Carter's Craft

by Chad Bishop

Vandy's sophomore lefty on a constant course to compete to be the best

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — As the legend goes, it was a frozen steak Carter Holton put on his swollen eye after taking a baseball to the face. Truth be told, his parents said, it was a bag of frozen butter beans.

That detail, however, isn’t the most important aspect of this anecdote.

“Before he finished crying and he was still wiping tears from his face, we were playing catch again,” said Carl Holton, Carter’s father.

It was then, Carl added, that he and Carter’s mother, Dawn, knew that Carter was different. He was born with a competitive spirit only heightened by having an older brother—forming Carter’s youth into a perpetual struggle to be better. To be the best.

Carter Holton’s dedication to compete still hasn’t wavered. It’s what made him one of the top pitching prospects in Georgia in 2021, and it’s what has him becoming one of the best college pitchers in the nation two years later.

It has also solidified his confidence in the life-altering decision he made to be a Commodore and not just another run-of-the-mill minor league pitcher.

“The main thing is I’m a competitor, and I want to compete,” he said. “College baseball is a lot more competitive than minor league baseball. That’s what it really comes down to.”

 

A Well-Rounded Holton

Holton began to come into his own during the end of the 2022 season, his first at Vanderbilt.

The 5-foot-11, 220-pound Holton allowed 26 runs his first 10 starts—then put together a string of four straight appearances without giving up a single run at all. He averaged 3.3 hits allowed over that stretch and struck out 23 batters in 24 innings ahead of Vandy’s NCAA Regional trip to Corvallis, Oregon.

His 3.15 ERA, 8-3 record and .189 batting average earned him Freshman All-America honors from five media outlets.

All the attention at the college level didn’t change Holton. He kept gravitating toward humility—even hosting a youth baseball camp in his community in August.

“I talked to my high school coach, and I was very down to do it,” Holton said about the event at Benedictine Military School in Savannah, Georgia. “We ended up doing it and had like 80 kids there. It was a good experience.

“The main part is meeting them and talking to them. I think they were anywhere from 5-13 years old. They have different aspects of the game at that age, but it was definitely good getting to see them, getting to meet them.”

On any given day on campus, Holton falls right in line with his student body peers—whether it’s in his German Fairy Tales class talking about Walt Disney and the Brothers Grimm, or in his Meaning of Life course reading ancient texts and discussing, well, the meaning of life.

Holton say classes like those type of classes, combined with his experience in head coach Tim Corbin’s program, have helped him come a long way since his first visit to campus in April 2018. (He watched the Commodores sweep a doubleheader from Ole Miss at Hawkins Field.)

“I’ve grown up,” Holton said. “Just continuing to grow closer into real-world life.”

 

Life-Changing Decision

Holton’s decision to come to Vanderbilt was big news at the time. But it’s a decision Holton was certain about then and has no regrets about now.

In July 2021, during the MLB Draft, Holton waited and watched and discussed and deliberated as the scope of his baseball future came into focus. One of the top high school prospects in the nation, Holton was at home in Guyton, Georgia, fielding calls and entertaining from myriad MLB organizations who offered to select him as early as the second day of the annual event.

But Holton didn’t hear any monetary numbers he liked: He valued himself more than the big-league clubs were willing to offer.

Eventually Holton, who went 31-4 with a state record ERA of 0.59 and 463 strikeouts in high school, was picked by Milwaukee in the 19th round. He knew he was better than a 19th-round pick. He knew he wanted to compete for championships at Vanderbilt rather than play to empty ballparks at the low-A level in minor league baseball.

So he packed his bags and headed for Nashville.

“One hundred percent,” Holton said when asked if he still feels like he made the right choice. “It’s hard to tell from being a high schooler how college really works until you’re in it. But I’m 100 percent glad that I made the decision I did.

“My parents were like, ‘It’s your decision.’ I got myself there, so it was my decision. I texted people that had gone through the same thing and got some advice, but it mostly came down to being my decision.”

Carl added: “He’s very mature. Of course he would have loved to go on and play major league ball, but one of things that happened in the draft is that when they were trying to get him, they were trying to lowball him on the numbers. And then they tried in the 19th round. He just said, ‘I know my worth. I’m not a 19th-rounder.’

“I think in the back of his mind the whole time … it has always been about his academics as well. He knew Vanderbilt was top of the line education. All his favorite ball players graduated from there. We weren’t surprised at all when he made the decision to come to Vandy.”

Holton was thrown right into the proverbial fire as a freshman in 2022. In his debut Feb. 20 of that season against Oklahoma State, he gave up four earned runs in four innings in a 7-5 loss.

Back-to-back starts that March offered a better glimpse of what Holton was to become: He fanned a combined 23 hitters, allowed a combined four hits and threw 13 shutout innings in wins over Wagner and Missouri.

Then there was a bit of a reality check. Starts against South Carolina, Tennessee, Auburn, Florida and Kentucky saw the southpaw touched up for a total of 19 earned runs as his ERA ballooned to 4.65. But he hasn’t allowed more than two earned runs in a game since.

“It was really just a learning experience,” Holton said in February about that stretch. “Just sat down with (Vanderbilt pitching coach Scott Brown) and just figuring out what is wrong: What is it? [And then] being able to fix that within the couple weekends that it took.”

 

Always Compete

Holton’s brother, CJ Holton, was born 23 months before Carter. That meant much of Carter’s life was spent trying to be better than his older sibling.

“Everything that we did growing up—it was a competition,” Carter said. “He was always a little bit bigger, a little bit stronger, so I was always just doing everything I could to beat him, no matter what we were doing.”

As the Holton brothers grew older, the younger became the star pitcher, throwing to his older brother the catcher while guided by dad the coach. Oftentimes the younger would move up an age group so he could play alongside his brother.

At home, Holton trained with his father in the front yard, an area they affectionately referred to as the academy. Carter said he wouldn’t be where he is today if his father hadn’t spent three hours a night, after a full workday, hitting and throwing with his sons at “the academy.”

“We’d come up with our own little drills, and a lot of people would think they were stupid,” Carl said. “But, hey, look at him now. We did a whole lot in that yard.”

Holton goes into this weekend’s series against visiting Georgia (15-9, 1-5 SEC)—and his former high school teammate Justin Thomas—with a 3-0 record, 2.58 ERA and 35 strikeouts in 31 1/3 innings pitched. His arsenal includes a two-seam fastball, a four-seam fastball, curveball, slider and changeup. While his favorite pitch is whatever is working on any particular day, “a well-executed fastball is still tough to beat,” he said.

The sophomore will make his seventh start of the season Friday for a Vanderbilt team (20-5, 6-0 SEC) that has won eight in a row. And when Holton holds the ball in his left hand at the center of the diamond at Hawkins Field, he’ll only have one thing on his mind.

“It just comes back to competing,” he said. “There are going to be days where I don’t have my stuff. But if I’m able to maneuver through the game, then I guess fans can always say I’m just out there competing.”

— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
Follow him @MrChadBishop.

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