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."