Two-A-Days fame) and is currently the No. 3 high school team in the country. Go Packers.
  • Andrew Notes: Damn, I wanted McCarty. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an ambidextrous QB, and I would be so interested to see how it would work in the right scheme.
  • Ben Notes: No surprise Jackson, a fellow ambidextrous athlete*, takes McCarty.
  • Jackson Note #2: Not sure I like your tone there, Ben.

Round 7:

Jackson: Tyler Campbell – DB

  • Jackson Notes: Great size, great speed, dad is a professional wrestler. Tyler is basically the ideal free safety.
  • Andrew Notes: I honestly thought someone was going to pick him as their kicker. Not a knock on his athleticism, but he claims that riding a unicycle is his most unique talent, and that just strikes me as something a kicker would do.
  • Ben Notes: I have nothing bad to say about the College World Series hero.

Andrew: Nolan Rogers – WR

  • Andrew Notes: Wes Welker, welcome aboard.
  • Jackson Notes: There’s only ever been one NFL wide receiver ever with Nolan as a first name, and he caught just one pass in his career. What a terrible pick, Andrew.
  • Ben Notes: I debated for a long time between Rogers (to play either DB or wide receiver) and Murfee. I think I got the better athlete, but I could also see Rogers as a great slot receiver. Also, let it be known that Andrew took Kyle Wright first before switching his pick before I could swipe up Rogers.

Ben: Carson Fulmer – DB

  • Ben Notes: I don’t know if Carson fits well at any one position, since he’s a little short for quarterback at 5’11”, but he’s a high-energy guy, which makes me see him as a great safety.
  • Andrew Notes: Thank you for saving him from being a kicker, where he could’ve probably made field goals from 70 yards but would’ve lasted one made extra point or field goal before vigorously celebrating and pulling a Bill Gramatica.
  • Jackson Notes: I was definitely going to draft him as a kicker.

Round 8:

Ben: Kyle Wright – TE

  • Ben Notes: I couldn’t land Tyler Green, so I’ll settle for Kyle Wright as my second tight end. X will enjoy the extra blocking with the two-tight end sets, and Kyle may actually be a very good receiver with his size (6’4” 200) and speed (he ran track in high school). Plus even though he didn’t play football in high school, the fact that he’s from Alabama must help in some way.
  • Andrew Notes: In case you didn’t hear it enough during the CWS run last year: *Aaron Boone says something about Tim Corbin’s affinity for recruiting ultra-athletic guys*
  • Jackson Notes: Two tight ends? Looks like Ben is setting up a nasty-big power run game.

Andrew: Hayden Stone – K

  • Andrew Notes: Special teams are hugely important, and I probably gave more thought to this pick than any other, so bear with me. Relievers are like kickers: they’re an afterthought until late in the game, at which point they need to have nerves of steel because they know that “holy crap the outcome of this game and our season comes down to this.” Relievers also have a lot of time on their hands to develop eccentricities and amuse themselves by becoming good at random things…perhaps like kicking field goals. Don’t believe me? Last year, Adam Ravenelle excelled as Vanderbilt’s closer late in the season. He was also nearly perfect in mid-inning shenanigans field goal attempts, including this clutch kick at the CWS. Hayden is a prime candidate to take over in the 9th inning from the Ravenelle/Brian Miller duo, so he’s the clear choice at kicker.
  • Jackson Notes: Again, I was going to draft him at kicker. Relief pitchers are the specials teams players of baseball.
  • Ben Notes: Maybe Andrew figured out the new market inefficiency: drafting kickers before the last round.

Jackson: Liam Sabino – K

  • Jackson Notes: Y’all took both my kickers, so I resorted to Sabino — whose mom is from Brazil. I understand that I’m stereotyping here, but that seems like a safe bet for an average at worst kicker.
  • Andrew Notes: As long as you have a reason, who am I to judge?
  • Ben Notes: I’m very glad we’re breaking stereotypes here and drafting a non-white kicker.

Round 9:

Jackson: Karl Ellison – ATH

  • Jackson Notes: From the same city in Florida as Tim Tebow. Can you say intangibles? Much like Tebow, he’s probably best-suited to play tight end. HEYYYYYOOOOOOOOOOOO.
  • Andrew Notes: Are those similar to Lunchables?
  • Ben Notes: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Andrew: Jason Delay – QB

  • Andrew Notes: Catchers have good arms, are tough as nails, and they’re basically an extension of the coaching staff on the field, which is precisely why I want a catcher to be my quarterback. Plus, Jason claims to be good at solving Rubix Cubes. If there’s anybody on this team I’d trust to decipher a defense, make good adjustments at the line of scrimmage, and quickly get the ball to my speedy playmakers in space, it’s him.
  • Ben Notes: I was kind of hoping to get Delay with my final pick since all the pitchers love him, and somehow my team is made up of mostly pitchers.
  • Jackson Notes: I’d laugh at you for drafting a catcher, but I just took one as an Athlete. So, uh, shit…

Ben: John Kilichowski – K

  • Ben Notes: Look, he’s lefty, and his name sounds close enough to Sebastian Janikowski that I think I might have just gotten the steal of the draft.
  • Andrew Notes: I wonder what John would look like sporting the signature Janikowski goatee-and-shaved-head look to complete the resemblance…probably equally terrifying.
  • Jackson Notes: Sure.

Team Rosters

Ben Andrew Jackson
QB: Walker Buehler QB: Jason Delay QB: Aubrey McCarty
RB: Xavier Turner RB: Jeren Kendall RB: Ro Coleman
WR: Jordan Sheffield RB/WR: Drake Parker WR: Dansby Swanson
WR: Penn Murfee WR: Rhett Wiseman WR: Bryan Reynolds
TE: Tyler Ferguson WR: Nolan Rogers TE: Tyler Green
TE: Kyle Wright TE: Ben Bowden TE: Karl Ellison
LB: Joey Mundy LB: Kyle Smith LB: Zander Wiel
DB: Carson Fulmer DB: Will Toffey DB: Tyler Campbell
K: John Kilichowski K: Hayden Stone K: Liam Sabino

Team Writeups:

Ben:

At first, I was torn between a John Donovan-style offense and a Karl Dorrell-style offense, but after heavy consideration, I think I’ll choose a different path. I know this is college, but I’m going to base my offense off an improved 2003/04 Panthers squad. Much of my offense will revolve around giving the rock to Xavier Turner, who is built like an absolute workhorse (think Stephen Davis). Although pistol was little used back in the day, I could also see Jordan Sheffield (Steve Smith) set up in the backfield for a little pistol formation, which could get really creative since he’s a more-than-capable passer.

My main strategy in drafting was to take the best athletes who played football (Sheffield and Turner) and then grabbed a lot of size. Penn Murfee (Muhsin Muhammad) isn’t a burner, but he’s fast enough to cause matchup problems against defensive backs. Where this team gets fun is with the tight ends, who come in at 6’3” and 6’4”. The Panthers didn’t really have any good tight ends on their Super Bowl run, but Walker Buehler (good Jake Delhomme) may have his own Wesley Walls and Greg Olsen to work with in Tyler Ferguson and Kyle Wright.

Defensively, I’ve always been a proponent of a modified 3-4, which will play into my hands, since I’ll have as many Joey Mundy’s on defense as possible.

Much like the mid-2000s Steelers, there will be plenty of room in the playbook for gadget plays. The more times we get the ball in Sheffield’s hands the better. But we’ve also got a workhorse back, size, and very good athletes. I’m more than happy to just run it down your throat with Jerome Bettis.

Andrew:

I normally have a strong distaste for Pac 12 football, but there’s something captivating about watching Oregon boat-race people every week. My team is built with similar ideologies and boy will they put points on the board as games turn into a track meet. Speed is a killer, and that’s our biggest weapon. The 2011 Oregon team with LaMichael James at Halfback (Jeren Kendall), Kenjon Barner as the Slotback (Drake Parker), and De’Anthony Thomas at WR1 (Rhett Wiseman) is probably a good comparison for my squad, but I ended up with a QB in Delay who is not as fleet of foot as Darron Thomas was (update: as of 2013 Delay was clocked at 6.99s in the 60, which isn’t bad). That being said, I bet Delay would add a tough, physical element as a ball-carrier, perhaps closer to the Dak Prescott mold in that regard.

Sorry to disappoint, but you won’t find many wildcat formations, multiple QB sets, or exotic gadget plays here. We’re going to push the pace, force opponents to cover the entire width of the field, and test the stretched-out defense’s ability to make solo tackles in space. The offense will be slightly pass-heavy, so you can expect a lot of mid-range throws to generate yards after the catch, a healthy amount of pre-snap motion, a moving launch point to keep defenses guessing, and a variety of creative screens. Our personnel will make it tough to pound the ball up the middle consistently, so in the run game you’ll see a lot of zone-blocking, misdirection, and backs who are very active catching balls on both swing passes and wheel routes.

On a random note, I like Oregon’s option plays with a flared-out slotback, so we’ll do that a bunch. Why? Because this is my baseball-turned-football team dammit. Just like this.

On defense, we’ll play a base 4-2-5 like Gary Patterson’s TCU team to take advantage of our athletic, physical secondary which consists of 5 Will Toffey clones. We only drafted two players on defense, so that’s plenty of defensive scheming.

Jackson:

I come from the (gag) Urban Meyer school of thought when it comes to offenses — get the ball in your playmakers hands and give them a chance to make plays. That means I took a bunch of athletes who can line up in multiple positions and get the ball in different ways. We’ll utilize spread formations to get one-on-one matchups in space and terrorize the defense by mixing the run and the pass effectively. The closest current college offense to my ideal philosophy is probably Baylor — a team that uses the run to open up deep passes and especially leans on read-options and playaction passes to force the defense into leaving open space. We’ll definitely play an up-tempo style because I don’t think anyone else has the athletes to match up with my team.

Expect multiple guys to throw the ball on this team. We’re going to creatively use our ambidextrous quarterback to create extra separation and maximize the effectiveness of pop passes (a read-option that has the quarterback throw a pass instead of running if the receiver is uncovered). Dansby will also be taking snaps at quarterback — calling this the Wildcat is disingenuous because he has just as good an arm as our quarterback.

Deception is key in keeping a defense off-balance. Between the option plays, pop passes, playaction, six trick plays per game and our (listed height) 5’5” running back, I want the defense to not know where the ball is half the time. You can’t stop what you can’t see.

As for the defense, well, much like Bill Murray: I don’t play defense.

Categories: College Baseball, College Football | Leave a comment

Highlights from the Hustler

I haven’t posted in almost a month for two reasons:

1) I’m buried in work for my baseball preview, which is due to come out late next month. I’ll give out a sneak peek of my top 50 prospects, now an annual tradition, in the next four weeks.

2) I’ve been writing a lot for the Vanderbilt Hustler.

Although I’ve been updating my Hustler page, I’ll highlight my favorite articles from the past few months. I highly suggest reading the first two. (I mean I still highly suggest you read them all, but still).

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hi

Vanderbilt freshman Jordan Sheffield is left with a 5-inch scar on his right elbow after Tommy John surgery.

February 12, 2014

Jordan Sheffield: Scarred star on the road to recovery

This is my favorite feature of 2014. Sheffield was the 6th-best recruit in the nation until he had Tommy John Surgery at the start of his senior year of high school, and that’s the main reason he came to Vanderbilt.

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December 4, 2013

Opportunity beyond football at Vanderbilt

This is my favorite feature of first semester. Here I tell the story of how Jahmel McIntosh, Jimmy Stewart, and Steven Clark made it from humble beginnings and how much a football scholarship means to them. We get into some tough stories about growing up here.

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January 21, 2013

Commodores strike gold with Derek Mason

I got to intensely cover a coaching change with Derek Mason replacing James Franklin, so this is almost necessary to share. My introduction to Mason made the front page of the Hustler.

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January 21, 2013

Young Jones brings old feel to Commodores

Damian Jones is going to be a special player for Vanderbilt men’s basketball very soon, and this is my feature on him. Despite is dominance in the paint, he’s actually a pretty goofy guy.

Categories: College Baseball, College Basketball, College Football | Leave a comment

Jordan Sheffield: Scarred star on the road to recovery

(First appeared in The Vanderbilt Hustler)

Jordan Sheffield couldn’t find the plate. The Rawlings High School All-America pitcher was two strikes away from finishing off the fourth inning on Tullahoma High School’s opening day on a near-freezing March night, but his pitches were dying before they reached home plate.

Ball one. A glance to the dugout. Ball two. Another glance over. By the third pitch, Sheffield knew he had to come out of the game as tightness in his forearm and a loss of sensation in his fingers caused him to lose control.

After taking three weeks off from throwing full bullpen sessions, Sheffield and his parents drove to Pensacola, Fla., to see Dr. James Andrews, one of the nation’s top orthopedic surgeons, who confirmed their worst fear: Sheffield had a torn UCL and needed Tommy John surgery.

But Sheffield’s great misfortune became Vanderbilt’s windfall. Players as good as Sheffield — the sixth-best high school player in the nation according to scouting service Perfect Game — usually sign with MLB teams instead of going to college. But his surgery put a hold on his major league dream.

In eighth grade, Sheffield made plays at shortstop that a coach at rival Spring Hill High School thought even high schoolers couldn’t make. As a 14-year-old freshman, Sheffield was throwing 90 miles per hour, leading his team to a victory over previously undefeated Columbia Central High School in the district championship.

He ran a 6.5 60-yard dash in high school, an impressive time for a prep player — MLB all-time steals leader Rickey Henderson ran a 60 in 6.4 seconds. Sheffield showed off his speed on the football field through his sophomore year with a jaw-dropping YouTube highlight film to match and would have kept playing football had he not made the USA Baseball 16U national team the summer before his junior year.

“He’s the most dynamic athlete I’ll ever coach,” said Tullahoma baseball coach Brad White. “I think that’s pretty safe to say, and one of the top two or three to ever come out of this town.”

Sheffield’s stock continued to skyrocket when his fastball was clocked at 98 miles per hour in October of his senior year at a showcase in Jupiter, Fla. But all of that positive momentum fell by the wayside when Sheffield found out he needed elbow surgery.

From surgery to Vandy

Tommy John surgery is a major surgery, but it’s become somewhat commonplace in baseball since the procedure was introduced 40 years ago.

More than a third of the active major league pitchers have undergone Tommy John surgery, with many more minor leaguers and high schoolers added to that staggering total. A full recovery for a pitcher usually takes a year, but the success rate is estimated at 85-90 percent, according to Baseball-Reference.

“Tommy John now is like going to the dentist, pretty much,” said Travis Sheffield, Jordan’s father. “Guys are coming back bigger and stronger and faster and able to throw harder than they were before.”

After hearing his diagnosis, Sheffield elected to have surgery the next day, prematurely ending his senior season, and leaving him with a five-inch scar to show for it.

Sheffield’s torn right UCL was replaced with his right Palmaris longus — the tendon in your wrist visible when you touch your first and fifth fingers together. Once harvested, the tendon is weaved through holes drilled in the upper and lower arm and will eventually recreate itself into a ligament.

While Tommy John surgery was necessary for Sheffield to continue his career, it put a big dent in his draft stock. Once projected to be a first-round pick in line for a giant signing bonus — the average first-rounder gets $2.6 million — Sheffield fell to the Boston Red Sox in the 13th round. After the 10th round, teams have to get creative to sign players for more than $100,000 due to rules in the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

But Sheffield was ready to come to Nashville. Though the Red Sox called with an impressive last-minute offer right as his family dropped him off in Gillette Circle at The Commons, Sheffield began taking summer school classes at Vanderbilt in early July 2013.

“Honestly, once I had the surgery, I knew I was going to come to Vanderbilt,” Sheffield said. “It was just a better situation; I’m not all by myself. Plus (Vanderbilt baseball athletic trainer Chris) Ham has helped me a lot, and I knew I’d have a trainer every day there with me, helping me through it instead of me having to get up and do it myself. Having somebody pushing you is a little bit better.”

Going through rehab

Jordan Sheffield isn’t the first Tommy John patient Chris Ham has worked with.

Mark Lamm missed the 2010 season and came back with a 2.00 ERA over 27 innings of relief for his senior year. T.J. Pecoraro underwent surgery at the end of his sophomore year and returned less than 10 months later to post a 5.97 ERA over 34 2/3 innings in 2013. Catcher Curt Casali had Tommy John after the 2009 season and followed that up by finishing third on the team with a .446 on-base percentage and eight home runs.

Since Sheffield didn’t come to campus until nearly four months after his surgery, he had already gone through the toughest stretch of rehab by the time he began working with Ham. The first step is regaining range of motion, essential for a normal recovery.

“(The first day of rehab) was tough,” Sheffield said. “I couldn’t move my shoulder or arm that much. It was more mentally just kind of talking my way through it.”

Initially, Sheffield did light shoulder work for 30 minutes a day, using the wall as resistance. Eventually, he worked with stretching bands to build his strength back up. He even talked to Tullahoma graduates Bryan Morris (a Pirates reliever) and Dewan Brazelton (Tampa Bay’s third overall pick in 2001) for advice on how to rebound from Tommy John surgery.

By the time Sheffield reached campus, he was almost ready to start his throwing program. Ham and the rest of the coaching staff monitored him as he graduated through a step-by-step program that had him slowly progress, throwing in 30-foot intervals until he was ready for his first bullpen on Oct. 22.

When Sheffield wasn’t throwing, Ham had him do early morning full-body workouts for an hour before summer school, doing drills from functional movement patterns to squats to single leg squats to add to the wiry 6-foot, 160-pound frame he arrived on West End with.

“The elbow’s going to heal if Dr. Andrews did his job,” Ham said. “We’ve got to make sure everything else is working right.”

The season ahead

When Vanderbilt played its annual intra-squad Black and Gold Series in mid-November, Sheffield was one of two players unable to fully play. But while Sheffield didn’t pitch, head coach Tim Corbin did use him as a pinch runner and defensive replacement in the outfield.

And for the beginning of the 2014 season, that’s the role Sheffield will continue to play. He isn’t expected to take the mound mid-March, but Corbin is more than willing to utilize his speed in games for short doses of time.

The righty’s rehab is progressing well; his latest benchmark is a 25-pitch outing in a scrimmage. Although he hasn’t thrown an off-speed pitch yet or checked out his velocity on a radar gun, Sheffield and the team are comfortable with where he is.

With so much pitching talent on roster — the Commodores have five very capable starters led by All-American Tyler Beede and arguably the best bullpen in college led by All-American Brian Miller — there’s no big rush for Sheffield to come back.

Corbin says he will still need to monitor how many pitches Sheffield throws, which will mostly be out of the bullpen this season. But once the freshman is back to full health, he’ll be one of the most valuable pitchers on roster.

“The sky’s the limit because he’s a special talent, that’s for sure,” White said.

“I think he’s a top of the line SEC pitcher that can help them hopefully get to Omaha and compete for a national championship.”

Categories: College Baseball | Leave a comment

Boston Strong

School is over at Vanderbilt, but I’m still writing for InsideVandy.com–for a good reason. I stumbled across a great story following the tragic the bombings at the Boston Marathon, and it turned out to be probably my favorite article I’ve written this year.

My article, Boston Strong, is a 1500-word longer-form piece about how the tragedy affected the Vanderbilt baseball team. The Commodores have a particularly strong New England presence with six student-athletes from Massachusetts and Coach Corbin from New Hampshire.

I also decided to make a podcast to share the full interviews with Tyler Beede, Corbin, and Rhett Wiseman along with Beede’s song Boston Strong. Check out the podcast–linked below–and feel free to share it with a friend, or two, or twenty.

The Knuckle Cast Episode #4

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Your prize for making it through the podcast

Categories: College Baseball, Podcasts | Leave a comment

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