Vanderbilt to Last

The Commodores' pitching staff has become a pipeline to the majors, and this season the SEC power is home to two hurlers bound for the bigs
May 13, 2013

BIG BOARD

A PERIODIC LOOK AT SOME OF THE MOST INTRIGUING DRAFT PROSPECTS

Rare is the 19-year-old pitcher who can say he's performed during a Red Sox game at Fenway Park. Tyler Beede can. Granted, he was 1,000 miles away at the time, in Athens, Ga., with his Vanderbilt baseball teammates. But as the sophomore righthander was getting ready to win his 10th straight start for the Commodores, Boston catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia strode to the plate in the seventh inning as a pinch hitter against the Royals. It was April 20, the Red Sox' first home game since the Boston Marathon bombing. For his walk-up music Salty picked a cut called "Boston Strong." The artist: Young Beedah, who recorded the tune over the summer and released it on YouTube and Facebook as the city was uniting after the tragedy.

Later in the week, as he sat in the dugout discussing Beede, as Young Beedah is better known around campus, Commodores coach Tim Corbin said, "No wonder he's walking around with his chest out. It's not [that he was named to] Team USA or the fact that he's 10--0; it's because his music got played at Fenway."

Since then, Beede has run his mark to 12--0, breaking David Price's school record for consecutive wins at the start of a season. He's struck out 81 in 78 innings, his ERA is 1.73, and opponents are hitting just .172 against him. And he's not even the No. 1 starter on the staff. That role belongs to Kevin Ziomek, a junior lefty whose numbers are only slightly less gaudy: 9--2, 2.03 ERA and a .174 batting average against.

Vanderbilt—owner of a 21--2 SEC record, the best start in conference history—is fast becoming college baseball's preeminent pitching factory. Since Price was taken first overall by the Devil Rays in 2007, Vandy has had five pitchers selected in the first round, more than any other school. (Three are still in the minors and one other is a Minor: Mike Minor of the Braves, who has a 2.42 ERA and a 0.90 WHIP since the '12 All-Star break.) Ziomek has a good chance to make that six in next month's major league draft, and Beede could easily be one of the top five overall picks in 2014. "It's awesome," says Price. "I hope we can continue to have those stellar arms going to Vanderbilt. I know a lot of kids want to go there now because of the outcome they have year in and year out in the draft."

Like Beede, who hails from Auburn, Mass., Ziomek is from the Bay State—Amherst, to be exact. The two are right at home in Nashville, playing for a coach who has two authentic Fenway seats in his house (Corbin is a New Hampshire native) and where the rightfielder is Mike Yastrzemski, who has the distinctive stroke and even more distinctive visage of his grandfather. Beede and Ziomek, who both attended baseball camps at Vanderbilt, got to know each other in high school. "We talked about how we wanted to come here and be a one-two punch, whether it was him-me or me-him," says Ziomek, who was drafted in the 13th round by the Diamondbacks out of high school but never considered signing. "It's pretty cool to see that come true."

It almost didn't. Beede was drafted by the Blue Jays in the first round in 2011 and was offered a $2.5 million signing bonus—nearly double the MLB-suggested amount for the 21st pick. Using his college plans as leverage, Beede gave Toronto a number: $3.5 million. He stuck to it, and when the Jays didn't budge, he became a Commodore. It was a sound bargaining ploy—he wanted to go to Vanderbilt anyway—but it didn't sit well with Toronto fans, who drilled Beede on Twitter and on message boards. (Safe to say, the posters on the blog Drunk Jays Fans don't think much of Young Beedah's mic skills, especially on "Forever 21," a track that defends his decision to become the only first-rounder in the '11 draft not to sign.)

The criticism weighed on Beede, who was erratic as a freshman. And Ziomek, who had pitched effectively out of the bullpen as the Commodores advanced to the 2011 College World Series, also had a tough time last year as he transitioned to his new role as a starter. Early struggles at top college programs are fairly typical of young pitchers, most of whom are talented enough to skate through high school on stuff alone. Ziomek (whose fastball sits in the low 90s and who has a mean slider) and Beede (who throws in the mid-90s) are no exceptions.

So what is it about Vanderbilt that helps raw kids develop into studs? To Corbin and his staff (longtime pitching coach Derek Johnson left in the winter to become the Cubs' roving minor league instructor and was replaced by Scott Brown), the secret has always been to teach the kids the value of routine and to allow them to mature psychologically and emotionally. The process sounds almost New Age--y when Corbin discusses his pitching philosophy. (The word holistic will occasionally pop up in the conversation.) "I think a lot of it has to do with the university itself," he says. "It stimulates the mind. They've got physical ability, but the physical ability is only brought out if the one tool that's most important is developed, and that's the tool between their ears."

Ziomek's improvement, according to Corbin, comes down to his ability to "control his mind and control his heartbeat" when things start to go south. "In the middle innings, if he walks a guy or gives up an error, he can pitch through it," says Corbin. "Before, turning his body sideways because he was in the stretch would create havoc mentally for him." Indeed, while Ziomek was prone to giving up the big inning last year, he has allowed more than two runs in just one of his 802/3 innings, when he gave up a three-run homer in a loss to Florida.

Beede arrived in Nashville more of a finished product. "He and Mikey Minor are the two kids I can remember who came in here with the skill to throw an off-speed pitch consistently," says Corbin, who likes young pitchers from the Northeast and Northwest in part because they have fewer innings on them than those from California, Texas and Florida. "I don't think there are a lot of kids who come with a feel and awareness of a changeup."

If anything, Beede was a little too aware. "Tyler is like a mad scientist," says Brown. "Everything he hears, he wants to [try]. He's got a really good mind, so sometimes he'd influx it with some stuff that got him away from keeping things simple."

But, as Corbin suggested, campus life helped Beede on the field. "I came into school not being too high on academics, and I've really immersed myself," says Beede, an organizational management major. "It's funny—when you tap into something like academics, the baseball side of it gets a little easier." He developed a two-seamer so he can move his fastball in both directions. The pitch also has rotation similar to his changeup, which makes the off-speed pitch even more tricky to pick up.

Beede's success and growth go a long way toward justifying his decision to reject the Blue Jays' offer. But Toronto fans who think he has an unhealthy obsession with money—and there appear to be plenty who think that way—are missing the point. Beede and two friends recently set up a nonprofit company called More Than Me, which encourages professional athletes from Massachusetts to give back to their local communities. ("Tyler's kind of an old soul," says Corbin.)

When he's not running the company or pitching, Beede finds time to write and record music. "I used to be a really shy kid—that's the way I got things off my mind, putting it on paper," he says. "I'm not really talented, but I try to put out a good message." In a few months he'll have a chance to hit up Ziomek on behalf of More Than Me, and next summer he'll be in position to make a hefty donation himself.

Where will that leave the Commodores? Still fairly stacked. Asked if there are any young arms in the pipeline, Brown begins reciting names of relievers and midweek starters who could be weekend starters at most schools: freshmen Walker Buehler (3--1, 2.54 ERA) and Carson Fulmer (32 K's in 28 innings), sophomore Adam Ravenelle (another hard-throwing Massachusetts product).... It is a litany that is music to Corbin's ears.

Says Corbin, "Physical ability is only brought out if the most important tool is developed, and that's the tool between the ears."

SI.COM

Albert Chen on a pair of high school outfielders from Georgia who'll be top picks in June, plus Dave Perkin's mock draft, at SI.com/baseball

A Music City Quintet

How Vanderbilt's five recent first-round pitchers have fared in the pros

David Price

Rays

1st overall

2007

The hard-throwing southpaw set the school strikeout record with 155 K's as a sophomore, then annihilated it with 194 as a junior. Price made his big league debut after just 19 starts in the minors, and at age 27 he's second in franchise history with 62 wins.

Casey Weathers

Rockies

8th overall

2007

Weathers was the country's top closer in his senior season at Vanderbilt, winning 12 games out of the bullpen and saving seven others. As a pro he's been bothered by control issues, which have kept him in the minors. He's now in the Cubs organization.

Mike Minor

Braves

7th overall

2009

The lefty went 9--1 as the No. 2 starter behind Price in '07, then anchored the staff of the gold-medal-winning U.S. team at the '08 world university baseball championships. He worked his way into the Braves' rotation in '10 and is fourth in the NL in WHIP.

Sonny Gray

Athletics

18th overall

2011

Originally a closer, the righthander became a starter late in his freshman season, '09, and was the ace of the team that made Vanderbilt's first College World Series appearance, in '11. Gray is now at Triple A Sacramento and has a 3--1 record with a 2.61 ERA.

Grayson Garvin

Rays

59th overall

2011

After setting the school record with 13 wins in '11, the sandwich pick was signed to a below-slot deal because of concerns over an old elbow injury. Garvin made just 10 starts last year at Class A Charlotte before elbow surgery ended his season; he hasn't yet pitched in '13.

The Soph Parade

Tyler Beede is a virtual lock to go in the first round of the 2014 draft. These 10 fellow sophomores could join him

Carlos Rodon LHPNorth Carolina State

Bullish lefty (6'3", 234 pounds) went 9--0 as freshman, is 5--2 this year with 105 K's in 67 IP

Nick Burdi RHPLouisville

Closer who recently hit 100 mph on the radar gun averages more than two K's per inning

Aaron Nola RHPLSU

Tigers ace (9--0, 1.92 ERA) is also a workhorse: He's thrown four straight complete games

Derek Fisher OFVirginia

Tied school triples record (8) as freshman and has OPS of .964 this season

Trea Turner SSNorth Carolina State

Small (6'1", 171 pounds), but hits for average (.413) with pop (.650 slugging); 57 steals in '12

Kyle Schwarber C-OFIndiana

Solid backstop leads Big Ten with 10 homers while hitting .397 and slugging .678

Michael Conforto OFOregon State

Second-team All-America as freshman hasn't missed a beat in year two (.323, 7 HR, 31 RBI)

Taylor Gushue CFlorida

Slugging .491 in conference play in the SEC—hands down the toughest league in the land

Tanner English OFSouth Carolina

Covers acres in centerfield, and while plate numbers have dropped, he still has all the tools

Kevin Cron 1BTCU

Past performance (.338 in '12) and pedigree (brother was first-rounder in '11) excite scouts

PHOTOJOHN KORDUNER/ICON SMITyler Beede 12--0, 1.73 ERA, .172 BAA PHOTOJOHN KORDUNER/ICON SMIKevin Ziomek 9--2, 2.03 ERA, .174 BAA TWO PHOTOSBRIAN WESTERHOLT/FOUR SEAM IMAGES PHOTORICHEY MILLER/CAL SPORT MEDIA PHOTOJOHN KORDUNER/ICON SMI PHOTOMARVIN GENTRY/US PRESSWIRE

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)