Tony Kemp was an SEC Player of the Year

April 7, 2017

Tony Kemp (2011-13) was one of dozens of former Vanderbilt baseball players to be drafted by major league clubs. The Franklin, Tenn. native had been drafted by the Houston Astros and was in Nashville when he was first learned about being called up to the parent club. Kemp was a member of Fresno the Triple-A affiliate of the Astros.

“We were playing the Nashville Sounds [Triple-A affiliate of Oakland],” said Kemp while he was working out at Vanderbilt before spring training. “I was excited to get back to Nashville with my hometown fans, my mom, dad, brother, sister and former teachers. I needed 45 people on my pass list.”

“After a game I was talking to some of my teachers. My roommate Nolan Fontana came up to me and said, ‘Hey, I don’t want to be that guy to break this up but we are having a team meeting.’ I understood that since we were not playing very well in a five game losing streak. I went back to the locker room and our manager [Tony DeFrancesco] asked, ‘Did you talk to everybody you needed to?’ I said ‘not really, but I’ll go back out there.”

“He said, ‘its going to be a tough time getting all those people on the pass list for tomorrow.’ I said, ‘is there a problem?’ He said unless you can get tickets in Chicago to play the White Sox. He told me it was my turn to go into the big leagues. I just sat there without any expression. I felt everyone looking at me and then they came up congratulating me. I still get chills telling that story.”

Kemp attended Centennial High School and had one offer to play college baseball at East Carolina when he committed as a junior, but hoping for an offer from nearby Vanderbilt. Eventually Commodores’ coach Tim Corbin offered the speedster a scholarship that he accepted.

Batting lead-off, Kemp had a tremendous freshman year where the team was 54-12 (SEC, 22-8), SEC Co-Champions and earning a trip to the College World Series. Kemp was named SEC Freshman of the Year, Freshman All-American and first team All-SEC. He batted .329 with 17-of-21 stolen bases.

“That 2011 season will always go down as one of the best seasons Vanderbilt ever had,” said Kemp. “You can’t say enough about that team and the leadership. Starting with Sonny Gray, Curt Casali, Aaron Westlake and Jason Esposito. All those guys played a huge role in leading us to the College World Series.”

“Tying with Florida and South Carolina in the SEC was something special since we played each other. It was a dogfight on the field. We had a good team and came up short for the national championship, but made a lot of strides moving forward. I call it a building block with that 2011 team going on to the championship team that won it in 2014.”  

Vanderbilt won three straight NCAA Regional games at “The Hawk” over Belmont (10-0), Troy (10-2) and Belmont (6-1). The Commodores would face Oregon on the Vanderbilt campus in the Super Regional. The Ducks were swept in two games (11-1) and (9-3) to give the Commodores their first trip to Omaha.

“At that time being 19 years old and playing in the College World Series was definitely surreal,” said Kemp. “Going into the season I didn’t know how much playing time I was going to get. Luckily, I was able to squeeze in some playing time and eventually play everyday. Getting into the World Series you don’t want to get wide-eyed just need to stay in the moment.”

“That’s the way Coach Corbin preaches the whole time that we were out there in Omaha. It was a great experience. Reporters would ask me what I was going to do with the first pitch in TD Ameritrade Park {ballpark’s first year]. I had no idea. That wasn’t even a thought for me.”

“I don’t normally swing at the first pitch, but I swung at the first pitch and fouled it off. The leftfielder gave it to some fans. Now those fans have tickets for life because it was the first foul ball ever in TD Ameritrade Park. I led-off with a bunt single and we scored the first run that first inning. At least we got two wins over North Carolina.”

Vanderbilt defeated North Carolina (7-3) in their first College World Series game then lost to Florida (3-1). Another victory over North Carolina (5-1), but the Commodores were eliminated from the tournament by Florida (6-4). Kemp was selected to the All-Tournament team.

In Kemp’s sophomore season, he was moved to second base from the outfield.

“It was tough,” Kemp said about the position switch. “In my sophomore year I put too much pressure on my shoulders because we had a lot of guys leaving. I felt that I needed to step up and be a leader, which I really didn’t need to be.”

“I just needed to be myself. I was trying to be someone that I wasn’t. I think that led to some struggles. Even when you change positions defensively, you try not to think about it offensively, and I think that’s what happened. That transition went more smoothly when I went to the Cape Cod League in the summer. I had some success there so the move worked out and I didn’t think about it anymore.”

Vanderbilt slipped to 35-28 (SEC, 16-14) in Kemp’s sophomore season. Kemp batted .261 on the year while starting all 63 games. He drove in 31 runs with one home run and a team-leading 21 stolen bases. The Commodores did make it to a regional in Raleigh, NC defeating UNC-Wilmington (8-2), NC State (9-8) then being eliminated with two losses to NC State 6-5 and 9-7.

“That season was definitely tough,” said Kemp. “We had been battling the whole year. We had a lot of guys that were injured and lost some key players from the year before. We weren’t used to losing. The ball just didn’t fall our way most of the time. I think the highlight of that season was getting to that final game at N.C. State. We just couldn’t pull it out in the end. It was a rebuilding year.”

In Kemp’s junior season, Vanderbilt went 54-12 (SEC, 26-3). The amazing 26 SEC victories were a conference record. For the year, Kemp batted a team-leading .391 while starting all 66 games. He drove in 33 runs, stole 34 bases with six triples.

The Commodores hosted another regional defeating ETSU and Illinois before losing to Georgia Tech. Vanderbilt beat Georgia Tech again to advance to a Super Regional where they hosted against Louisville. The Cardinals tough pitching ended the Commodores remarkable season winning the first two games, 5-3 and 2-1.

“That was by far my favorite season,” said Kemp. “Those 2011 and 2013 teams are compared a lot. I have to say the 2013 team might have an edge, but the 2011 team’s pitching might have been better. There was something about the camaraderie we had on that 2013 team that couldn’t be beat. I don’t know if that 26-3 record will ever be broken.”

“It was good seeing some of my friends going in the draft like Kevin Ziomek in the second round, Conrad Gregor going in the fourth round and Spencer Navin. I came in with those guys in my freshman year. They fulfilled a dream of going on to play professionally that was pretty cool. We hadn’t lost back-to-back games all year. Obliviously that’s how baseball works as we lost back-to-back games to Louisville. They were getting hits through the four hole and were hitting it where we weren’t.”

Kemp was named first team All-SEC, SEC Player of the Year, and first team All-American.

“We had such a good team,” Kemp said. “I credit those accomplishments to Larry Day [assistant coach] and Travis Jewett the hitting coach. We really worked on my approach looking for good pitches to hit, and making sure the counts were an advantage to me and not the pitcher.”

“A lot of times in that year I was getting a lot of 1-0, 2-0 and 2-1 counts that favored me. I think that’s what led to my success moving forward. That year I was mentally stronger. Coming off my sophomore year I knew what not to do. Being able to go to the Cape Cod League and having success gave me confidence. I knew I could hit some of the best college pitching out there.”

Kemp joined several of his teammates in the MLB draft being selected in the fifth round by Houston. He said that the Indians, Cardinals, Rockies and Giants had expressed interest in him before the draft. The Astros also selected teammate Conrad Gregor in the fourth round.

Kemp began his professional career in the New York-Penn League (Single-A) with Tri-City. He finished 2013 with Quad Cities in the Midwest League (Single-A). Kemp’s combined stats that year included a .273 batting average, two home runs, 22 RBI’s and 21 stolen bases in 75 games. Kemp felt good about his future.

“I really credit those guys that get drafted out of high school and play in the professional ranks,” said Kemp. “I can’t imagine myself being 19 and going on long bus rides and eating peanut and jelly sandwiches all the time. They weren’t staying in the nicest hotels that are tough on a kid.”

“Coming out of college I felt that I was more mature. In Single-A and Double-A ball you realize what type of player you are. The game can be very selfish at some point. I felt like I had always been a team player. My batting and defense has been pretty good. I never really worried about myself too much. If the guy is on second base, I want to move him over. I don’t want to just try and get a hit. I feel like what rolled over from Vanderbilt rolled over into the professional ranks and that’s given me some success.”

Kemp moved to the outfield when he began playing in Double-A. He said with Houston’s Jose Altuve playing a solid second base, Kemp could add more depth to the outfield. Kemp welcomed the change.

Is it tougher for the swift Kemp to steal bases in professional baseball?

“Yes, it is one of those things where you don’t want to mess up the batter,” Kemp said. “I don’t want to get a bad jump, shut it down and mess up the batter. Especially being on second base with one or two outs, and having the three of four hitter coming up. You want to let him do his job. Sometimes stealing bases can take a back burner. That’s one of those things I’m still working on.”

Kemp played the next two seasons in the California League (Lancaster, Single-A), the Texas League (Corpus Christi, Double-A) and the Pacific Coast League (Fresno, Triple-A). In Fresno, Kemp batted .273 in 71 games with three home runs, 29 RBI’s and 20 stolen bases. This progression positioned Kemp closer to the major leagues.

“You can get into a lull as some players have with the attitude that they should be in the big leagues right now,” said Kemp. “That they shouldn’t be in Triple-A. You see a lot of those type attitudes that you don’t want to surround yourself with. I distanced myself from worrying about that day, and what my job was at that point.”

“I wanted to have fun playing baseball because sometimes you can lose that fun. You show up to the field everyday, but maybe not playing well at the time. You fall into a lull of not playing so well. You have to remain positive everyday, and still take your shots trying to make it to the big leagues.”

Kemp was asked about putting on a Houston Astros uniform for the first time preparing to take the field as a major league baseball player.

“That was definitely a thrilling experience,” Kemp said. “I remember walking in the locker room and being super anxious and super nervous. You don’t want to step on anybody’s toes. You are the rookie; the new guy and you don’t want to seem too happy because I want to be a professional.”

“It almost felt like being a fan for a day to come into the dugout and wear a player’s jersey. It was definitely cool to walk out on that field knowing you fulfilled a dream. Moving forward, I was thinking what I needed to do to stay there for a longer period of time. The coaches told me what to do and what not to do. The next day it sunk it that it was real.”

In his first day with Houston, Kemp was put into the game as a pinch runner for Tyler White. He scored a run on a two-base sacrifice fly. The next day, the left-handed batter started against White Sox rookie pitcher Mat Latos. Kemp remembers his first plate appearance.

“I studied film the night before and knew he had a four-seam fastball, a little cutter, a change-up and a good curve ball,” Kemp said. “I knew what he had. George Springer (Astros outfielder) laughed and said you only get one first pitch in your first major league at-bat. I laughed and he told me I might as well swing at it. Luckily it was a fastball away I was able to put a good swing on it and luckily Todd Frazier [White Sox first baseman] didn’t jump up and catch it. I got to lead-off with a double. It was pretty awesome.”

In 59 games with Houston, Kemp played all three outfield positions, DH and second base. Kemp’s primary role became a pinch hitter.

“I tell people that being in the big leagues you find out mentally who you are,” Kemp said. “I think I had about 30 at-bats pinch hitting. You are coming off the bench cold. I wasn’t used to that. I was used to playing everyday. That was something I had to adjust. When you pinch hit you get one at-bat, and you don’t always get a hit.”

“Some of those at-bats would pile up and all of a sudden you are 0-for 6 getting just one at-bat in each game. I thought now where do I go from here. Obviously, towards the end I got a lot better and settled in. I got more comfortable being in that role because I figured out my routine and what I needed to do. Once I got that routine down it was pretty much cake from there.”

Kemp vividly remembers his only major league home run against Los Angeles Angels rookie right-hander Daniel Wright.

“In the first inning I singled through the four hole on a fastball,” said Kemp. “I knew he liked to throw a change-up and I really didn’t want to get that pitch. I saw where batters were having fits with it. The next at-bat he threw me a fastball. I faked a bunt and I got an advantage in the count. I knew in the back of my mind he wasn’t going to throw me another fastball since I got a hit off it. I sat for an off-speed pitch. That’s the point where he threw the change-up. I made a good swing on it.”

“Luckily, it went over the fence. It was sentimental because my friend, who passed away last year, had his birthday the next day. When I hit the ball I was blinded by the lights. The whole time I was running around the bases I was thinking about him. That home run was for him. At the beginning of the season when I got my first hit I sent that ball to his family. It was bittersweet. I was happy and sad at the same time.”

Kemp remembers facing another former Vanderbilt pitcher—Sonny Gray.

“Mostly my role is against righties, but I got to start against Sonny Gray,” said Kemp. “I got a hit off him. He had a nice surprise for me in my locker after the game. He congratulated me since I was the first Vandy guy to get a hit off him. I don’t face many Vanderbilt players. We are on the west coast and most of the Vandy guys are on the east coast.”

In 2016 with Houston, Kemp appeared in 59 games batting .217 (26-for-120) with one home run, seven RBI’s and two stolen bases.

Kemp is extremely proud that he played college baseball at Vanderbilt with Coach Tim Corbin.

“I think anyone that has any offers or considering coming to Vanderbilt definitely should play baseball here,” Kemp said. “Coach Corbin has built the program from the very first day he arrived here especially with facility improvements. Looking at the stadium today I see a padded wall. I didn’t have that when I was here.”

“This program is going in the right direction. You can’t find many schools in the country with the same academics and athletics program. If anybody is able to come to Vanderbilt they should because they won’t regret it. I came back and got my degree in 2014. It was a promise I made to my dad to get my degree. With that in my back pocket I can focus on baseball.”

Traughber’s Tidbit: On March 19, 2017, Kemp was reassigned to the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies where he will start the 2017 Pacific Coast League season. The Nashville Sounds will play Fresno in just one series in 2017, which is scheduled for Fresno, CA on May 15-18.

Tidbit Two: Please be on the lookout for a new baseball book by Bill Traughber that should be ready for purchase near June 1st with the title “Nashville Baseball History: From Sulphur Dell to the Sounds.” The book covers the earliest baseball documentation (1857) in the city with stories on 19th century teams, the Southern Association Nashville Vols (1901-1962, 1963) and the Nashville Sounds (1978-present) through First Tennessee Park. There are many vintage unpublished photographs, 33 chapters with 86 illustrations.


If you have any comments or suggestions contact Bill Traughber via email