Saturday, June 6, 2015

Why Are These Vandy's So Dandy? How The Top College Baseball Program in the Country was Built...

Late spring is a “show-time” for amateur baseball. Whether it is high school state play-offs or the College World Series it’s an opportune time for these athletes to display their talent. And it just so happens that MLB will be looking to acquire many of these players in their upcoming draft starting June 8.

While the MLB draft isn’t a prime time event like the NFL version it could hold special significance for the state of Michigan in 2015.

Nick Plummer of Birmingham Brother Rice should become the second Michigan prep position player taken in the top three rounds since Billy Killian in 2004.* The other was DJ LeMahieu, a second round pick of the Chicago Cubs in 2009. LeMahieu won the National League Gold Glove last season for his defense at second base and is hitting well over .300 for the Colorado Rockies this season. This week Daniel Fields made his major league debut for the Tigers; he was a 6th round pick out of UD Jesuit also in 2009.

But outside of LeMahieu (and know Fields) it’s been a dry period for baseball prospects that were prepped and raised in the great state of Michigan.

Of the top 200 draft prospects (according to for 2015 only 3 hail from Michigan. Not surprisingly warm weather states lead the charge Florida with 30 and California with 32 respectively.**

The best player available according to many “experts” is Vanderbilt shortstop Dansby Swanson.

It's also worth noting that Swanson was the captain of the basketball team at Marietta (Ga.) HS, and is third in school history in three-pointers made. In other words, he's a well-rounded athlete. ***

In 2014 the Vanderbilt Baseball team won the first men's national championship in any sport in school history.

While Vanderbilt baseball's 2014 season is an amazing story in itself, there's a sub-plot that warrants mention as well, and Adam Ravenelle (now a pitcher in the Tigers organization at West Michigan) serves as a perfect example. "Rav" was a 5-10, 125-pound 8th grader when he first timidly walked in to my colleagues athletic performance facility near Boston back in the summer of 2007.  At the time, he was a baseball player - but also a golfer, tennis player, and basketball player.

As a freshman and sophomore in high school, he played golf, basketball, and baseball. As a junior, he pared it down to basketball and baseball. Only when he was a high school senior did he trim things down to one sport - and even then, it was after he was already committed to play at Vanderbilt, and a serious MLB Draft prospect (he was drafted in the 44th round out of high school in 2011, and then again in the 4th round last year).

His teammate, Tyler Beede, is another athlete who trained at my colleague’s facility. “Ty” played football, basketball, and baseball as a freshman. He went to football and baseball as a sophomore, then down to baseball only as a junior. He regretted leaving football, and went back to playing his senior year - and was still a 1st round draft pick in 2011 (and again this year).

One of the things mentioned several times during the 2014 CWS broadcasts was that Virginia’s (National Runner-Up in 2014) coach actively recruits multi-sport athletes.

I recall an interview with Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin where talked about how he's always reluctant to recruit baseball-only guys. There are so many incredible benefits to playing multiple sports, from avoiding overuse, to developing general athleticism, to making friends in different social circles. If you look at the roster that won the 2014 College World Series for Vanderbilt, you'll see that recruiting perspective is readily apparent. Look at their roster, and only 9 of the 34 guys come from states that could be perceived as "year-round baseball" states: Georgia, Florida, Texas, California, etc. There are a heck of a lot more guys from Massachusetts, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Kentucky and (of course) Tennessee - all states where it gets cold and snows in the winter, making year-round baseball a lot tougher. Most of the guys on the Vanderbilt roster were great athletes in other sports as well. In fact, of the 9 to which I alluded above, two - Carson Fullmer (FL) and Swanson (GA) - were praised by the ESPN announcers for their success in other sports (karate and basketball, respectively).

Also relevant to this discussion is another Vanderbilt alum that just may be the bet right-handed starter in the American League right now… Sonny Gray of the Oakland A’s! Last Wednesday he completely shut down the Tigers and hopefully you were able to look beyond your frustration of the Tiger ailing offense to appreciate the Gray’s talent… Despite standing only 5’11 Gray more than make up for that with his renowned competitive spirit and tremendous overall athleticism. Back in his hometown of Smyrna, Tennessee Gray won lead his high school football team to back-to-back state titles as their quarter back and team captain.

Early specialization might work out for a small percentage of young athletes, but it fails miserably for the majority. And, you can never go wrong with finding and developing general athleticism. Look at Vanderbilt's track record of success over the past decade (and their significantly lower injury rates), and it's impossible to argue. Let kids play, and not just baseball...they might just "surprise" you by winning a national championship.

*Plummer should be only the 2nd player since 2004 taken in top three rounds.

**State-by-State Breakdown of top 200 draft prospects.

***Best of the 2015 class.

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