Vanderbilt Baseball 2020 lineup and pitching rotation preview

With the first pitch of the college baseball season less than a day away, here’s what the Commodores’ lineup and rotation might look like against Michigan and beyond.

Vanderbilt Baseball prepares for the upcoming season.

Brent Szklaruk

Vanderbilt Baseball prepares for the upcoming season.

Vanderbilt Hustler Sports Staff

After a long offseason, it’s finally time for the VandyBoys to begin their title defense.

The Vanderbilt Commodores take on Michigan in a rematch of the College World Series Final on Friday to open the 2020 campaign with all eyes set on a return to Omaha in a competitive SEC.

Notable names such as JJ Bleday, Ethan Paul and Stephen Scott are off making their big league dreams come true, so the Commodores will be hard-pressed to replace their production. Here’s the projected lineup and rotation heading into opening weekend:

The Lineup

Catcher – Ty Duvall

Junior Ty Duvall is most likely to be the starting catcher this season following the Toronto Blue Jays selection of Philip Clarke in the ninth round of the 2019 MLB Draft. Duvall has no easy task ahead of him, however, as Clarke was one of three Commodores to appear in 70 plus games last season, including 46 games of those games as the starting catcher. It will also be difficult replacing Clarke’s offensive production as he batted over .300 with 25+ RBIs but if Duvall’s small sample size from last season is any indication of coming success (he batted in over 16 RBIs in his last 16 games), Commodore fans should rest assured that the catcher position will be in good hands. 

— Bobby Kent, Staff Writer

 

First Base – Spencer Jones 

Jones likely would have been a first round pick had he not fractured his elbow and undergone surgery on his throwing arm. He wouldn’t have been a first-rounder as a hitter, though. The 6’7” lefty tops out at 94 MPH on the mound with an electric curveball, and it’s possible Vanderbilt will see some of that in the future. This year, Jones will command first base, giving Tim Corbin a big target to replace Julian Infante. Jones sports gap-to-gap power, and he showed it off in the fall with three hits against Oklahoma State and two more against Michigan. It remains to be seen whether Jones will keep the job once sophomore Dominic Keegan — who made the trip to Omaha last year — returns from injury, but for now, the freshman will get his chance to man first base for the foreseeable future.

Max Schneider, Sports Editor

 

Second Base – Harrison Ray

Senior Harrison Ray is back to anchor the Commodores at second base in 2020 as one of three returning starters on offense from last year’s National Championship lineup. He hit .276 in the seven hole last season, grabbed a team-high 21 stolen bases and notched nine doubles in SEC play, second best on the team. He also set an SEC Tournament record for doubles in a game (3) and made a sweet-diving grab to send Vandy to the College World Series Finals. 

Ray should see an even more prominent role in 2020, considering the Commodores lost six starters from one of the greatest offenses in college baseball history. He batted third in the fall exhibition against Michigan and was selected second team preseason All-SEC. Recently, he and teammate Mason Hickman led Vanderbilt baseball’s efforts in last Saturday’s annual Dance Marathon for the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. 

— Bryce Smith, Staff Writer 

 

Shortstop – Carter Young

Carter Young, a switch-hitting freshman hailing from Washington, boasts a stunning resume and the skills to back it up. In high school, Young was named the 2018 Washington state Gatorade Player of the Year, was an Under Armour All-American, and played on USA Baseball’s U18 national team. He’s projected to begin the season as the starting shortstop for the reigning national champions, and he has the tools to blossom into the Commodore’s next star SS. Young’s advanced footwork combined with his deadly accurate arm make him perfect for playing up the middle, but Young has historically played all over the diamond as well. His well-rounded game — a combination of bat speed, slick-fielding, and above-average speed — makes Young an extremely versatile player that should enjoy a stellar debut season in 2020.

Christopher Hugh, Staff Writer

 

Third Base – Austin Martin

Originally drafted by the Cleveland Indians in 2017, Junior Austin Martin chose not to sign with the MLB club and instead to become one of the VandyBoys. Following a solid freshman season, Martin broke out last year in a big way. After slashing an impeccable .392/.486/.604, blasting double-digit home runs and swiping nearly 20 bags during the 2019 season, Martin launched himself to the top of many MLB draft boards. His .392 average in 2019 was the highest by a Commodore in 15 years, a clip that paced the SEC, and he also set Vanderbilt’s record for runs scored in a single season. In the 37 games that Martin led off, the Commodores went an impressive 33-4. After losing lethal bats like J.J. Bleday to the draft, Martin is now undoubtedly the best pure hitter on the roster and will more than likely see less leadoff action and more time in the heart of the order. 

Christopher Hugh, Staff Writer

 

Left Field – Cooper Davis

Davis is entering his junior season for the Commodores in which he hopes to make a splash. The speedster missed much of his freshman campaign with a wrist injury, but worked his way into a leadoff spot for opening day of last season. Davis started off the season red hot. He moved between center and left, but his speed and bat control made him into the ideal tablesetter to compliment the contact skills of Austin Martin and power of JJ Bleday. Then, in April, Davis suffered an injury that kept them sidelined for a month. By the time he was back, the Commodores were rolling on offense. Sophomore outfielder Pat DeMarco was putting up impressive numbers while senior Stephen Scott proved himself as one of the team’s best hitters, and there simply was no room in a historically-stacked Commodores’ lineup for Davis to contribute. Still, Davis hit .327 his sophomore campaign and, with the departure of all three starting outfielders from last year, there is a serious chance that Davis can earn the leadoff spot in which he began last season. Davis contributes leadership, a great glove in all 3 outfield positions, blazing speed and quick hands that make pitching against Davis a nightmare.

–Ethan Stern, Staff Writer

 

Center Field – Tate Kolwyck

Kolwyck made the trip to Omaha with the Commodores last season as a backup middle infielder, and Corbin has raved about him leading up to the season, eager to get his bat in the lineup. In order to do so, Kolwyck has moved to the outfield, seeing time at all three positions in practice. Kolwyck is the latest in a long line of Commodores switching positions to get their bats in the lineup. Most recently, Austin Martin moved to the outfield his freshman year and then back to the infield last season, Harrison Ray moved from the outfield to the infield last season. Kolwyck, a Tennessee native who tallied two hits against Tennessee Tech next season, will settle into the middle of the order and likely see time in center right away.

— Max Schneider, Sports Editor

 

Right Field – Isaiah Thomas

Thomas spent most of his freshman season backing up DeMarco, who was drafted by the New York Yankees. With DeMarco gone, Thomas is poised to take over the starting center field position and make an immediate impact. Although he was not a regular starter for the team, Thomas is not short of experience in the collegiate game. He appeared in 21 games last season and started in six, putting his powerful bat on full display. He hit .368 and had four games with multiple hits. In addition to his stellar hitting, Thomas is a solid outfielder with good speed on the basepaths; he stole 16 bases as a senior in high school. Whether it be in right field or center, expect to see plenty of Thomas in the outfield this season. 

— Alyssa Muir, Deputy Sports Editor

 

Designated Hitter – Justyn-Henry Malloy

Following a standout summer in the NECBL that saw him hit .324 with six homers and 24 RBI for the Newport Gulls, Malloy will likely begin the season as Vanderbilt’s designated hitter. Malloy saw time at both first and third in the fall and will likely slide into one of those sports if Corbin needs. The sophomore from Bergenfield, New Jersey appeared in 14 games last season, logging an RBI single in Vanderbilt’s MLB4 win over Cal State Fullerton a year ago. Corbin has spoken highly of Malloy’s swing, noting that he’s gotten more lift on the ball over the past couple of months and is ready to become an everyday starter. One important thing to look for is Duvall’s injury, which could possibly see him DH the first game or two, sliding Malloy out of the lineup.

— Max Schneider, Sports Editor

 

Pitching Rotation and Bullpen

#1 – Mason Hickman, RHP

With the incredible postseason performance of then-freshman star Kumar Rocker, the successes of Mason Hickman are often overlooked. He led all starters with a 2.05 ERA and went 9-0, starting and winning the championship-clinching game against Michigan. Early on in 2019, Hickman found himself as the midweek starter against Belmont and kept his spot after a 6 shutout innings of 3 hit, 12 strikeout ball. Consistency is the name of the game for Hickman — in 13 starts, he gave up 2 or fewer runs 12 times as the Commodores dominated their non-conference schedule. Going into the tournament, the question remained as to whether Hickman’s success was inflated by playing non-conference teams, but this was quickly answered as he put up a 1.56 ERA in four postseason games. Hickman is also a two-pitch pitcher. His fastball tops in the low 90s and usually sits around 88-90, but his long arms and over-the-top delivery creates a high-spin fastball that rises and creates many soft fly balls. He also throws a mid-70s curveball with incredible late movement. The junior will likely sign with a major league organization this June, so watch him while you still can.

–Ethan Stern, Staff Writer

 

#2 – Kumar Rocker, RHP

Entering this year, there is no question that Kumar Rocker will be the Friday night starter for the Commodores. In his final 11 starts last season, Rocker put up an incredible 2.17 ERA along with 82 strikeouts and 13 walks in 70 ⅔ innings. Most notably, this included a 19-strikeout no-hitter against Duke in the Super Regional, an effort that set the baseball world ablaze and is considered by many to be the best pitching performance in college baseball history. Last season, Kumar dominated hitters mostly with a simple but effective 2-pitch mix. Rocker’s fastball sat around 93-95 MPH and topped 96, while his wipeout curveball sat at around 83-85 mph with drastic downward movement. He also showed impressive command, walking just 1.9 batters per 9 innings last year. He has thrown a changeup in the upper 80s as well, and we will likely see this pitch more in the upcoming season as hitters attempt to adjust to the sophomore right-hander. There is a very good chance that we are watching 2021’s first pick in the MLB draft, so take advantage of the opportunity to watch a developing star pitch.

–Ethan Stern, Staff Writer

 

#3 – Jake Eder, LHP

Eder played a huge role out of the bullpen for the Commodores during the College World Series and is poised to have an even bigger one this season. During Vanderbilt’s championship-clinching game, Eder recorded a three-inning save where he only allowed one run off two hits to go along with his four strikeouts. Although Eder primarily worked out of the bullpen last season, he started nine games during his freshman campaign, posting a 5.45 ERA. With his sophomore season under his belt, Eder should be more prepared to be a reliable starter in Vanderbilt’s potent weekend rotation. The hard-throwing lefty should nicely complement the two right-handed starters, Rocker and Hickman. Furthermore, Eder has shown that he ups his play when the pressure is the highest; opponents only hit .190 against him last season when there were runners on base. MLB scouts think highly of Eder’s ability as well, D1Baseball ranked him as the 17th-best 2020 MLB Draft prospect. 

— Alyssa Muir, Deputy Sports Editor

 

Midweek Starter – Jack Leiter, RHP

Vandy brings back loads of talent on the pitching staff in reigning College World Series Most Outstanding Player Rocker, Preseason first-team All American Hickman, and the #17 overall 2020 MLB Draft prospect (according to D1Baseball.com) Eder. But perhaps the most intriguing of the bunch is freshman Jack Leiter who turned down offers rumored to be upwards of $4 million from MLB clubs looking to draft him last summer. In 2019, Leiter was a high school All-American by both Under Armour and Perfect Game, the Gatorade Player of the Year in New Jersey and was the #15 ranked player high school prospect in the country. Tim Corbin doesn’t usually baptize freshmen pitchers by fire unless they’re really good (see: Kumar Rocker, 2019), so Leiter should prove to be a treat for Commodore fans given that he’s already in the conversation for the third or fourth starting spot on the staff. He walks into a perfect situation for a freshman pitcher in the SEC as well: Vanderbilt’s rotation is deep enough that there won’t be immediate pressure on him to perform, but at the same time he’ll be given every chance to showcase his talent early in the season with ample midweek games against lower tier opponents. If Leiter can develop his stuff over the season in a fashion even close to what Rocker did as a freshman last season, then Vanderbilt will undoubtedly have the best pitching in the country come NCAA tournament time. 

–Bryce Smith, Staff Writer

 

Top Reliever – Ethan Smith, RHP

As a freshman last season, Smith made 17 appearances out of the bullpen where he had a team-best .150 opponent average to go along with his 4-0 record and 47 strikeouts. After a shaky start to his freshman campaign, Smith really settled down during the back-half of the season where he recorded a 2.43 ERA over his final 15 appearances. During his 33 innings pitched throughout the year, he allowed just one homerun. Smith’s best game was May 3 against the South Carolina Gamecocks when he recorded eight strikeouts which tied the most for a Commodores reliever all season. With a year of college experience now under his belt, Smith is set to be Vanderbilt’s main reliever outside of closer Tyler Brown and there is a good chance he will be in the conversation to make some starts down the road. 

–Alyssa Muir, Deputy Sports Editor

 

Closer – Tyler Brown, RHP

Brown had one of the most dominant seasons of any college closer in recent memory in 2019, racking up a Vanderbilt single-season record 17 saves and being named to the 2019 First-Team All-SEC team as a relief pitcher. Over the final stretch of last season, the sophomore was the definition of a “shutdown closer” as he did not allow a run in 15 of his last 16 appearences and limited his opponents to a sub .230 batting average in his six NCAA Tournament appearances. Entering 2020, Brown’s 20 career saves places him only seven saves away from breaking the Commodore career record for saves set by Brian Miller from 2012-2014. Look for Brown to have a repeat of his dominant 2019 in his junior campaign as he holds down the back end of the Vanderbilt bullpen. 

— Bobby Kent, Staff Writer