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VOL. 43 | NO. 41 | Friday, October 11, 2019

Vanderbilt baseball’s season in the sun

CWS title followed by dominant MLB season for Commodore alumni

By Tom Wood

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This is a fantasy baseball story, one of how Vanderbilt boasts a field of dreams team of former players in the major leagues.

Fifteen Vanderbilt alums – more than enough to fill out a fantasy league lineup card – played on major league teams this just-concluded season, the most of any collegiate program in the nation.

And another 29 former Commodores played at various levels of minor league baseball, including 12 of the 13 players who led the school to the College World Series national championship in June.

Indeed, former Vanderbilt players are scattered across the country in the major and minor leagues from Boston and Cleveland to Los Angeles and San Francisco. In the heartland and the hinterlands, from North to South, through the Midwest, the Southwest, the Far West and even in Canada. Everywhere, there’s a Vanderbilt connection.

“What’s amazing to me, you know, pretty much every clubhouse I walk into now, I’ll see a Vanderbilt kid,” says Buster Olney, a Vanderbilt graduate and former Nashville Banner sports writer who is now a senior writer for ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine and reporter for ESPN’s Sunday night baseball telecasts.

“I joked with the players because you know for years – in terms of volume – the most prominent people from Vanderbilt that were in the sports community were writers like Skip Bayless and Tyler Kepner and Roy Blount. And so I began joking with some of the players, ‘You guys are ruining it for us! Like we were once in charge of the Vanderbilt sports scene and now we’re nothing’ because everywhere you go there’s a Vanderbilt player.”

Two former ’Dores helped their teams reach the National League playoffs (more on that later) and several others enjoyed tremendous individual success in 2019.

The most notable performances were on the mound by MLB All-Stars Walker Buehler (2013-15) of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Sonny Gray (2009-11) of the Cincinnati Reds and Mike Minor (2007-09) of the Texas Rangers. That trio made major league history, becoming the first three pitchers from the same school to register 200 strikeouts in the same season.

At the plate, Pittsburgh Pirates left-fielder Bryan Reynolds (2014-16) batted .314, the highest average for a switch-hitting rookie since 1986.

“Every clubhouse, it seems, that you walk into, there’s one guy, two guys – there’s people in front offices who come out of that program. It’s a tribute to Corbs and it’s a tribute to the school and very cool to watch,” Olney says.

The architect

Corbin

“Corbs,” as practically everybody in baseball calls him, is Coach Tim Corbin, who was hired in 2003 and has built Vanderbilt into the nation’s most elite and envied program, a perennial powerhouse that has made four trips to the College World Series since 2011, winning national championships in 2014 and 2019 and finishing runner-up in 2015.

“It’s the best school in the country for baseball. I was just grateful that they gave me a chance when nobody else would,” rising Pirates star Reynolds told mlb.com in a Sept. 23 profile.

Asked about Vandy’s success in sending players to the pros, Braves relief pitcher Kyle Wright (2013-15) laughs and explains how Corbin has created and maintained a winning environment that shows no signs of slowing down.

“There’s not a secret formula, but at Vanderbilt they’ve gotten the culture right,” says Wright, who spent three short stints this season in Atlanta and was called up from Class AAA Gwinnett in September to finish out the season.

Vandy alumni on 2019 MLB rosters

Pos., Player (years at VU)Team2019 highlights
P Tyler Beede (2012-14) Giants 5-10, 5.08 ERA, 113 SO
P Walker Buehler (2013-15) Dodgers 14-4, 3.26 ERA, 215 SO, AL All-Star
C Curt Casali (2008-11) Reds .251 avg., 8 HR, 32 RBI
3B Ryan Flaherty (2006-08) Indians .143 avg.
P Carson Fulmer (2013-15) White Sox 1-2, 6.26 ERA
P Sonny Gray (2009-11) Reds 11-8, 2.87 ERA, 205 SO, NL All-Star
CF Tony Kemp (2011-13) Cubs .212 avg., 8 HR, 29 RBI
P Mike Minor (2007-09) Rangers 14-10, 3.59 ERA, 200 SO, AL All-Star
P David Price (2005-07) Red Sox 7-5, 4.28 ERA, 128 SO
LF Bryan Reynolds (2014-16) Pirates .314 avg., 16 HR, 68 RBI
P Sam Selman (2010-12) Giants 0-0. 4.35 ERA
SS Dansby Swanson (2013-15) Braves .251 avg., 17 HR, 65 RBI
P Drew VerHagen (2012) Tigers 4-3, 5.90 ERA
P Kyle Wright (2015-17) Braves 0-3, 8.69 ERA
LF Mike Yastrzemski (2010-13) Giants .272 avg., 21 HR, 55 RBI

Stats through regular season

Sources: Vanderbilt, mlb.com

“The culture is really kind of what Vanderbilt is about and it is kind of the reason why there are so many guys doing so many successful things in baseball – and even outside of baseball, too."

Corbin is proud of the success his former players have experienced in professional baseball and agrees with Wright’s assessment about the culture.

As much as he is a coach, Corbin is also a teacher on and off the field. The baseball diamond is his classroom, but so is the actual classroom and pro locker room at Memorial Gymnasium where Corbin communicates important life lessons.

“I don’t think it’s getting them ready for professional baseball. I think it’s more about getting them ready for just growth and progress and maturity more than anything else. Those are the outcomes,” Corbin says at his spacious Hawkins Field office.

“If they get an opportunity to play professional baseball, that’s an outcome of the efforts and investment they make into what they’re doing.

“But I think it’s more about how to grow their mind, how to organize their mind, how to make use of the 24-hour day, how to utilize their time and what’s in front of them. When they come here, they’ve been able to use their baseball skill set to acquire a world-class education, and inside the educational process is our program.”

As much as the physical side, it’s the cerebral part of baseball, the personal growth on and off the field that Corbin stresses to his players.

“I look at our program in a lot of different ways. Outside of being on the field – or the playground, so to speak – is the time that we can utilize inside of a classroom to teach other things that they might not hear on the academic side, but they might not hear on the baseball field either,” Corbin points out.

Where they’re from

Universities with the most active players on 2019 Major League Baseball rosters:

Vanderbilt: 15
Florida: 12
South Carolina: 12
Arizona State: 11
CS-Fullerton: 11
LSU: 11
Virginia: 11
North Carolina: 10

Source: Spotrac.com

“It’s kind of the in-between time, that filler time, that we can utilize inside of our classroom to teach them how to use their brain, how to utilize that side of their brain, and really how to organize their thoughts and their decision-making process to benefit themselves.”

Wright says there’s a symbiotic relationship between former stars, current players and the coaching staff. His explanation: Players take what they have learned at Vanderbilt to the pro ranks, where their success shows high school athletes what they might be able to achieve as a Commodore, which in turn boosts Corbin’s recruiting efforts.

“We’ve had a lot of good, talented, athletic players who came through there, which helps Coach Corbin, and, for me, pitching coach Scott Brown,” Wright says. “They just do so much that really, basically, kind of helps you find the best version of yourself as a baseball player and a person.

“That speaks to everything as to why there are so many guys who are playing in the big leagues. They’re having success in general that have come from Vanderbilt. The culture is right and everything takes care of itself in a way.”

Vanderbilt baseball schedule

Fall Camp: Oct. 8-Nov. 12.
Fall practice begins, open to public: Oct. 8-11
Additional dates TBA on Twitter (@VandyBoys)

Oct. 26: Vanderbilt vs. Oklahoma at Kansas City

Nov. 10: Michigan at Vanderbilt, 10 a.m.

Nov. 12-16: Black and Gold Series

2020 Season Opener: Feb. 14-16: MLB4 Tournament, Scottsdale, Arizona (Vanderbilt, Michigan, UConn, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo)

Remainder of SEC schedule TBA

Corbin’s philosophical views of life, baseball, coaching and growth are intertwined and could fill a book. Perhaps he and Olney will someday tackle that project.

“What Tim’s been able to do is bring really talented players, because he’s at the point now where players are seeking him out, fathers and mothers are seeking him out to deliver, and he’s getting to the point where, because of his reputation, because of the reputation of the program, I think he’s increasingly getting the pick of the litter,” Olney says.

“It’s a great place to be, and he’s earned it in terms of the type of player he’s turning out, the type of program he’s built.”

Playoff picture

Another trio of ex-Commodores helped their teams reach the National League playoffs – Buehler of the NL West champion Dodgers is joined by NL East champion Atlanta shortstop Dansby Swanson (2013-15) and his Braves teammate, relief pitcher Wright.

Buehler, the Game 1 starter and winner against Washington, and Swanson, whose RBI double sparked a ninth inning rally in Sunday’s win at St. Louis, could meet in an NL Championship Series showdown with a World Series berth at stake, a playoff scenario that excites Braves relief Wright, even though he didn’t make Braves’ 25-man playoff roster.

Both teams were tied 2-2 in their NLDS series at press time.

“I think it would be pretty cool,” says Wright, who was 11-4 at Class AAA Gwinnett before being called up by Atlanta in September.

“I love Walker to death. He was always good to me and still is. So I’m always rooting for Walker. I’m always hoping for the best for him, so it would definitely be a lot of fun (to face L.A.) for sure.”

Walker finished 14-4 in the regular season with a 3.26 ERA and 215 strikeouts and allowed just one hit over six innings in the NLDS opener, a 6-0 victory over the Washington Nationals.

The Los Angeles Dodgers were confident enough in Walker Buehler to give him the first game start in the National League Division Series against the Washington Nationals.

-- Photo By Marcio Jose Sanchez|Ap

Rick Honeycutt, a former All-American at the University of Tennessee, ex-major leaguer and now pitching coach for the Dodgers, says Buehler is one of the “best young pitchers in the game today. He has poise and confidence needed to be successful in the big leagues.

“What I like most about him is his desire to learn so that he can continue to improve.’’

Swanson, who battled injuries before heading into the playoffs, completed the regular season with a .251 batting average, 17 home runs and 65 RBIs.

Olney says a Braves-Dodgers showdown could happen with the winner advancing to meet the AL champion.

“It’s interesting, because the Dodgers are without a doubt the class of the National League,” Olney says. “And I think one of the interesting questions that evolved during the year is which other team in the National League might give the Dodgers a fight.

“And two months ago, I didn’t really view the Braves as being that kind of team. But they’ve gotten better. Since the trade deadline, they got Mark Melancon to be their closer. And it’s changed their bullpen and it’s added to the stabilization. Dallas Keuchel has been great. And the rotation is dangerous.

“They can go toe-to-toe with the Dodgers to some degree. And here’s the other thing, too. The Dodgers potentially have an Achilles’ heel in their bullpen. Kenley Jansen’s been up and down.

“So, I think anybody who’s rational about it would say that the Dodgers are probably going to be the favorites. In terms of their depth, they may be the best team in baseball.

“But in a short series, the Braves could be dangerous to them – in part because they’ve got such talented guys like (Ronald) Acuna, like Freddie Freeman, like Max Fried, like (Chad) Sobotka.”

Watching from a distance

Corbin says he follows his former players’ pro careers “very closely,” watching on television instead of attending actual games.

“I think the way that I do it with them is I just pick up where I left off. … I don’t want them to feel like they have to communicate with me, and I know they don’t expect that from me,” Corbin explains.

“I’ve got the major league baseball package so I can certainly watch them and keep up with them. I don’t need to go to a game nor do I really want to sit in the seats because … I don’t see myself as a fan. If I want to watch a game, I’d rather be on the sidelines or on the field. But, yeah, I follow them very closely and watch what they do and watch how they do it.”

Corbin then quickly pores over the seasons his players had, the same way he might peruse a scouting chart, sprinkling in personal observations along the way.

Atlanta’s Dansby Swanson celebrates after scoring during the ninth inning in Game 3 of the National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.

-- Photo By Charlie Riedel|Ap

“Dansby, obviously, has been that kid that’s had a nice little career. And he just started it in a lot of different ways. Walker same type of thing. Kyle same … you know, he’s on the cutting edge of becoming … a regular in a pitching staff. So he’s been learning that. But he hasn’t been doing that that long,” Corbin says.

He mentions a few others, then focuses on pitcher David Price (2005-07), who signed a seven-year, $217 million contract with the Red Sox in December 2015, the richest deal for a pitcher. Price was key to the Red Sox’ 2018 World Series championship but struggled with injuries in 2019. He started 22 games and finished with a 7-5 record and a 4.28 ERA with 128 strikeouts. He had surgery in late September to remove a cyst from his left wrist and is expected to be ready for the 2020 season.

Corbin tells the story of how Price, who was with the Detroit Tigers at the time, made it to the 2015 Super Regional opener at Illinois to cheer for the Commodores and Swanson. Price and Swanson are the only Vandy players selected as the No. 1 overall pick in the MLB Draft. Price was there for Swanson’s pick by the Arizona Diamondbacks.

“It’s been fascinating watching David have the career that he had and watch him get a World Series ring, knowing that the most important thing for him was to go to Omaha and win a national championship and him never getting the opportunity to do it, watching him do that at the major league level,” Corbin recalls.

“And then watch him share something like Dansby’s opportunity of being drafted first in the draft when he had an off day and came to the University of Illinois to watch us play, and then when Dansby got drafted, watch him run around the field with a Vanderbilt flag celebrating Dansby. I thought it was one of the most unique things I had seen. He didn’t have to do that. That’s not grown, man, but that’s an older person that took timeout of his schedule to come.”

Corbin has stories about every player – again, enough to fill a book. But perhaps the biggest feel-good moment in a season full of MLB highlights for former Vandy players came at Boston’s Fenway Park when the Red Sox hosted the San Francisco Giants.

San Francisco’s Mike Yastrzemski watches the flight of his 20th home run, which came against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park in September. Yastrzemski, the grandson of Red Sox legend and Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski, received a standing ovation from the Boston fans.

-- Photo By Charles Krupa|Ap

Mike Yastrzemski (2010-13), one of three Vandy players on the Giants roster, was making his first trip to the place where his venerated grandfather, legendary Carl Yastrzemski, spent his Hall of Fame career.

On Sept. 17, in his first game at Fenway Park, Mike payed left field – his grandfather’s position – in front of the famous Green Monster and hit a towering home run in a 7-6 win over the Red Sox. He received a standing ovation from the crowd.

The next night, Carl threw out the first pitch and Mike caught for his grandfather, then they shared a touching hug as the Fenway faithful roared again. It was a “Field of Dreams’’ moment.

“Yeah, it was great,” Corbin recalls, recounting how the younger Yastrzemski never complained about not advancing to the majors with the Baltimore Orioles then made the most of the opportunity afforded him by the Giants when he was traded in March and promoted to the big leagues in May.

“He has that Yastrzemski fiber. And he had that Yastrzemski fiber (at Vanderbilt), too, because when I brought him in, I remember after his fall (camp), I said ‘he’s just going to have to be very, very patient, it might take him two years before he plays.’

“Well, he played his freshman year, so it was like, ‘OK, I hear you, coach, but I’m gonna … not prove you wrong, but I’m gonna prove that whatever you’re thinking right now, that’s going to be different than what you see.’

“It’s not like a ‘screw you’ moment, (but) it’s like ‘I’m going to prove to you, though, that your thinking is not what it will be.’”

Listen. Learn. Grow. Act. That’s how it’s done at Vanderbilt.

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