This past weekend was a real treat for us Angelinos, as the past two national champions joined the #2 team in the country (per the NCBWA rankings) and upstart USC for a round-robin tournament. Naturally, the Trojans entered the weekend as the lowest ranked of the participants and proceeded to knock off all three of their top-10 opponents, just as everyone expected.
One note before we get started, I'll be catching both USC and UCLA again in the near future, so this set of notes will focus on my impressions of Vanderbilt and, to a lesser extent TCU (on account of catching just one of their games).
Dansby Swanson, SS Vanderbilt
First things first, Swanson is a no-doubt shortstop. I’m a sucker for rhythmic players – the guys who look like they’re playing with a loop of "Natural Mystic" (the Horace Andy version, of course) rolling through their heads – and Swanson exhibits both the extraordinary fluidity in his movement and general cadence to fit that mold in spades. He shows excellent first-step quickness and lateral range to both sides, with soft hands and a quick transfer. The footwork is technically sound, and the body control in motion is strong enough to allow him to deliver throws with easy plus velocity and accuracy from all over the left side. I saw an above-average Major League shortstop in the making here, with relatively low risk of a future position change.
Swanson’s offensive tools have potential to add to the profile, with the foundation of a plus hit tool and plus-or-better speed to compliment. His swing is easy, with simple, tame upper body mechanics geared around strong wrists and forearms that whip the bat head through the zone. He does not engage his lower half as well at present, with a minimal and inconsistent weight transfer and a weaker front foot plant. The swing’s structure leaves less room for leverage and limits the utility of what is already a bit below-average raw power. He struggled some with off-speed recognition in my looks, but the hand-eye presented as a strength and he’s got enough bat-to-ball proficiency to suggest plenty of potential for future development. At present he projects to a 50 hit tool for me, but there’s absolutely room for a half or even full grade jump there based on the underlying skillset.
The speed looks to be somewhere in the 60 to 65 range. I got two clocks on him to first, with a 4.24 where he pulled off the gas for his final stride-plus, and a 4.14 on a full dig. He comfortably stole a bag on a 1.97 pop time with the catcher reaching for a sailed fastball, though he did get himself picked off on Sunday with a poor read and premature break. The whole package is highly enticing, and word ‘round the campfire is that he’ll be open to an under-slot deal, which if true would put him squarely in the running for a top-five selection in June.
Carson Fulmer, RHP Vanderbilt
Fulmer will be one of the most interesting names to wait for on June 8th, as he represents a really curious intersection of prototype and individual potential. On the one hand, his 5’11" frame is not optimal for a right-hander with aspirations of starting. There’s also some notable violence in his delivery, culminating in a nasty head whack at release. More anecdotally, he also features the kind of animated mound presence and general moxie that typically gets associated with late inning relief hijinks. But on the flip side of the coin, Fulmer’s stuff is filthy, he holds his velocity, and he brings some of the best arm speed of this draft class to the table.
Last Friday Fulmer shut down a UCLA lineup that had been averaging north of eight runs a game despite an inconsistent performance. He sat 92-94 for the entirety of his six-plus innings and worked his heater inside and out effectively with solid arm-side run. He showed trust and confidence in his low-80’s hook as well, throwing it repeatedly behind in the count in addition to burying it when ahead. He also mixed in an 85-87 mile-an-hour change that, while unremarkable, offered potential as an effective show-me offering.
Mechanically it’s a simple, aggressive motion. The takeaway is quick and direct to the point of release, though he’ll get inconsistent transferring his weight to the plant foot from time to time. The majority of the time this happened on Friday he’d pull too quickly through the motion and lose his center of gravity to the first base side, leading to a drop in arm slot, flatter pitches, and wandering control. Still, the arm speed is elite. The ball really jumps out of his hand and gets on hitters quickly, and at least at this level he showed an ability to get away with some looseness in the zone as a result.
The big questions about Fulmer will revolve around whether he can refine his command for better pitch-to-pitch consistency given the violence in his delivery and whether a team in the top half of the first round will be willing to overlook the historical comps for his type of profile to invest in him full bore as a starter.
Preston Morrison, RHP TCU
Morrison pitched a very strong game against a tough Vanderbilt lineup on Sunday, moving the ball all over the place and showing an impressive ability to manipulate spin and control all four quadrants despite well below-average velocity. He sat in the mid-80’s all day, only hitting 87 once, yet he managed to induce consistently off-center contact with a sneaky fastball that just kept running and sinking. He paired it with a curveball that just kept running and breaking the other way. The pitch is a long, slow bender in the low-70’s that made some really good hitters look downright silly on multiple occasions. His change-up also impressed in the upper 70’s, keeping left-handers off-balance and opening up the inner half of the plate for a fastball that otherwise would not belong there.
Mechanically he comes from a low-three quarter slot with a rather upright posture. It’s not a prototypical starter’s release, though he’s much more north-south in his weight transfer and release than video suggests he used to be. He doesn’t open his hips as early or plant as far to the first base side anymore, and at least on this day it appeared to help him generate firmer command by cutting down on some of his length. It still takes a serious squint to envision a potential starting pitcher down the line, which is why he’s still pitching in college after a spectacular statistical career. But the three pitch mix and surprising pitchability provides at least an impetus to take that look over the course of this spring, and at the very least he offers a highly intriguing middle relief profile down the line.
Walker Buehler, RHP Vanderbilt
Buehler made his second start of the season on Sunday after opening the year on the shelf with elbow soreness, and he looked just fine in his four innings of limited work. He threw 66 pitches all told, working his fastball at 92-95 and punctuating the outing with 96 on the outer black to get himself out of a jam with a called strikeout. The pitch features tremendous life with some late sinking action, and he commanded it to both sides to generate swings and misses and a hearty dose of groundball contact. He paired the gas with an outstanding curveball that flashed as a true plus-or-better weapon, with hard 11-5 bite at 80-82 that was especially effective as a chase pitch ahead.
The video above isn’t the greatest (apologies), but I included it to point out the extreme hip rotation and lower half momentum in Buehler’s mechanics through deceleration, as well as the significant recoil he exhibited on certain deliveries Sunday. He was over-leveraging himself at times in his final frame, losing his balance and sling-shotting the ball rather than driving through the release, and he ran into some nominal command issues when he did. At its best the delivery has some Pedro in it, with that back leg whipping across his plant foot and through to the first base side.
His body type at 6’1" and a listed 175 lends further credence to the mechanical comparison, as well as the standard question marks about longterm durability that go with the slender body type. The early season elbow injury certainly didn’t do much to quell those concerns, either. He’s likely to remain on a pitch count for at least his next couple starts before potentially opening things up, and teams far and wide will no doubt be watching to see how he holds up, as this is a clear first round talent and potential top-10 arm if healthy.
Rhett Wiseman, RF Vanderbilt
Wisemen presented as one of the more interesting bats of the weekend, with a power-and-speed package that could really take off with some smoothing and refinement of his swing mechanics. As constructed the swing is violent and inconsistent, but thanks to impressive strength the raw power is easy plus and possibly a touch better. How much of it he can consistently tap into will determine a lot of his future value.
He starts from a very wide base and drifts back at pitch release, with an extreme backside coil begetting a later weight transfer that doesn't always get him to his front foot in time or deliver all of his momentum through the ball. It's an uphill swing when that happens, and you can see it rear its ugly head in the form of a backside collapse and unsuccessful flail in a couple of the efforts from the above strikeout against UCLA's James Kaprielian. The hips don't consistently fire and create a repeatable swing path, and there'll be a persistent swing-and-miss component to his game while that remains the case.
His bat speed is a notable asset though, and when he gets everything in synch and catches a pitch it can go a long way. He absolutely destroyed a Kaprielian curve later in this game, turning and crushing a majestic, towering bomb about 380 feet away down the rightfield line. I only got one clock on him in this series, which is the above 4.22 after a fishing expedition, but the raw running speed suggests a plus tool and he got a couple very impressive breaks on stolen base attempts on Sunday.
The offensive profile here is a good one, though he remains raw at present and will require some significant repetition and adjustment to fully unlock the upside. Sources suggested an impressive work ethic, though, and given the starter kit it's a nice package for a future rightfield profile. He's been on fire to start the season, and if he shows continued growth and development in his approach this spring he'll be a legitimate Day One candidate in June.