Jason Delay back behind the plate for expanded role during senior season

Max Herz

A familiar face will crouch behind home plate at Hawkins Field on Wednesday when the Vanderbilt baseball team hosts its home opener and Jason Delay plays his 133rd game as a Commodore.

Few expected the catcher to return to Vanderbilt for his senior season, with even Delay himself having doubts after the team was eliminated from NCAA regionals last June.

“I remember thinking after the last game that we played here in the regional, looking at the field wondering if that was my last game as a Commodore,” Delay said. “Something in my head just told me that it wasn’t. I just had this feeling that I wasn’t necessarily done here.”

Delay’s inkling on June 4 ultimately proved correct, but his decision to return involved an eventful month-and-a-half filled with an MLB draft selection, contract negotiations, a fellow Vanderbilt catcher’s unexpected departure and plenty of calls from his college coach, Tim Corbin.

Exactly one week after Vanderbilt’s season ended, Delay was selected in the 11th round of the MLB draft by the San Francisco Giants. It was the first time in Delay’s collegiate career that the Commodores’ season was over before draft day, and he had over a month to either reach a deal with the Giants before the signing deadline on July 15 or return to Vanderbilt for one more year.

Every minute of that period proved necessary for Delay, who was advised during the process by his agent Jack Toffey, the father of Vanderbilt third baseman Will Toffey and the representative for many recent Commodores now playing professional baseball.

“The negotiations with the Giants kind of came down to the wire,” Delay said. “It was a decision that I didn’t really feel comfortable making as an impulse decision.”

As the signing deadline approached, Delay had more than just his agent and his family helping him decide between professional baseball and one more year of school. Corbin talked frequently with his catcher over the phone during the process, just as he has with his numerous past Commodore draftees.

“I stay somewhat in the middle unless I have a strong thought, because I don’t want them to ever think that this is all about Vanderbilt,” Corbin said. “If they feel like they need to sign, then they need to sign, but I didn’t feel like Jason needed to sign.”

As negotiations sat still and Delay weighed his options, a surprising roster update made Corbin’s calls a bit more urgent and vital for the 2017 Vanderbilt team.

“I actually got a call from Karl Ellison about a week before the signing deadline telling me he was transferring,” Delay said. “I always enjoyed competing against Karl, but being the starting catcher and the main guy and not having to split time was something that I always wanted.”

Ellison’s departure for Lynn University ended the two catchers’ time together at Vanderbilt. Delay and Ellison entered the program and quickly became co-starters as freshmen in 2014, splitting playing time nearly evenly for three full seasons. Finally serving as a one-man show behind the plate enticed Delay, who started 41 games last season compared to Ellison’s 21. Losing both veterans would’ve left the Commodores with just one catcher on the roster for 2017, incoming freshman Ty Duvall.

With true everyday playing time finally available, two new hitting coaches joining Corbin’s staff and, of course, a Vanderbilt degree up for grabs, Delay said no to the Giants and made his return to the Commodores official on deadline day. He was in the lineup that night for his summer league team in Cape Cod, with his eyes set on one more year of college baseball and another shot at the MLB draft in 2017.

“Obviously I’d thought about it all summer, but, at the end of the day, it kind of did come down to those last couple of days,” Delay said. “It’s a big decision, and it was not something I was comfortable making as an impulse.”

Corbin is thrilled to have his catcher back and sees him as an indispensable piece of this year’s group. A steady combination of offense and defense led Delay to a strong junior season in 2016; he finished second among SEC catchers by throwing out 49 percent of opposing base-stealers while hitting .248 with 31 runs batted in, tied for fourth-most on the team. He projects as an even more effective player in 2017.

“Obviously that’s your best recruit in my opinion, a senior who comes back and plays,” Corbin said.

On top of playing every day this season, Delay will also take on a more advanced role with a Vanderbilt pitching staff in transition. Beyond juniors Kyle Wright, Collin Snider and Matt Ruppenthal, the Commodore hurlers lack experience and will benefit from Delay’s leadership, as will his backup, Duvall. Pitching coach Scott Brown may even give Delay the freedom to call pitches at times. The list of reasons Delay and his coaches are pleased with his choice to return grows longer by the day.

“There were a lot of things that went into it, and it wasn’t an easy decision but it’s definitely something that I’m happy I did,” Delay said. “I have no regrets about it. Once I made that decision I never really looked back.”

Instead of being a new face on a back field in Scottsdale, Arizona, at Giants spring training this week, the 335th overall pick in the 2016 MLB draft will be a familiar sight for Vanderbilt fans at Hawkins Field. Just as Delay suspected way back on June 4.