Three up, three down: An off season and the offseason

After a third-straight season of falling short at the NCAA Regionals, Vanderbilt Baseball will search for answers this summer.
Colin Barczi celebrates with his teammates after smacking a two-run home run against High Point at the NCAA Regionals, as photographed on June 1, 2024. (Hustler Multimedia/Barrie Barto)
Colin Barczi celebrates with his teammates after smacking a two-run home run against High Point at the NCAA Regionals, as photographed on June 1, 2024. (Hustler Multimedia/Barrie Barto)
Barrie Barto

2024 was an uncharacteristic season for head coach Tim Corbin and Vanderbilt Baseball. The Commodores went 38-21 (13-17 SEC), posting their lowest win total since 2018 and their worst conference record since 2005. Things began to go awry during the heart of the VandyBoys’ conference schedule. They lost four series in a row to end the season, dropping two of three to Mississippi State, Tennessee and Kentucky while also getting swept by Georgia. Its weak performance during the final stages of the regular season left Vanderbilt squarely on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament. For the first time since the aforementioned 2005 season during the early years of Corbin’s tenure, there was a legitimate chance that the Commodores could miss the postseason.

All  that isn’t to say there weren’t positive moments. Corbin and Co., as they always do, showed up in the SEC Tournament, ripping off a win against Florida before besting the ranked Tennessee and Mississippi State teams to advance to the semifinals. Despite falling short in their rematch against the Volunteers, the Commodores had ensured themselves a spot in postseason contention. 

This is when things went sideways for the Black and Gold. A nightmare draw in the Clemson Regional turned into a real-life horror story when Vanderbilt, a two-seed in the region, got blown out by Coastal Carolina before getting walked off by High Point. An inability to produce consistency from the plate forced Corbin and Vanderbilt Athletics to make tough decisions, as it let go of assistant coaches Mike Baxter (hitting/recruiting coordinator) and Tyler Shewmaker (catching). 

With the transfer portal having completely changed the world of college sports, it’s up to Corbin and his staff to use the program’s reputation to attract some game-changers. 

Three up. 

A start

Corbin wasted little time hitting the portal to fill the (likely impending) holes that Bryce Cunningham’s and Carter Holton’s departures to the MLB will cause. This past Friday, Vanderbilt landed a commitment from Cody Bowker, a rising junior out of Georgetown University. Bowker spent his first year with the Hoyas as a two-way player, contributing both on the mound and at the plate. Having deemed his prowess to be with the ball in his hand, the righty switched full-time to pitcher before his sophomore season. He started eight games and produced an impressive 3.00 ERA, which would’ve been the best on Vanderbilt’s team last season. Whether he works into the starting rotation or begins by bringing valuable experience to a young bullpen, Bowker will be a difference maker.

Bowker is an exciting prospect who will be instrumental in replacing Cunningham and Holton, two program staples for the past few years. More exciting, perhaps, is the fact that Corbin went to the portal this early in the offseason. Vanderbilt has a unique opportunity here that it often does not have — to go after some top-of-the-line players before some of its SEC opponents’ seasons end. With five teams still left in the NCAA Super Regionals, Corbin has a leg up in the transfer recruiting timeline. While the 62-year-old skipper is not know to rely on the portal, with the changing landscape of recruiting in the NCAA, perhaps this is a promising first step. 

A fountain of youth

In terms of departures, Vanderbilt will lose two of its catchers, as Jack Bulger and Alan Espinal ran out of eligibility. Troy Laneve and Calvin Hewett are done as well. Pitcher Sam Hilboki hit the transfer portal last week, while Cunningham, Holton, Davis Diaz and Jonathan Vastine will get looks from the majors. A few more of Vanderbilt’s high-impact juniors might hear their names called on draft day but could still return. 

All losses considered, the Commodores’ young team, despite their struggles in 2024, still trudged through to the postseason and earned very valuable experience. Many key contributors throughout the lineup will return next season with another year under their belts. Players like Colin Barczi, Ethan McElvain, Braden Holcomb and Camden Kozeal showed promise in their freshman seasons. With the proper approach, Vanderbilt can bring in some veteran experience through the portal to mesh with its current roster and contribute not only on the field but in the locker room. As a metaphorical cherry on top, the Black and Gold rank fourth in Perfect Game’s rankings for the Class of 2025. 

Hitting help 

As of June 9, Vanderbilt is in talks with Dayton head coach Jayson King to make him an assistant on Corbin’s staff. This process, which has not yet been made official, is expected to become final soon, per D1 Baseball While it is unclear whether King will take on more of a hitting role, a catching role or a newly-created role (depending on the second hire’s skillset), King’s experience as a head coach makes him flexible enough to fill any role.

Dayton ranked third in the Atlantic 10 in batting average (.298) and second in runs (430). The Flyers checked in at No. 26 in the nation in terms of on-base-percentage with .413, a far cry from the Commodores No. 180 rank of .376. While it’s worth noting that Dayton faced significantly easier competition than Vanderbilt (A-10 as compared to the SEC), offensive production is offensive production. King brings valuable experience as both a coach and a recruiter, as he helped bring in the top recruiting class in the A-10 in 2023 and 2024.

Three down. 

Low power mode

All season, Vanderbilt failed to plate runs. The Commodores scored just 412 runs, the fifth-worst in the SEC, and hit only 72 home runs, which was second worst, ahead of only Missouri. Vanderbilt simply lacked a power-hitter this season, which it relied on a lot more in the past than it might’ve liked to admit. Vanderbilt had four players hit more than seven home runs in 2023, 2022 and 2021.  Alan Espinal — who will be departing, to add insult to injury — led the team in home runs with 13. The only other player with more than seven home runs was Jonathan Vastine, who sent 10 over the fence. From a power perspective, this was Vanderbilt’s worst year in recent memory. 

The fact remains that no matter how disciplined a team might be at the plate, to compete with some of the high-octane groups in the country it must be able to go yard at a consistent and high rate. With in-conference foes teams like Tennessee (166 homers), Georgia (145) and Texas A&M (130) crushing the ball and finding success as a result, maybe it’s time to bring some heavy hitters into the dugout.

Homesick 

Homefield, homecourt, home pitch and so on. It’s one of the most acknowledged realities in the world of sports and something that even the most casual fan knows about. The home team, with a playing surface it’s comfortable on and a crowd of supporters behind it, will always be at an advantage. As they often have, The Commodores thrived off of it this season, going 27-8 with the Vanderbilt faithful behind them at Hawkins Field. A bit more uncharacteristic was how poorly the team did when it hit the road, going 4-12 in away games. Holton, Cunningham, Futrell, and Thompson — Vanderbilt’s top four rotation pitchers — all posted ERAs of over 7.8 on the road. While being at Hawkins certainly provides an advantage, it can’t be so heavily relied on that a starter’s ERA rises five or more points away from home whenever they step away from their home mound. 

While the pitching woes on the road were perhaps the more attention-grabbing statistic, these struggles weren’t exclusive to the arms. Vanderbilt had six guys that batted over .300 at home, compared to just three on the road. Some of the program’s top players, like RJ Austin (.329 to .270), Davis Diaz (.274 to .197) and Alan Espinal (.376 to .113), had massive differences in batting average when looking at the comparison between home and road games. Again, it’s more than reasonable to expect a team to perform better at home than on the road, but this discrepancy warrants concern.

What comes next?

It would be far too much of an overreaction to call for Corbin to be ousted from his position with the Commodores. Still, there’s no getting around it: a lot of the struggles from this season, specifically from the plate, are a direct result of Corbin’s hesitancy to attack the portal for quality bats. Jacob Humphrey and Jayden Davis represent the only two bats the Commodores brought in last offseason via the portal. While Davis provided plenty of value, starting 45 games in the infield for Vanderbilt, the duo combined for just four home runs on the season, a far cry from the team-leading 14 that RJ Schreck posted last season in his only year in the Black and Gold. 

The point of all of this is to say that Vanderbilt’s reputation took a hit after its disappointing season, capped off by a brutal performance at the NCAA Regionals. True, Vanderbilt remains a blue-blood and a yearly threat as one of the most storied programs in the college baseball world. Yet, next season will be an important one, because a fourth-straight year of failing to advance to the Super Regionals might lead to more changeup than assistant coaches. 

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About the Contributors
Aiden Rutman
Aiden Rutman, Sports Editor
Aiden Rutman (‘25) is a student in Peabody College majoring in human and organizational development and minoring in communication studies. He formerly produced The Hustler’s sports podcast, Live from West End. In addition to writing and podcasting, Aiden is an avid New York sports fan, and he loves playing sports, spending time outdoors and trying new foods. You can reach him at [email protected].
Barrie Barto
Barrie Barto, Editor-in-Chief
Barrie Barto ('25) is majoring in medicine, health & society with neuroscience and communication of science & technology minors in the College of Arts and Science. She previously served as Photography Director. When she's not strolling around campus with her camera, you can find Barrie cheering on the St. Louis Blues or tracking down the best gluten-free food in Nashville. She can be reached at [email protected].
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John E Ingle
1 month ago

Interesting analysis. It seems to me that the rest of the conference simply has caught up with and in many cases surpassed Vanderbilt in baseball over the past four or five years. Corbin got the jump on the other schools in building a sound program as baseball became the only men’s sport in which Vanderbilt was competitive while football and basketball reigned generally in the SEC. The Vandy Boys still are competitive, but now they appear to be at about the middle of the conference. One hopes that they will not drop to the bottom as in football and basketball, now that other SEC schools are putting a greater emphasis on baseball. The SEC is a tough league.