As another baseball season approaches, the Commodores will look to put together another dominant rotation that has produced three first-round picks in the past three MLB Drafts. Additionally, last year’s Friday night starter, Jordan Sheffield, left for the draft and went No. 36 overall, while the Colorado Rockies took Ben Bowden in the second round.
That leaves Vanderbilt with some questions in the pitching rotation, namely who will fill the third weekend spot and weekday starts. Of the 62 games last year, returning pitchers account for 32 of those games. This figure doesn’t even include John Kilichowski, who made 10 starts in 2015, but battled injuries much of last year. Hayden Stone and Ryan Johnson, also pitchers with starting experience, retired during the offseason. As such, head coach Tim Corbin said he’ll look closely at his pitchers over the next few weeks before making a decision.
“I don’t know how I’m going to structure the starters,” Corbin said. “That’s still in motion.”
With a team-leading eight wins (along with Sheffield), Kyle Wright will take over the coveted Friday night games. All 16 of his game appearances were starts, and he compiled 107 strikeouts and a 3.09 ERA. That success led to a preseason All-American honor, as many scouts consider him to be a top-five pick in this year’s draft.
After Wright, the options are a little more convoluted. However, Patrick Raby, a Freshman All-American last year, appears to be the leading candidate to pitch on Saturdays. His 10 starts last year were third on the team, and no other returning pitcher started more than three games. With a 2.61 ERA and 63 strikeouts in 2016, he should also be a lock for this rotation.
Tim Corbin will have a tough decision to make regarding the Sunday starter though. Matt Ruppenthal is the most proven pitcher remaining, but he didn’t start in any of his 25 appearances, averaging just under two innings pitched in each of those. In a game against Mississippi State, he did throw seven innings of one-run ball in relief though, his longest outing of the season.
Then there’s Chandler Day, who made three starts but never pitched more than five innings. During the season, he threw in 10 games, accumulating 25.1 innings total. That’s a little more than half of Ruppenthal’s 46.1 innings, which is the third most for returning pitchers. Also, Day’s 4.26 ERA was noticeably higher than Ruppenthal’s impressive 2.33 ERA.
While Ruppenthal seems to have the edge over Day on face value, he may be delegated to the bullpen, where he served in entirety last year. If so, he would be the leading candidate to serve in a closer-type role, like Bowden did previously. It’s possible that Ruppenthal could start some games like Bowden, but the Commodores may need him to anchor down the relief staff.
One issue in the rotation though is clear: It’s dominated by right-handers. While the team carries 12 righties, there are just five lefties. Three of those are freshmen (Michael Sandborn, Jackson Gillis and Zach King), and Paxton Stover is a junior college transfer who first had a stint at Mississippi State in 2015. Sophomore A.J. Franklin, the remaining lefty, didn’t make any appearances last year. Regardless, Corbin isn’t too concerned.
“We’ve had staffs where we’ve been right-handed, and that’s OK,” Corbin said.
For Corbin, forcing a lefty into the rotation isn’t something that he’s going to do though. He’s keeping to a straightforward game plan.
“Best arm, best competitor,” Corbin said.
Without much lefty experience, there’s likely little chance to see any of them serve as starters, save a chance for a few mid-week games. Stover could likely play a fair share at some point after he went 9-0 at Dyersburg State last season. He struck out 110 batters in 84.2 innings, along with a 3.08 ERA. However, Corbin noted that King is the furthest along of the group, even though he has yet to pitch in a college game.
“He’s a freshman that has thrown relatively well in the situations that he’s in,” Corbin said.
During mid-week games, expect Vanderbilt to employ a similar strategy as last year: rotate around a group of relievers. Who those players might be is unknown, but Matt McGarry and Joey Abraham both made starts last year. Collin Snider pitched very well in 35 innings, and Maddux Conger let up just one earned run in 11.1 innings in 2016. The Commodores will certainly send out a diverse group of starters during these games, especially as Corbin looks to solidify the weekend rotation.