The Alabama of College Baseball: How Vanderbilt Built an MLB Talent Factory

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The Alabama of College Baseball: How Vanderbilt Built an MLB Talent Factory
Associated Press
Dansby Swanson (front and center) was the crown jewel of an excellent Vanderbilt team in 2015.

On a sunny Monday afternoon in Champaign, Illinois, last June, the Vanderbilt Commodores collapsed into a dogpile after beating the Illinois Fighting Illini to punch their return ticket to the College World Series.

And that was the party just getting started.

Mere minutes after they had reveled with one another, the Commodores swarmed star shortstop Dansby Swanson when the Arizona Diamondbacks made him the No. 1 pick in the 2015 MLB draft. While they were loading up the team bus not long after that, they celebrated again when star right-hander Carson Fulmer went No. 8 to the Chicago White Sox. When they got back to their hotel, they rushed to the nearest TV so they could see star righty Walker Buehler go No. 24 to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

As the Commodores were riding the team bus back to Nashville, Tennessee, the following day, the players were constantly refreshing Twitter for the latest news. That's when, in the third round, left-hander Phil Pfeifer went to the Dodgers and outfielder Rhett Wiseman went to the Washington Nationals.

"I mean, it was just incredible," Wiseman said in a phone interview with Bleacher Report. "That stuff doesn't happen. It just doesn't."

Except, of course, for the fact it did. And if it was going to happen anywhere, it was going to happen at Vanderbilt.

The names above account for only five of the nine Commodores who were selected in last year's draft, bumping Vanderbilt's average since 2004 to six draftees per year. That includes 10 first-round picks, with Swanson, now in the Atlanta Braves organization, being the second No. 1 overall. The other is David Price, who finished second in the 2015 American League Cy Young Award vote, one spot ahead of fellow former Commodore Sonny Gray. Other recent Vanderbilt success stories are Pedro Alvarez and Mike Minor.

Looking ahead, there should be more where they came from.

MLB.com has three Commodores among its top 50 prospects for the 2016 draft. And according to Teddy Cahill of Baseball America, Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin and his top two lieutenants, hitting coach/recruiting coordinator Travis Jewett and pitching coach Scott Brown, just pulled in the top recruiting class in the country.

If you didn't know better, you might have the notion Vanderbilt is to Major League Baseball what Alabama is to the NFL. And even if you did know better, well, the thought sticks. 

Video courtesy of the Vanderbilt Commodores.

Were you to hop in a DeLorean and go back to a time when Vanderbilt baseball was an afterthought, you wouldn't have to go back very far.

Between 1979 and 2002, the Commodores won just one SEC title and made one NCAA tournament appearance, both in 1980. In those 24 years, just 42 Vanderbilt players were selected in the MLB draft. Only Joey Cora, a first-round pick in 1985, found any meaningful success.

Ahead of the 2003 season, along came Corbin. He arrived in Nashville after making a name for himself as an assistant at Clemson and promptly launched his campaign to conquer the college baseball world. The New Hampshire native began by targeting undervalued talent in the Northeast and expanded from there.

"He started going into places that other people wouldn't," White Sox scouting director Nick Hostetler said. "Now he's essentially turned Vanderbilt into a national brand, recruiting all the way from California to Maine. As a scout, we know we're going to spend a lot of time each year watching Vanderbilt play."

And Vanderbilt has played well. Since 2004, the Commodores have won three conference titles and made 11 NCAA tournament appearances, going as far as the College World Series three times in the last five years. They won it all in 2014 and were the runners-up last year.

To the victors have gone the spoils. Vanderbilt's baseball facilities have received numerous upgrades in the Corbin years, including new locker rooms, a new weight room and new seating that doubled the capacity of Hawkins Field. There's more on the way in the near future.

Just with the amenities already in place, though, Vanderbilt has more than enough to radiate an aura that can widen the eyes of any recruit.

"I remember sitting there and looking out at the field and just being in shock. It was the most beautiful field I'd ever seen," said Wiseman, a Massachusetts native, of his first visit to Vanderbilt. "It was a Friday night in Nashville, and everybody was out, and the atmosphere on campus was crazy. It was really my first time down South, and the whole thing kinda just took me."

But though Vanderbilt is more of a college baseball mecca now than it was when Corbin took over, Jewett insists the program doesn't just automatically recruit the best talent in the country. Nor is that necessarily the idea. Jewett and the Vanderbilt staff are interested in the usual array of physical tools—bat speed, arm speed, running speed, etc.—but they also care about building a team as much as a program.

"We're certainly looking for talented players," Jewett said. "But we're also looking for maybe not always the best players but what we feel are the right players. Players that we feel will fit into our culture and are more about the team than they are about themselves."

And as with any other college program, merely securing new recruits is just the start. Then begins the process of molding raw talent into real ability, and that's where the Vanderbilt machine doesn't cut a single corner.

Though he may have been lured to Vanderbilt by a warm glow, Wiseman recalled how he was thrown into the fire once he arrived in Nashville in the fall of 2012. Like other freshman commits, he was put to work with the program's battle-hardened troops that September.

"It's a tough fall," Wiseman said of the freshman experience. "These guys are really immature baseball-wise, and now they're playing every day in intrasquads with a Vanderbilt team full of 20- to 22-year-old players who have two, three, four years of experience in the SEC. Honestly, it's rough."

Let it not be said, however, that fresh recruits are just meat for the grinder. Provided they can make it through that tough beginning, they'll find the Vanderbilt program has its ways of bringing out the best in them.

Mark Cunningham/Getty Images
Price and Gray are representing Vanderbilt well in the majors.

In particular, you might have noticed Vanderbilt has a knack for getting the best out of its pitchers.

The Commodores' finishing in the top 10 among Division I schools with a 2.84 ERA last season was a ho-hum occurrence. Fulmer, Buehler and Tyler Beede gave the program three first-round pitchers in the last two drafts. Price and Gray are two of the 40 Vanderbilt pitchers drafted since 2004. 

When the Oakland A's drafted Gray with the No. 18 pick in 2011, it was the culmination of a longtime admiration that began when Gray was a high schooler in Smyrna, Tennessee. As Gray was going through Vanderbilt, though, A's assistant scouting director Michael Holmes watched him transform.

Nati Harnik/Associated Press
Gray as a junior in 2011.

"We saw him mature physically, emotionally, the whole works," Holmes said. "He was a high school kid who was a super athlete with a terrific arm. But then as he went into Vanderbilt, we saw him start to develop more of a pitch mix and more confidence in using his changeup in certain fastball counts. These are all things that he was able to develop at Vanderbilt, so it was a benefit for him."

Granted, the idea of a high school pitcher becoming more advanced in college is less than mind-blowing. How Vanderbilt gets the job done, however, is what sets it apart. 

When Tim O'Neill, an area scout for the Minnesota Twins, looks at Vanderbilt, he sees a program fond of quickness. Commodores pitchers show not just good tempos but also good arm speed and velocity. The latter fits especially well with the velocity revolution in the major leagues and is one area in which the program has come a long way.

"We drafted a kid out of Vanderbilt [in 1996] named Phil Haigler," O'Neill said. "He touched 90 and change, and he was the only guy on that staff that touched 90 mph. Now, every guy throws 90. Every guy."

Vanderbilt, however, differs from other college programs in that it doesn't insist on all of its pitchers looking the same. 

Some programs attempt to "cookie-cut" pitchers—Baseball America's Nathan Rode wrote about one in particular in 2012—which can result in bad habits that might have to be fixed once a pitcher goes pro. Major league clubs don't have to worry about this as much with Commodores pitchers.

In a recent interview with MLB Network, Brown showed analyst Al Leiter the facilities Vanderbilt constructed for its pitchers. He and Corbin lay out routines tailored to what works for each pitcher, and the players are allowed to make the most of what comes naturally. 

"One of Brownie's big things is that he's your coach. He's not the pitcher—you are," Buehler said. "One of the things he always used to say is, 'I can give you the puzzle pieces, but you have to put it together.' And for each different guy, those pieces may be different."

One apparent success story is Fulmer. Hostetler, the White Sox scouting director, remembered liking Fulmer when he was in high school but also having a bit of doubt. Fulmer was an undersized pitcher with a max-effort delivery, so Hostetler needed him to prove he could hold up over time.

Had Fulmer gotten into the wrong hands at another college, it might have been determined he would only hold up if his max-effort delivery was toned down or even scrapped altogether. Instead, Brown took the roughly 6'0", 190-pound Fulmer as he was—and made him better.

"The one thing they did a great job with is they kept him over the rubber a little bit longer, and he just started repeating his delivery," Hostetler said. "With a guy who's not 6'5" and easy and clean and projectable, you want to see him be able to repeat it over and over and over. He did that, and another key was when he went from relieving games to starting games."

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Though it may be the success of the program's pitchers that stands out the most, guys like Swanson and Wiseman are looking to make like Alvarez—a National League All-Star, Silver Slugger and co-home run champion in 2013and show that Vanderbilt hitters can also cut it at the big league level. And in general, the Commodores' hitting isn't too shabby.

Getting Vanderbilt's offense into shape is Jewett's other job. His goal each year is to craft a lineup that can beat opponents every which way—and is populated by hitters who are prepared for everything when they're in the box.

"I want the ball moving at us in our drills," Jewett said. "I want things that create timing, and I also want to mess with their timing every day so they can understand the importance of timing and body position and what it looks like when their foot hits the ground. Also the ability to turn fast and to create a margin for error in their swings. We're trying to see shapes every day—right-handed, left-handed, over-the-top, slider action. We're doing all those types of things."

Jewett's approach works well. The Commodores finished 34th in the nation in runs per game, a strong showing in a 295-team world in which Vanderbilt faces the best pitching. For major league scouts on the lookout for offensive talent at a time when there's not much to go around, Vanderbilt offers a little something for everyone.

In addition, it helps that the Commodores hitters receive the same special care as the program's pitchers.

College programs can "cookie-cut" hitters just as easily as they can pitchers, and that can also result in habits that won't fly in the pros. Just last year, a National League East scout lamented to Christopher Crawford of Baseball Prospectus: "When you take a college kid high, you're supposed to have less bad habits to break than with prep hitters, but oftentimes it's more."

Vanderbilt doesn't go down this road. Jewett and Brown understand every hitter is unique. What they value above all is comfort and confidence. Rather than try to force anything, they're willing to work with each hitter on how best to achieve both.

Peter Aiken/Getty Images
Wiseman at the 2015 College World Series.

"Those two guys are so open to talking about hitting and trying to understand and learn from every hitter," Wiseman said. "You could be trying something different in the cage, and they'll ask what you're doing and you'll say, 'Oh, you know, I'm feeling this, this and this.' They'll ask why, and you'll tell them and they'll say, 'OK, cool. Great. Looks good.'"

Of course, though the program has been successful in treating its players as talented snowflakes rather than perfectly cut cookies, it doesn't skimp on fundamentals.

Vanderbilt's practices aren't even really practices. Corbin told Adam Sparks of the Tennessean in 2014 that he doesn't like to use that word, as it implies something "done prior to the training element." Walk into a Commodores training session, and you'll see and hear the usual banter between players but also enough constant movement and fast-paced action to impress even those who are used to seeing such things.

"I've been to a lot of their practices, and one thing they really stress is development of players as far as fundamentals," Holmes said. "They do a lot of work in practice and get a lot of reps in a short amount of time based on the time constraints that colleges deal with."

There's no skipping training sessions, either. Hostetler recalled Fulmer telling him a story of a time the team had to get on a 10 a.m. flight for a trip to the West Coast. With few options for when to get work in, Corbin concluded the only solution was to hold a training session at 6 a.m.

Between uptempo training and all of the work each player has to put in on the side, Corbin asks a lot of his players. It's a good thing, then, that he has taken the time and effort to cultivate an atmosphere that keeps his players' motors running.

Eric Francis/Associated Press/Associated Press
Corbin with his championship team in 2014.

It's a bit of a cliche in college sports for a team to think of itself as one big family, but Corbin seems to make it work at Vanderbilt.

Craig Thomas of NCAA.com wrote last year about Corbin's father-figure approach to running the program. In a 2014 interview with Aaron Fitt of Baseball America, the first two words that came to Swanson's mind when he talked about the "Vanderbilt way" were "brotherhood" and "family." On social media, the preferred hashtag for Commodores players is #VandyBoys.

It's all well and good that Corbin emphasizes finding the "right players" and also takes a patriarchal approach to handling them, but just as important is that he refuses to treat his program as a way station for MLB-bound talent.

Instead, he's turned it into a place that feels like home.

It's impressive how much talent Corbin and Co. have sent to the pros, but part of what keeps the line moving is the welcome mat Vanderbilt keeps out for players who have moved on. It comes in the form of a "pro locker room" that Corbin had constructed alongside the regular locker room, which gives the Commodores a unique feature.

And it doesn't go to waste. In what Jewett calls a "cycle of awesomeness," Vanderbilt alumni in the majors and minors come back to Nashville every winter to work out and connect with young players now in the program. For especially young players, it helps excite the enthusiasm gland.

"As a freshman, I remember David Price and Sonny Gray in there just kinda hanging out and talking," Wiseman said. "And I was like, 'Oh my goodness.' One day, I hoped that it would be me in there and freshmen would come in and say, 'Oh my goodness, Rhett Wiseman is in there.'" 

Now, Wiseman finds his wish becoming a reality.

Chris O'Meara/Associated Press/Associated Press
Price doesn't need to be in Nashville to rep Vanderbilt.

He's spent the winter working out in Nashville along with other Vanderbilt dignitaries. He estimates between 30 and 40 guys are there every day, including the likes of Price, Gray, Alvarez and a handful of top prospects. And while they may be there mainly to work out, they're also there to set an example and embody a sense of legacy for current Commodores.

"It's one thing at some programs when the minor league guys will come back and work out," Buehler said. "But when you've got Cy Young Award winners and major league All-Stars in the locker room, and you get to see them hang out or work out or just go about their business, it's extremely beneficial for everyone in the program. It just further promotes the idea that you're always going to be a Vanderbilt baseball player and how you're always welcome there and wanted there."

The A's loved Gray on a personal level when they drafted him in 2011, and the White Sox thought the same of Fulmer when they drafted him last year. And if you read a scouting report about any Vanderbilt player, you're likely to come across similar sentiments about his makeup and work ethic. Corbin and his staff put these qualities in their sights when they recruit, and the program's palpable sense of family and legacy only helps them mature.

"The types of kids that Corbin brings in there are infectious. Kids want to be around them. Kids want to become them," Hostetler said. "It is a sense of family there. It's something to commend and something to admire."

While they're commending and admiring it, major league teams have every reason to keep going back to the Vanderbilt well. You can expect to see more former Commodores in The Show every year—and to hear more of their names called in the draft every June.

That's their cue to always be ready to party.

 

All quotes were obtained firsthand by phone unless otherwise noted. Statistics courtesy of NCAA.com. Draft data courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.

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