With the departures of Dansby Swanson and Carson Fulmer, the title of Vanderbilt baseball’s best player is up for grabs. Here are three cases for which player will have the best season for the Commodores.
With the loss of three junior starters who each hit 15 home runs last season, Vanderbilt baseball’s offense will undergo major changes. With much less power and far more speed in the lineup, runs will come from different avenues.
And no player represents this shift in offensive persona more than Jeren Kendall.
The sophomore outfielder is by far the most well-rounded player on the team and makes a strong case to be the best player on the team by season’s end.
Kendall’s skillset is as diverse as anyone’s in college baseball. In high school, he ran a 6.49 second 60 yard dash – MLB all-time steals leader Rickey Henderson ran a 6.4 60 – which also allows him to be a plus defender, and his bat is no joke.
He’s the only true five-tool player on roster.
“He can hit a line drive from down the line this way or he can hit the engineering building,” associate head coach Travis Jewett said. “He’s a dangerous guy because he can hit a lot of different balls and use the whole field, and the speed element is a big part too. He’s just older, he’s stronger, he’s just more comfortable.”
Kendall didn’t earn consistent playing time last season until after the second weekend, but since then he can stake a claim as the top returning hitter from last season. His eight home runs, .530 slugging percentage, 19 steals and six triples lead returning players and his .394 on-base percentage ranks second.
Although he certainly has the skillset to play center field – and did play some at the position last season – Bryan Reynolds won’t be moving anywhere because of his excellent defense. Instead, Kendall will slide over from left field to a more challenging right field, which will allow him to show off his powerful arm that can reportedly hit up to 93 mph.
“There’s obviously a lot more space in right field for me, which will be exciting,” Kendall said. “I think I’ll get more balls over this year, I know Rhett got quite a few last year. It’ll be good for my arm; I’ll get a little bit more space to let it loose. I think I like it in right because I feel like more of a center fielder. I get more space over there.”
Along with playing a tougher position, Kendall will also move up in the lineup from the No. 6 and 7 hole towards the top of the lineup. But given how quickly he improved last season, it should be expected that he plays even better this season against tougher competition.
It’s a widely-held belief that players from the North develop more slowly than players in the South because they play less in high school. Kendall, a Wisconsin native, only played 18 to 22 games each year in high school, far less than the 60 or so games his Southern counterparts played.
If he improved this quickly from high school ball to the SEC, what’s to say he won’t take the next leap as his elite tools translate to production as Vanderbilt’s best player?
By Robbie Weinstein, Asst. Sports Editor
Mired in a deep slump through late April and early May, Bryan Reynolds represented the missing piece for the Commodores’ lineup as the team missed out on a national seed despite a preseason No. 1 ranking. An 0-4, three-strikeout performance in an excruciating 9-7 loss to Florida on May 9 served as a sharp reminder of the threat in the middle of the lineup they lacked with their 2014 Freshman All-American at less than his best.
Reynolds’ eventual resurgence helped power Vanderbilt to its second straight College World Series appearance as the Commodores’ center fielder caught fire at the plate during the SEC and NCAA Tournaments.
Vanderbilt rode Reynolds’ smoking hot .472 average in the team’s first eight NCAA Tournament games to the CWS Finals, and his 2-3 effort in a 5-1 win over Virginia in Game 1 of the CWS Championship Series brought the Dores to the brink of back-to-back titles. Everything fell apart, however, in the final two games as Reynolds combined to go 1-for-7 in 3-0 and 4-2 losses as VU settled for second. Few players’ production correlated stronger with team success than that of Reynolds; Vanderbilt rarely lost when its center fielder produced on offense.
For as much as Jeren Kendall and Will Toffey should contribute this season, the Commodores will go as far as Bryan Reynolds takes them. Reynolds finished second among a loaded starting lineup last season with his .318 batting average and 17 stolen bases despite the prolonged slump. The junior center fielder’s .388 on-base percentage and 18 doubles further emphasize how indispensable the Brentwood native and his well-rounded skillset are. Coaxing more walks while striking out less could help Reynolds add even more value at the plate, but he does not plan to make many changes to his strategy at the plate.
“I’m just trying to stay inside the ball, stay inside and not do too much,” Reynolds said. “I don’t really think I’ve changed too much of (my approach).”
Defensively, Reynolds posted the highest fielding percentage of Vanderbilt’s three starting outfielders while chipping in five outfield assists and exhibiting impressive range in the field. His speed and ability to make difficult diving catches look easy paid dividends for the Commodores throughout the 2015 season.
One of the team’s most experienced players, Reynolds will be looked at this season for production and leadership as the Commodores hope to reload after losing seven starters to the MLB Draft. Additionally, the Commodore star’s role in mentoring young outfielders Walker Grisanti and Stephen Scott will have serious implications regarding the program’s future.
Between filling the production of departed starters and serving as one of Corbin’s most trusted leader’s, Reynolds faces massive expectations coming into this season. Reynolds is Vanderbilt’s biggest star, and if last year is any indication, the Commodores need him to play like it in order to advance deep in the NCAA Tournament once again.
By Josh Hamburger, Managing Editor
On opening day last season, third baseman Will Toffey took the field in the first inning as the only Commodore freshman starter. He would finish the year with 67 starts and 71 games played, more than any other freshman on the team, playing in all but one game during the whole season. His success over his first season ultimately earned him Freshman All-American and Freshman All-SEC honors.
The Commodores greatly needed a solid third baseman after Xavier Turner’s yearlong suspension, and Tyler Campbell’s move to second base left a gap at the position. Toffey outperformed Turner in nearly every offensive category and in the field from the year before, erasing any doubt at that corner of the infield.
Once SEC play came around, Toffey started putting together a historic freshman season, leading the team with a .348 average in conference games. It’s much of the reason why Baseball America tabbed him to the preseason second team All-American list alongside outfielder Bryan Reynolds.
Since conference games make up a majority of the season, Toffey’s production during this time surely earns him consideration for the team’s most valuable player. The early part of the season consists of non-conference games, and last season having been his freshman year, there surely was some early adjustment.
“His mental stability is just great,” outfielder Jeren Kendall said about Toffey. “He knows what to do up at the plate, and he’s very consistent. Mentally and physically I think he knows how to get through slumps.”
During SEC play, Toffey was nearly unstoppable on a daily basis. He hit safely in 28 straight SEC games that spanned over two months from March 15 until May 21. His success continued through the SEC tournament, where he earned All-Tournament honors with a .300 batting average over five games. He also added four runs and three RBIs during that span, in which Vanderbilt reached the championship, falling to Florida. For the season, Vanderbilt went 20-10 in SEC games, a three-game improvement from 2014, with his help.
Toffey should be able to perform better right from the start this year, already having a full season under his belt. This experience should certainly help him boost his offensive numbers, as his stats should remain more consistent during the entire course of the year. Only former first overall pick Dansby Swanson doubled more than Toffey, who stroked 20 over the course of the season. In total, he accumulated 75 hits for a .294 batting average. In addition, he demonstrated a good eye at the plate, drawing 34 walks, tied most for any returning player.
The consistency throughout the toughest stretch of the regular season ultimately provides Toffey with the strongest case for his value to the team. No other player matched his daily production efficiency, and he was a crucial part to the Commodores’ run back into the College World Series.
Photos by Bosley Jarrett, Design Director