College World Series preview: Vanderbilt

 Chris Lee   in Baseball

The Commodores got an NC State forfeit to get here, but are 8-1 in the tournament without that.

Kumar Rocker photo courtesy of Vanderbilt athletics.

The story and statistics have been updated to reflect Vanderbilt's CWS-opening win over Arizona.

Vanderbilt Commodores (48-16)

RPI: 2 (No. 9 strength of schedule)

League finish: second (SEC East)

Coach: Tim Corbin (801-375 -1 at Vanderbilt, 19th season)

CWS appearance: 5th

National titles: 2014, 2019

Vanderbilt battled inexperience (none of its lineup regulars played a prominent role on the 2019 national title team), injuries (the Commodores lost prominent arms Michael Doolin and Sam Hliboki for the season, and a number of hitters missed significant time) and a brutal schedule in its regular season, missing out on an opportunity to win the SEC East due to a Game Three rainout in its Alabama series.

But once Vanderbilt got to the NCAA tournament, the No. 4 national seed does what it always does in this event: win. The Commodores are 8-1 in the tournament heading into Omaha, having swept East Carolina in the Nashville Super Regional by a 6-1 combined score to get here. 

Vandy, playing out of the loser's bracket, then caught two massive breaks when Covid-19 issues reduced NC State's lineup to 13 players. Vanderbilt beat a short-handed Wolfpack team, 3-1, then Saturday's scheduled game was scheduled a no-contest early Saturday morning for the same issues. 

The lineup: (Estimated runs created per 27 outs made, according to a Bill James formula. Vanderbilt will face Mississippi State lefty Christian MacLeod on Monday.)

1. Enrique Bradfield Jr. L, CF (9.5) vs. LHP: .338/.434/.369, vs RHP: .349/.471/.438

2. Carter Young, B, SS (6.8) vs. LHP: .262/.318/.525, vs. RHP: .253/.357/.596

3. Dominic Keegan, R, 1B (10.8) vs. LHP: .400/.500/.820, vs. RHP: .347/.415/.618

4. Troy LaNeve, L, DH (6.9) vs. LHP: .167/.211/.222, vs. RHP: 323/.362/.692

5. Isaiah Thomas, R, RF (8.3) vs. LHP: .286/.355/.554, vs. RHP: .325/.378/.618

6. Parker Noland, L, 2B (5.2) vs. LHP: .211/.338/.281, vs. RHP: 291/.348/.469

7. C.J. Rodriguez, R, C (5.9) vs. LHP: .222/.340/.444, vs. RHP: 260/.416/.344

8. Javier Vaz, L, LF (8.4) vs. LHP: .143/.400/.143, vs. RHP: 320/.469/.400

9. Jayson Gonzalez, R, 3B (7.0) vs. LHP: .178/.339/.400, vs. RHP: 319/.409/.525

Res: Jack Bulger, R, LF/DH (5.4) vs. LHP: .265/.345/.388, vs. RHP: 280/.382/.430

Res: Tate Kolwyck, R, 2B/SS (6.5) vs. LHP: .345/.441/.655, vs. RHP: 274/.342/.472

Res: Spencer Jones, L, DH (4.7) vs. LHP: 333/.385/.583, vs. RHP: 278/.341/.418

This isn't Vandy's star-studded 2019 lineup, but it's a good one from top to bottom that can beat opponents in many ways.

Bradfield, the SEC Freshman of the Year (and maybe the fastest player in the country) makes this team go with a .474 on-base mark, combined with 46 steals in 52 tries. He's one of four Commodores with on-base averages above .400, the others being Keegan (.438), Gonzalez (.408) and Rodriguez (.401). 

Vandy also has three double-digit home run hitters in Young (16), Keegan (14) and Thomas (13). Keegan and Thomas have hit well in the postseason and are both capable of carrying a team for a couple of games. The switch-hitting Young's shoulder came out if its socket on a stolen base attempt on May 18 and Young missed the next two weeks; he hadn't homered from that date until he hit one against Arizona on June 19. 

LaNeve was a late-season surprise who got playing time due to the 'Dores injury issues.He seized the opportunity and has bashed six homers and slugged .662. He was recently moved out of left to DH in favor of Vaz, who has made just 29 plate appearances prior to the tournament but is now the Commodores' primary left fielder due to his speed.

Vandy also has an elite contact bat in Rodriguez, who fanned just 17 times in 167 at-bats. He and Noland, who's played second, third and first, can take the ball to all fields.

Bulger, Kolwyck and Jones all had their moments as hitters. Bulger should see some time against lefties, while Kolwyck--Vandy's second baseman who's been sidelined twice with hand injures--missed the super regional and might return for Omaha.

Vanderbilt is elite defensively and especially so up the middle. Young is a slick-fielding shortstop with an accurate arm, while Rodriguez frames and blocks well and controls the running game. Bradfield doesn't have a great arm but he'll get to balls no one else will while Thomas is a good defender with a strong arm in right. The Commodores have struggled on the corners at times but played better at season's end. 

Pitching

SP1: Kumar Rocker (R) 117.2 IP, 14-3, 2.52 ERA, 0.96 runners/inning, 9% free passes, 37% K  (threw 100 pitches on 6-19, 111/6-25)

SP2: Jack Leiter (R) 104 IP, 11-4, 2.08 ERA, 0.93 BRIP, 13% FP, 42% K  (123/6-21, 107/6-28)

SP3: Patrick Reilly (R) 42.1 IP, 4-2, 4.89 ERA 1.35 BRIP, 15% FP, 28% K

SP4: Christian Little (R) 40.2 IP, 3-1, 4.87 ERA, 1.47 BRIP, 12% FP, 26% K (70/6-23)

CL: Luke Murphy (R) 39.2 IP, 4-1, 9 sv, 2.50 ERA, 1.15 BRIP, 14% FP, 37% K  (47/6-19, 17/6-23, 54/6-25)

RP1: Nick Maldonado (R) 47.2 IP, 1-2, 9 sv, 2.45 ERA, 0.87 BRIP, 6% FP, 30% K  (48//6-19, 51/6-23, 46/6-28)

RP2: Chris McElwain (R) 43.2 IP, 5-1, 2 sv, 3.77 ERA, 1.35 BRIP, 13% FP, 29% K  (13/6-19, 30/6-23, 18/6-25)

RP3: Hugh Fisher (L) 11 IP, 0-0, 2.45 ERA, 1.64 BRIP, 27% FP, 27% K (6/6-23, 4/6-25)

RP4: Thomas Schultz (R), 43 IP, 4-2, 4.19 ERA, 1.33 BRIP, 14% FP, 22% K

RP5: Nelson Berkwich (L) 11.2 IP, 1-0, 2.31 ERA, 1.25 BRIP, 8% FP, 28% K

Rocker and Leiter are probably the nation's best 1-2 starting pitching duo, and each will likely go in the top five of next month's MLB Draft. Teams managed just 100 hits in 202 combined innings against the pair.

Rocker, the 2019 College World Series MVP, had thrown 14 2/3 scoreless innings coming into this NCAA tournament with 20 strikeouts and can dominate with a mid-90s fastball, slider, cutter and occasional change-up and curve.

Leiter missed a scheduled start in early-May to rest after giving up eight home runs in a three-game stretch, but in the 31 2/3 innings since, he's given up eight runs (all earned) and struck out 50. Leiter can hit 98-99 with his fastball and sits mid-90s, but will throw off-speed pitches often, including two breaking balls.

Maldonado and Murphy are co-closers, with Murphy getting the nod of late. Maldonado's specialty is an 87-mile-an-hour cutter, while Murphy's fastball has repeatedly hit 97-98 this season.

McElvain is the team's long-relief specialist; the right-hander isn't overpowering but he's got good command of his pitches and has been consistent.

Little, another potential top-five MLB pick two years from now, hasn't pitched since a dominant 5 1/3-inning, seven-strikeout start vs. Ole Miss in the SEC tournament. Either he or Reilly, another freshman with an elite fastball, could be the third starter. 

Fisher has great stuff but it's erratic; he would likely be used against lefties. Schultz was the team's third starter early but has been used sparingly over the last month. Ethan Smith, who pitched late in the year and likely would have been the team's third starter had he not had a positive Covid-19 test, isn't on the roster for the tournament due to health concerns.