Tied up at 2-2 against Kentucky in the seventh inning Sunday, Will Toffey stepped up to the plate with one man on and nobody out. On the second pitch of the at-bat, he launched a ball just over the wall in center field, giving Vanderbilt the lead in its lone win of the weekend.
Going into the game, Toffey had been 0-8 with just one walk. By the end of the series, he was 4-for-12 with two walks and that much-needed home run. His perfect day at the plate helped carry Vanderbilt to a victory to avoid a sweep. The game represented just a snippet of the improvement Toffey has made since last season and what it has meant for the team.
Against Belmont on March 22, Toffey tallied six RBI on four hits, including an inside-the-park home run. Those impressive numbers only tell part of the story, however. That game pushed him ahead of his RBI production from all of last year. He reached 25 RBIs in that game, compared to just 22 all of last season. It took just 22 games to match the output of a 62-game season.
After a successful freshman campaign in which he started 67 of the team’s 72 games during its College World Series run, Toffey’s numbers dropped significantly across almost the entire stat line. After batting .294 in 2015, he slipped to .227, the lowest among everyday starters on the team. His 20 doubles, tied for fifth-best in the SEC and 44th in the country, stood out during that 2015 season, in which he also carried a 28-game hitting streak in conference. Those 20 doubles may be an improbable feat to achieve again, but he’s been playing even better offensively this season.
“Well, I’m not surprised,” head coach Tim Corbin said about Toffey’s improvement. “I think it’s more of him just staying on line of the baseball. I think there were times last year when he wasn’t getting the offensive production that he’s looking for and often times you try to manufacture. You try to get bigger than you need to, to try to get out of it or try to produce some energy to the baseball and often times when that happens, you spiral down before you get back up.”
Toffey has already accumulated five home runs this season, more than his 2015 number and five more than last year. His slugging percentage is up to .533, over 100 points better than 2015 and more than double last year’s number. He explained that his approach has changed somewhat this season in response to the dip in productivity last year.
“I just was able to kind of relax and kind of calm myself down a little bit,” he said. “There were some mechanical issues going on last year, but it was more mental and approach-based stuff, and I was able to get a little more aggressive again.”
While Toffey’s hitting stands out this year from a power perspective, his eye at the plate and ability to take pitches has been equally impressive and a large reason for this success. He drew a team-best 51 walks last season, and with an SEC-leading 26 already this year, he’s on track to surpass that feat. Even with a batting average .67 lower in 2015 than 2014, his on-base percentage actually increased. This year, it’s up to .460, the best on the team and significantly better than last season. In Corbin’s eyes, this growth can be attributed to having started in nearly every game since he stepped on campus.
“Well I think age, number one. I think his experiences and having seen more at bats,” Corbin said. “You start piling on those at-bats, from, he played here in the College World Series freshman year. He played a lot his freshman year and that was important. So all those experiences now are starting to help him and he’s just wise to the strike zone.”
In addition to his experience, Toffey explained that each at-bat he’s looking to do damage to pitches within his zone. He has labeled this “controlled aggression,” a term he emphasized during a recent media availability. If he sees a borderline pitch, he’s willing to take it, knowing that there’s often not much to do with it. That’s why he’s struck out only 16 times and carries the highest at-bats-per-strikeout ratio of all team starters.
“I would say that that idea of being aggressive, but to the pitches that are in the zone, is kind of my mindset and kind of what led me to be like that,” he said.
Although Toffey has been producing better at the plate this year, his focus is more so on the team as a whole. His stronger production has certainly helped the team this year, but that’s not where he looks first when gauging success.
“That’s funny because those statistics are thrown at me…I don’t really think too much of it,” he said. “Obviously last year was last year and this year is this year, and I’m happy with where the team’s at right now and we’re really coming together well.”