NASHVILLE, Tenn. — If the 2019 Vanderbilt baseball season was all about being on the offensive, the 2020 campaign may turn out to be one to remember for the pitchers.
Vanderbilt is expected to have one of the best pitching staffs in the Southeastern Conference, and perhaps all of Division I baseball, this season. The Vandy arms will represent a daunting task for opposing lineups.
“It’s awesome. Getting to compete against the best is why you come to Vanderbilt,” junior outfielder Cooper Davis said. “Getting to face guys like Kumar (Rocker) and Mason (Hickman), guys who are established guys – even these freshmen, these are some good arms.
“So it’s really good for us hitters to be able to face them and face them day-in and day-out. It’s only getting us better.”
Rocker, a sophomore, and Hickman, a junior, are expected to be in the weekend rotation. Rocker exploded on to the scene late in 2019 thanks to a no-hitter in an NCAA Super Regional win against Duke and finished his freshman season with a 12-5 record, 3.25 ERA and 114 strikeouts in 99 2/3 innings pitched.
Hickman led the Vandy staff with a 2.05 ERA and went 9-0. He held opponents to a .183 batting average and fanned 129 hitters in 96 2/3 innings.
Those two hurlers alone would be a godsend to any staff. Having them on the same team will boost the Commodores’ confidence week-in and week-out.
“They can share their experiences – and they’re very willing to do it,” Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin said. “I think the younger guys can learn a lot from them by watching them. They’re certainly kids that share information – they all do. No one is void of that. They do a nice job of passing information along.
“Kumar and (Hickman) in particular, they know how to work, they know how to invest in what they’re doing. They’re very timely in what they’re doing. That’s very helpful to a staff.”
After Rocker and Hickman, Vanderbilt will look toward junior Jake Eder, sophomore Ethan Smith and freshman Jack Leiter. Eder (2-0, 2.97) pitched in 19 games out of the bullpen in 2019, Smith (4-0, 3.27) appeared in 17 games – all in relief – and Leiter comes in as a highly-touted prospect.
Leiter’s father, Al Leiter, won 162 games in 19 Major League Baseball seasons.
“It’s definitely an adjustment from facing high school hitters to the great hitters on our team,” the younger Leiter said. “It’s been a lot of fun competing against them. I can’t wait to be competing with them against other teams.
“Honestly, it’s not really about that right now for me. It’s just getting better and whatever my role may be I’m excited for. I think it’s been more of a team mindset definitely so far. I’m just excited to play for the guys and hopefully get opportunities to compete out there.”
Leading Vanderbilt’s bullpen will be Tyler Brown. A junior, Brown set the program’s single-season record with 17 saves in 2019. The 6-foot-4, 242-pound right-hander is seven saves away from breaking Brian Miller’s career mark of 27 from 2012-14.
Brown will be joined by returners Hugh Fisher and Erik Kaiser along with newcomers Ryan Keenan, Nick Maldonado, Chris McElvain, Sam Hliboki, Michael Doolin, Thomas Schultz and Luke Murphy (who redshirted in 2019).
“We’ve treated a lot of (the pitchers) like starters so we’re building up some volume,” Corbin said. “They’re throwing strikes and I think that’s the most-important thing. And they’re challenging the hitters. So far that part has been positive.
“When you’re talking about the group, the group of freshmen pitchers, they’re just mature. They handle themselves well – and they pitch. They can pitch. They know how to get the ball across the plate. And they work relatively quick. They don’t keep the defense out there too long. They get the ball, get on the mound and pitch. They keep it simple.”
Vanderbilt continued its preseason training this weekend in its preparation for the season-opener against Michigan in Scottsdale, Arizona, at the MLB4 Collegiate Baseball Tournament.
Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com. Follow him @MrChadBishop.