Updated: Dec 28, 2019
We're taking a look back and a look ahead at college baseball teams from around the country. Next up are the Vanderbilt Commodores!
You’d be hard-pressed to find a better season in college baseball than national champion Vanderbilt’s 2019 season. Not only did they win the national championship, but they also won the SEC Regular Season and the SEC Tournament title.
A Look Back at 2019
Statistically, the Vanderbilt offense was crucial to their 2019 success. The Commodores finished 2nd in the SEC and 8th in the country in batting average, 1st in wOBA*, 1st/7th in on-base percentage, and 1st/5th in slugging percentage. Vanderbilt, 59-12 (23-7 SEC), slugged their way to Omaha hitting 1.41 home runs per game, which was good for 10th in the country and 1st in the SEC. The key to their offense was fourth overall pick, JJ Bleday (Marlins).
Not to be outdone by the offense, the pitching and defense also had a fantastic year. Led by Junior righty Drake Fellows, the Commodore starters were feared all year long. Freshman right-hander, Kumar Rocker had a dominant year and likely sky-rocketed up draft boards after being drafted in the 38th round in the 2018 MLB Draft by the Rockies out of high school. He decided to go to Vanderbilt and Commodores fans are glad he did. The 2019 CWS Most Outstanding Player became the first pitcher ever to throw a no-hitter during the Super Regional round of the NCAA Baseball Tournament, striking out 19 Duke batters. The defense also played lights-out all season, finishing 1st in the SEC and 10th in the country in fielding percentage.
Vanderbilt cruised through their Regional outscoring their opponents 28-8 in three games. They were met with a rude awakening in the form of the Duke Blue Devils, who won the first game 18-5. As already mentioned, Rocker’s no-hitter in game two saved the Commodores' bullpen, which helped propel them to Omaha. Their pitching was the saving grace in Omaha before the finals, where they held their three opponents to six total runs. Michigan surprised Vanderbilt by getting to Drake Fellows early in game one, but the vaunted Commodore offense kept up the pressure on Michigan pitching to bring home the title.
With 13 players taken in the MLB Draft, Vanderbilt tied the SEC record and set the program record for number of players selected. Headlined by the 4th overall pick, JJ Bleday, four other players were taken in the first ten rounds, including, Drake Fellows (6th round), Philip Clarke (9th round), Ethan Paul (9th round), and Stephen Scott (10th round).
A Look Ahead at 2020
With the departure of all that talent, one would think that Vanderbilt should expect a regression. While some regression from the excellent season they had may be expected, Vanderbilt will reload with more talent. The Commodores finished with the number one recruiting class in 2019. One of their recruits, Jack Leiter, son of Al Leiter, was taken in the 20th round of the MLB Draft this summer but decided to sign with Vanderbilt anyway. (See the top ten classes here)
Vanderbilt will have a tough path to win back-to-back championships. The Commodores open their season in the MLB4 Tournament, where their opponents will be national runner-up Michigan, Cal Poly, and a tough AAC team in UConn. The Southern California College Classic in Los Angeles will play host to USC, UCLA, TCU, and Vanderbilt in early March. (Check out a full list of 2020 College Baseball Tournaments here)
Those tournaments are sandwiched around hosting perennial Horizon League champion Illinois-Chicago and Hawaii in Nashville. Louisville also comes to town for some midweek action late in the season.
The SEC slate is always tough, but Vanderbilt will have two season-defining streaks of series in conference. The first one starts in the second weekend of conference play on the road against Tennessee, hosting Georgia, and in Alex Box against LSU. The last three weeks of the season are in Columbia against Missouri, at Florida, and hosting Mississippi State. They’ll have their work cut out for them if they hope to repeat as SEC Champions.
Kyle's 2020 Prediction: Vanderbilt will make it back to Omaha.
Vanderbilt returns two starting pitchers from last season: right-handers Mason Hickman and Kumar Rocker. They will also return players who accounted for about 73% of the non-starter innings pitched. Quite a bit of their offense left last season, most notably JJ Bleday who single-handedly accounted for 27% of the home runs from 2019. I think they’ll be able to reload with their star-studded recruiting class and great coaching staff, ending their season in Omaha once again.
John’s (@johnny_omaha_) 2020 Prediction: Vanderbilt will make it to Omaha and is the preseason favorite for the National Championship.
Even with the loss of some offensive weapons, the Commodores should be stabilized by their dominant arms. Georgia and Florida will pose a challenge in the SEC East, but the Commodores will be the favorites heading into 2020. All signs point to the Commodores entering 2020 as the number one team in the country and the favorite to win the National Championship.
*wOBA is weighted On Base Average. The College Baseball Nation staff has worked this offseason to create a player wOBA database for the 2019 season. The data is based on the 2019 Fangraphs factors for singles, doubles, triples, home runs, unintentional walks, and hits by pitch. Their formula and method can be found here.
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