Scouting Vanderbilt: Star pitchers plus dangerous offense make for the nation’s top-ranked team

Right-handers Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker are the top two pitching prospects in this year’s draft, but who else contributes to the Commodores’ success?

In the second week of Southeastern Conference play, Missouri baseball faces its toughest test of the season against top-ranked Vanderbilt at Taylor Stadium starting tonight.

The Commodores feature two heralded pitching prospects and an offense that can hang among the best in the conference. To break down this juggernaut, The Maneater spoke with Vanderbilt Hustler sports editor Simon Gibbs to see what the Vanderbilt hype is all about.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity

The Maneater###: Now that Vanderbilt is almost 20 games deep into the season, how would you say they’ve played compared to pre-season expectations?

Simon Gibbs, sports editor for The Vanderbilt Hustler###: I think in a way they've exceeded expectations, yet there's still room to grow. We knew the pitching was going to be the strength of this team, but I don't think anyone expected the front end of the rotation to be lights out dominant, day-in and day-out. Right-handers Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker are both 5-0, and Leiter has a 0.31 earned run average and Rocker is at 0.58. The two guys have both been striking out at least one or two batters per inning. They've allowed five total runs in a combined 10 starts. The extent to which it's dominated is the crazy part here. In that respect, they've exceeded expectations. We knew the lineup was going to need a little bit of work, and not that's not to say the lineup is not talented. There's plenty of guys that can hit and score in that lineup. I just think the inconsistency with which they deliver hasn’t been worrisome or concerning yet. It's just been a work in progress to see how it'll translate to SEC play. They put up 16 runs against Georgia State. That doesn't mean anything when they're going to be facing top-tier pitching every weekend in the SEC. On offense, they have yet to underwhelm but they certainly have a lot to prove.

TM###: You mentioned Jack Leiter, and he is a special prospect with big-league potential. What has he done this season to confirm his hype for the next level?

SG###: Last year, when Leiter made his first career start, it was a mid-week start against some non-conference opponent. He threw like a five- or six-inning no-hitter and Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin actually pulled him before he could finish because it was his first start. He ran up the pitch count so there's just no reason to keep him in a non-conference game. Then the season gets postponed due to COVID, so what Leiter has done this year is he entered the season as a top-five or 10 prospect, but everyone had a big asterisk next to his name because he had yet to face any SEC teams because the season got shut down before he could. What did he do in his first SEC start? He threw a no-hitter. I think what he's done to sort of put himself on that next pedestal along with Kumar is to say, “Whatever I've done in the non-conference games, I could do in the conference games as well against these really, really talented opponents.”

TM###: With Leiter’s no-hitter last Saturday against No. 16 South Carolina, he recorded 16 strikeouts in that performance with all of them coming off his fastball. What is it about his fastball that makes it so hard to touch?

SG###: I think I would say it's probably twofold. First off, his fastball has topped 98 miles per hour at its fastest, so obviously, he's going to fool some hitters by throwing it right past them. It’s simply overpowering them, but he also utilizes this slider early in the count, which is an off-speed pitch that goes low, and whenever he uses that pitch, which often finishes by the batter's ankles at highest, he follows it up with like some high cheese fastball that goes 97 miles an hour right by their elbows, and it's a swing and a miss every time. I think it's not just the speed of that fastball, but it's the combination of utilizing it with off-speed pitches that really messes up the hitters.

TM###: We just talked about the Leiter, Friday starter, but Thursday’s starter, Kumar Rocker, is just as dominant. When Rocker is on, what’s he doing that separates him as one of the elites in college baseball?

SG###: Kumar has an overpowering fastball and he uses it in the opposite order of Leiter, who uses his offspeed slider to set up his high and inside fastball. Kumar will use his overpowering fastball, to set up his offspeed slider that almost always induces a swing and a miss for the third pitch of the at bat. His slider for maybe two thirds of the duration to the plate looks like his fastball until it just sinks. Pulling out the chair from under the pitch is going to get the batter every single time, especially when you're leading them off 97, 98 miles an hour the first couple pitches.

TM###: Aside from Leiter and Rocker, what should Missouri hitters prepare for in Saturday’s game?

SG###: Christian Little started last week, and while he's honestly struggled a lot, he’s a special kid. He’s just 17 years old and throws 97 miles an hour. It’s likely they’re going to see Thomas Schultz or Sam Hliboki, and frankly, both of those guys have had an up-and-down start to the season, but they’re both talented arms. What really stands out from a pitching perspective other than those Rocker and Leiter is Luke Murphy, who has been utilized as a closer. He’s converted all three save opportunities, has a zero ERA and has allowed just three hits. He's been incredible as a closer and he might have the fastest pitch on the team. Hugh Fisher came off Tommy John last year, and he’s another relief pitcher. This guy is a lefty whose throwing motion will remind you a lot of Randy Johnson. A very tall, lanky lefty with sort of three-quarters sidearm release that goes up to down, and he has a knockout slider as well that'll just go for righty batters will buckle them and finish by their ankles and they still end up swinging.

TM###: From what you're saying about this entire pitching staff is that no matter who's out there, Missouri is going to have trouble with them.

SG###: Exactly. I covered the national championship-winning team two years ago, and that team's identity was just to score runs at a video game pace. They would score 15 runs like it was nothing. The pitching was fine, but it was nothing compared to this. The identity is kind of flip-flopped. You know the hitting is less so the awe-inspiring part of this team, and it's the pitching that really makes your jaw drop on this team. So I think in that regard the identity has kind of changed.

TM###: Switching gears to the offense, who are some hitters that Missouri pitchers should be wary of this weekend?

SG###: Outfielder Isaiah Thomas and third baseman Jayson Gonzalez both possess some incredible power. They've had a few players that have stood out that I didn't really think were going to be as big of components of this offense as they have been. Utility player Dominic Keegan has been absolutely incredible. He's hitting over .500 right now, and he's a threat to drive in a run anytime someone's on base. Probably my favorite player to watch though, and one that you wouldn't expect to do damage until he gets on base, is outfielder Enrique Bradfield Jr. He's a freshman outfielder who can hit with a .357 batting average, and every time he gets on base, he’s a threat to steal both bases and he does it routinely. It took like 14 stolen base attempts for him to get caught once. He's got like 16 and stolen bases in 17 tries and they haven't even played that many games. He started the season at the bottom of the lineup and Corbin has since moved him off to the leadoff role. If he gets on base, whether by base hit or walk, you absolutely should expect him to steal second and maybe even third.

TM###: What are some aspects Missouri needs to key in on if they want to avoid a sweep this weekend?

SG###: If Missouri wants to make this a ballgame, or make this a series, [the team] needs to play like South Carolina did in the first game. Kumar had one of his best outings of the year last Friday, but it was very much anyone's ballgame until the end. They were only able to do that because they had some incredible pitching, so Missouri is going to have to mitigate Vanderbilt’s offense entirely if it wants to make it competitive because it's not going to be easy to hit off Leiter and Rocker. You can't just expect the team to put up 10 runs on any given night against this pitching staff, it's going to come down to making this a pitching duel and making the smart decisions in the field. That includes holding Bradfield Jr. on base right because to lead off the game if you let him steal bases that's a problem in South Carolina. On Friday night, they did an excellent job of keeping him on base, not only were they the first team to catch him stealing all year but their starting pitcher was going tit for tat with Rocker. In order to hold Bradfield on base, he had like three straight pickoff attempts, which made him stay so close to the bag that he ended up not being safe when he tried to steal. Those sorts of little things to mitigate the offense is really all Missouri can do. That being said, Vanderbilt has yet to show him the consistency to sweep an SEC school. I'm not entirely sure that this will be a sweep, certainly, the best chance is going to be the third game when it's not Leiter or Kumar on the bump.

Edited by Jack Soble | jsoble@themaneater.com

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