Ahead of this weekend's series in Nashville, I spoke with Andrew VU '04, my counterpart over at Anchor of Gold, about this Top Ten Rematch.
PodKATT: Tim Corbin has built some amazing teams in his decade at Vandy, yet there’s only been one CWS trip in that time. Is it just bad luck of the draw or is there some bigger issue holding Vandy back?
Andrew: Baseball’s a high variable sport. Was UCLA better than LSU last year? Not even close. They were an above-average team with fly-ball pitchers who ran into a hot streak and a ballpark that forgave all of their up-in-the-zone mistake pitches. Honestly, that was sickening to watch, and the reactionary "Paul Manieri needs to switch them to a small-ball team ASAP" response has been, well, ridiculous. (Side note: I live in Baton Rouge, and went to Vandy for undergrad and LSU for grad school, so I root for you guys when they’re not playing the Dores.)
I’ll answer this with what I said in my first column this year:
In 2007, I declared to anyone who would listen that this would be "our year." The team was a beast, featuring the #1 overall pick in the '07 draft, Cy Young winning pitcher David Price, the #2 overall pick in the '08 draft, Pedro Alvarez, the #8 overall pick in the '07 draft in flame-throwing closer Casey Weathers, Ryan "Flash" Flaherty (a supplemental first round draft pick by the Cubs who now plays for the Baltimore Orioles), and a host of other supremely talented players. They opened the season as the consensus #1 ranked team, closed the regular season as the consensus #1 team, and tore through the conference tourney to win our first conference championship in I don't know how long. I was there. I was cocky. I was on the razor's edge, one hair from getting into a fight with a bunch of Mississippi State fans when I mocked their vocal grumbling over every pitch they thought was a strike (side note: of course they were wrong, and sitting directly behind home plate, I should know) by yelling in my best 3rd grade-reading-level-twang, "Hey umpire! We don't take kindly to your kind ‘round here!." I was so sure we would ride this train to Omaha...
And then David Price came in to close in Regionals and gave up a game losing home run to Michigan. Michigan?! Where people point to their hand to tell you where they're from. Where cold lives.
It was the same in '11. Last year, too.
In short, I’d love to say there’s a fatal flaw, as I would then be able to tell Corbs how to fix it. I don’t agree with his over-reliance on the squeeze bunt, as it has the potential to kill big innings, but in all honesty, it’s just been an odd combination of bad luck and the best players going into odd slumps at the worst times possible. It’s just the nature of baseball.
P: Vandy has one of the best OOC schedules in the SEC again this year with a west coast trip against a good Big West school and then hosting traditional power Stanford. Do you like that kind of aggressive scheduling even though, as a highly respected SEC team, it’s kinda unnecessary?
A: I love it. With footall, I understand scheduling cupcakes. Coaches don’t want to risk injuries and a loss to an out of conference team can cripple a season. With baseball, you’ve got 60 games to play around with, and a loss here or there doesn’t mean much. That said, we swept LBSU and Stanford this year, and it gave our guys an early test which then served as a confidence builder. In ’12, when we were rebuilding after the loss of Sonny Gray et al, we lost a lot of games early, but were able to rally late in the season to make an NCAA push. I believe in the value of testing yourself, so win or lose, it’s still a good idea.
P: How Awesome is Tyler Beede?
A: Well, he turned down $3.5 million (allegedly) from the Toronto Blue Jays to don the Black and Gold (side note: any other high school pitcher projected in the first two rounds who wants to do the same, just send a quick note to Tim Corbin or Scott Brown), but that doesn’t begin to tell the story. The past two years, he was an arm talent with nasty stuff learning how to pitch. This year, he’s figured it out, and is a pitcher with freak-nasty stuff who will swallow your soul (I may have gone a bit too far into the hyperbole well there… tough to say). His heater sits in the 96-98mph range all game. His curve is a hard-spike and is basically unhittable. Both grade out as plus-plus pitches. He’s got a change and was supposedly messing around with a slider, but he’s basically a fastball/curve pitcher.
In his first two years, you could see the dominant potential, but there was always the risk of a 3-4 walk inning crippler in which his internal GPS is spinning on "recalculating" and he just couldn’t find the plate. He was a first or second team All-American (depending on the publication) last year, but he still had this one ticking time-bomb of a flaw. He’d lose his balance, lean back, and elevate pitches, or he’d hold onto his curve too long and make the catcher look like the goalie in Slap Shot. This happened in the NCAAs last year and was just crippling. This is going to sound like I’m picking nits, as it was his first and only loss of the season, but against Louisville, the loss of control time-bomb exploded and he only went 2 and 2/3 innings, giving up two runs on five hits and three walks. In the previous tourney game against U. Illinois, he only went 4+ and gave up 4 runs (two earned) on two hits and five walks.
In his four starts this year, he’s hitting his spots consistently, not walking anyone, and the only runs he’s giving up are on the rare occasion that a batter makes contact, and the force of Beede’s fastball causes it to go over the fence. It’s simple physics, and is just something that you have to live with when you’ve got a power-arm pitcher. Here are the comparison stats regarding wildness:
Last year: 5.6 BB/9, 1.25 WP/9
This year: 1.8 BB/9, 0.36 WP/9
P: Despite the headline starters on Friday, Jared Miller is actually the leading Vandy pitcher right now. Did you expect him to have the start he’s had this year and are there another surprises in that bullpen we should know about?
A: I did not expect a 0.36 ERA out of Miller thus far. In fact, most Vandy fans expected Carson Fulmer to be our Saturday starter, and when they announced the weekend rotation would be Beede, Miller, and Ferguson, there was a bit of collective confusion (borderline outrage on my part). You’ll see Ferguson come out of the pen at some point this week. He’s unhittable.
That said, Miller’s been pitching like a mix between Andy Pettite and Mike Minor. He’s just really solid, and he’s been part of three shutouts thus far this season. He was a bullpen guy last year, so while I thought highly of his arm, I was surprised to see him get the Saturday nod. Simply put, I was wrong, and should trust anything pitching coach Scott Brown chooses to do from here on out. He doesn’t blow you away, but he’s great at hitting his spots, and similar to Aaron Nola, you can just tell his pitching IQ is way up there. They both play chess when the batters are playing checkers.
Other bullpen guys: Hayden Stone (who’s thrown 12 and 1/3 innings of shutout ball with a 14.6 K/9 rate), Carson Fulmer, and Brian Miller (a submariner who was our closer last year).
P: Offensively, Vandy and LSU seem to be doing a lot of the same things. Both are at or very near the top of the SEC in sac bunts and flys. LSU has a bit stronger power numbers, but I’m pretty convinced that is due to LSU’s much more inferior opposition. How does Vandy like to plate runs?
A: This year, we don’t like to plate runs. We’d much rather challenge our pitchers to be perfect. Sarcasm and over-reactions aside, losing Harrell, Yaz, and Kemp has taken a bit of a toll and Corbs is still tinkering with the line-up. At the moment, they’re getting a lot of singles and doubles, playing small ball, and stealing at every opportunity. However, there’s been a problem with getting two men on and stranding them. They’re a young line-up (mostly freshmen and sophomores) so they’ll get better at this as the season progresses. Rhett "The Natural" Wiseman needs to get to full health (he’s currently DH-ing, but should be the CF later in the year) and both Zander Wiel and Xavier Turner need to start hitting to their potential (especially their power potential), but the talent’s there. The hitter you probably don’t know much about yet is freshman Bryan "The Aluminum Foil" Reynolds. He’ll hit anywhere from 2nd-5th in the line-up and just does everything well.
P: 2 out, Bottom 9, down 1, 1 man on. Who does Vandy want at the plate?
A: Most would say Zander Wiel, but I’m going with Dansby "The Mansby" Swanson. He’s a gamer.
Q: How do you see the weekend playing out?
A: I've said in our preview for this weekend, I think these teams are just too damned similar to accurately project anything. I see this as a 2-1 split, and which team wins more will come down to who wins the biggest pitching match-up of the year. Personally, I like to think Friday’s game will be an extra inning affair that comes down to the bullpens, where I give Vandy a slight edge. Then again, Nola could go all nine and Beede could leave one fastball up which leaves the park. In that case, you guys have a shot at the series.