The body count was piling up fast. Two hit the ground first. Then three, four and five went down in quick succession. Onlookers soon lost count as the heap of squirming uniformed men just kept growing.
Fortunately, nobody got hurt—it was the Vanderbilt Commodores celebrating their best season in school history. They had just finished a sweep of the Oregon State Beavers to advance from the NCAA Super Regional Tournament to the College World Series. The crowd of 3,000-plus was wild. The players were ecstatic. They were headed where no ’Dore had gone before.
How did it come to this? Credit Head Baseball Coach Tim Corbin and his staff, who have meticulously prepared Vanderbilt’s baseball program to keep its eye on this prize year in and year out. During his nine years on Jess Neely Drive, Corbin has shaped the Commodores into one of college baseball’s elite teams.
After Corbin’s first Vanderbilt season in 2003, the Commodores had just one player drafted, pitcher Robert Ransom, BS’04, in the 23rd round. This year, in a testament to the upgrade in talent level on campus, 12 Vanderbilt players were selected in major league baseball’s amateur draft—a Southeastern Conference record. Led by junior All-American pitcher Sonny Gray, ’12, the 18th pick of the first round by the Oakland Athletics, Vanderbilt had nine players drafted in the first 10 rounds.
In nine seasons Corbin has watched as 91 players have been drafted, including eight in the first round. Talent has led the program to unprecedented success on the field, but talent alone is not what has brought the program where it is today. Vanderbilt’s ground-up effort of scouting potential players, recruiting them to campus, developing them while here, turning them into professionals—and doing so successfully—has separated Vanderbilt from other teams.
To recruit student-athletes, Vanderbilt coaches, like those at other top college baseball powers, rely on the advice of high school coaches, summer league coaches and professional baseball scouts. And during the summer, they host baseball camps on campus.
One strategy that sets the Commodores apart from many schools nationally, however, is that all three full-time coaches—Head Coach Tim Corbin and assistants Josh Holliday and Derek Johnson—go out on the road to recruit and see firsthand whether a player has the talent to play at the SEC level. Many schools leave that job to just one coach, but in college baseball only 11.7 scholarships are available to help fill out a 35-man roster. Selecting players who are as good—or will become as good—as everyone believes them to be can make or break the team.
On this past season’s team, Aaron Westlake, BA’11, went undrafted out of Shasta High School in Redding, Calif., in 2007. Under the tutelage of Holliday and Corbin, he has developed into one of the most feared hitters in the nation. Westlake propelled the Commodores into the College World Series with three home runs in the clinching game against the Beavers in the Super Regional for 41 career round-trippers. He was selected in the third round by Detroit in early June. Fellow classmate Curt Casali, BA’11—who also went undrafted out of high school—soon followed, selected by the Tigers in the 10th round.
Coaches can see a collection of quality players at showcase camps across the nation, something that has come to prominence during the past decade. “The biggest difference between now and when we first started here in 2003 is the number of large organizations like Perfect Game that put together major showcases in neutral areas of the country,” says Corbin. “It makes all kids from every part of the country available to all schools—there are no regional teams anymore. A kid from New Hampshire can now play for a summer team in California.”
Under the watch of Assistant Coach Derek Johnson, more than 30 pitchers have been drafted into professional baseball, led by first-rounders Sonny Gray, Mike Minor, David Price, Jeremy Sowers and Casey Weathers.
Corbin and his staff look for players (as well as their parents) who value education, have a solid work ethic, and are ready to become part of a team where no one person is bigger than the sum.
“We look for a player who has baseball intelligence matched with athletic abilities acquired from playing other sports, along with energy for the game and his teammates, and a player who also excels in practice,” says Corbin.
Vanderbilt’s reputation as an academic powerhouse with sustained success on the field gives the coaching staff access into the homes of most, if not all, of the country’s top players. The sales pitch is one that rarely can be matched: Recruits are looking at playing for the top academic institution in the best college baseball conference in the country. And Nashville, by far the largest home city in the conference, offers direct flights to cities across the country, making it easier for players’ families and friends to visit and watch them compete.
Throughout Corbin’s tenure Vanderbilt has been able to bring in top recruits from California, Arizona and Texas, as well as top players from the Northeast. And in the head-to-head battle with the University of Tennessee for the state’s best, Vanderbilt has become the destination for them.
Even after signing players to letters of intent, coaches can’t consider the process a done deal. Unlike football or college basketball, a baseball recruit can be selected in the amateur draft in June and play professionally right out of high school. At times a player may get a deal that he believes is too good to pass up and will sign professionally, but often the deals the professional clubs offer are not as good as they seem on paper.
Vanderbilt coaches keep in touch with the athletes and their parents throughout the process. They provide charts and figures that are broken down to show the most specific details of what a contract offer is worth in present terms, as well as the comparative odds of the player’s making it to the big leagues out of high school rather than after attending college.
For example, an extremely small percentage of right-handed pitchers under 6 feet tall have made it to the big leagues as a starting pitcher after getting drafted out of high school—a fact that Vanderbilt coaches made sure ace pitcher Sonny Gray knew during his recruitment. Gray was projected to be a high-round draft pick, but was selected by the Chicago Cubs in the 27th round of the 2008 draft. He opted to attend Vanderbilt and has helped the Commodore team reach its first College World Series appearance. He also had the extraordinary opportunity to pitch for the USA Baseball National team, which spent the past two summers in Japan.
Another case in point is junior third-baseman Jason Esposito, drafted in the seventh round by the Kansas City Royals. He was offered a significant amount of money to sign out of Amity Regional High School in Bethany, Conn., and seriously considered it. But Corbin convinced Esposito and his family that attending Vanderbilt was the better option.
“Coming to Vanderbilt has helped me immensely from a maturity standpoint,” says Esposito. “In addition to learning how to manage my time, I learned what it takes to be on a team and work together. I realized that winning, above all else, makes you play a lot better. I also learned from the coaches how much dedication it takes to play this game and how much you have to work at it.”
Once the June draft is complete, professional clubs have until the middle of August to sign players to contracts. If they do not, and the players go on to college, the clubs cannot draft them again until after their third year of school or until they turn 21, whichever is first. Vanderbilt has had success through the years in getting numerous high-profile players to come to the university and play for three years. Players such as Jeremy Sowers (BS’05), David Price (’09), Pedro Alvarez (’09) and Mike Minor (’10) were all selected as top-10 picks of the first round after their junior seasons.
The developmental process at Vanderbilt also plays a significant role in building players into well-rounded adults once they’ve left Nashville. Instead of spending his time traveling on buses, as a kid straight out of high school playing low-level professional baseball might, the student-athlete must learn to structure his time for class and practice and develop a stable routine in order to be successful.
“I’ve grown a lot as far as school work is concerned,” Esposito says. “I have a better grade point average than I did in high school. It is unbelievable to me how much you can see yourself grow in just three years. It was a tough process to get through, but once you do, you will never forget it. It has definitely been worthwhile.”
The class schedules at Vanderbilt are tough, and the athletes are guided by academic counselor Katie Feyes through the process of succeeding in class and on the field. Feyes makes sure student-athletes seek help for classes in which they’re having trouble and advises them about wise time management. More than 100 players have been SEC All-Academic selections (with 3.0 grade point averages or higher) during Corbin’s tenure. And many players who left early to play professional baseball returned during their off-seasons to complete course work and earn their Vanderbilt degrees.
Practice schedules are built on repetition and maximum effort in everything the players do once they step onto the field. There are no down periods, as each player has an assigned duty during the course of a practice. The coaches and players agree that time put into the fall practices helps the team succeed in the spring. Professional baseball personnel who visit Vanderbilt practices in the fall often comment that other schools would do well to follow Corbin and his staff’s lead in conducting effective practices.
This year 12 Vanderbilt players were selected in major league baseball’s amateur draft—a Southeastern Conference record.
Vanderbilt has become known as a hothouse for the nurture and growth of pitchers under the care of Assistant Coach Derek Johnson. Johnson, a two-time National Assistant Coach of the Year, is considered one of the top pitching coaches in the country, and his pitching staffs have led the conference consistently in a variety of statistical categories. Under his watch more than 30 pitchers have been drafted into professional baseball, led by first-rounders Sonny Gray, Mike Minor, David Price, Jeremy Sowers and Casey Weathers, BA’07.
Johnson—known to the team as “DJ”—stresses to his pitchers the concept of “me vs. you”: “The most important component of pitching is the confrontation—mental and physical—between the hitter and the pitcher,” says Johnson. “Throwing is an ability, and pitching is a skill. The pitcher works on things that will increase his abilities—weight room, long toss, stretching, running, arm care—as well as his skills—pitch plans, bullpens, pitch enhancement. Both areas are important, and no one area takes precedent. They are working on skills and abilities all the time.”
Junior pitcher Grayson Garvin, ’11, is a good example of a player who followed Johnson’s instructions and developed into one of the nation’s top pitchers this season. Garvin was named the Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Year and was a first-round pick of the Tampa Bay Rays earlier in June—a far different situation than being a 45th-round selection by the Houston Astros in the 2008 draft.
“DJ’s impact on my success is at a level I can’t even describe,” Garvin says. “He’s probably been the most influential baseball coach I’ve had. His knowledge of the game and his ability to devise a plan for each specific pitcher is just unbelievable. His track record speaks for itself. He’s been fantastic.”
Offensive development also is tangible for guys like Pedro Alvarez, who was National Freshman of the Year after hitting a school-record 22 homers in 2006. He tied the school record for home runs with 49 over three seasons and was the No. 2 overall selection by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 2008 draft.
Coach Corbin and his staff have built the Commodore baseball program into an elite powerhouse using a model that has proven successful not only in producing professional baseball players, but also well-rounded adults who have a Vanderbilt degree and are ready for life away from the diamond.
Thomas Samuel is the former sports information director for Vanderbilt baseball.