Recently, a baseball team has used its seemingly never-ending supply of big name players to consistently finish at or near the top of the standings. Once upon a time, that sentence would have applied to the Yankees, but it has recently described the Vanderbilt University Commodores. After a 54-12 record in 2013, they won the College World Series in 2014, before returning to the finals in 2015.
The success of the Commodores doesn't always end in college either. MLB aces David Price and Sonny Gray both attended Vanderbilt. In addition, four Commodores have been selected in the first round of the MLB draft over the last two seasons. Most notably, infielder Dansby Swanson was selected first overall by the Diamondbacks in 2015. In 2014, Tyler Beede, Walker Buehler, and Carson Fulmer, all of whom have been selected in the first round of their respective drafts, led their rotation en route to a national championship.
One of the interesting things about Vanderbilt's starting rotation is that it hasn't always looked like a starting rotation, especially over the last few seasons. Since 2011, their Friday night starters (college teams use their aces on Fridays) have included Oakland A's ace Sonny Gray and 2015's 8th overall pick Carson Fulmer. This year, Vanderbilt's rotation is led by Jordan Sheffield (
Gary's nephew no relation to Gary). While all three of these pitchers always had electric stuff, they are all listed at 6'0" or shorter.
With most "undersized" pitching prospects who throw hard, there is a concern that their mechanics are not repeatable enough and will lead to command issues at some point. Despite racking up over 11 K/9 and keeping his ERA under 2.00 in 2015, Carson Fulmer still worried scouts with his high effort mechanics. Here is some footage of Fulmer in 2014:
Current Vanderbilt ace Jordan Sheffield appears to have pretty similar mechanics. To my untrained eye, it looks like both he and Fulmer share the same violent lower body action, using a quick and aggressive leg lift to speed through their deliveries:
Even with quirky deliveries and without normal ace-like height, pitchers like Gray and Fulmer have demonstrated the ability to be durable, effective starters. So far, it looks like Sheffield is following suit. After undergoing Tommy John surgery during his senior year of high school, Sheffield has an ERA of 1.09 with 13 K/9 over four starts this season.
If there is a right way for shorter, hard-throwing pitchers to manage their high effort mechanics, the Vanderbilt Commodores appear to have found it. One thing that stands out is that Gray, Fulmer and Sheffield all start with their left foot out in front of their right foot when pitching out of the windup. In doing so, their windup mechanics look more similar to their mechanics out of the stretch.
Perhaps this helps them develop their command quicker, as they are effectively only working on one delivery. Alternatively, it might just be that college hitters are just that helpless against plus velocity. Even someone like Sonny Gray clearly was not a finished product when the A's drafted him, as he posted some pretty ugly numbers in 2012 at the Double-A level.
If an MLB team like the Yankees could find out what adjustments allow shorter pitchers to remain in the starting rotation, it could open up a wide variety of possibilities. 6'4" starters who can hit the mid 90's in high school will always command large signing bonuses and will be selected early in the draft. But if a team like the Yankees could figure out how to develop undersized pitchers, they would have the chance to find front of the rotation starters even in later rounds.
There has always been a stigma against shorter pitchers who have ambitions of starting in an MLB rotation. However, as pitchers like Pedro Martinez, Tim Lincecum, and Sonny Gray show, anything is possible for pitchers with the necessary stuff and deception to keep big league hitters off balance. The Vanderbilt Commodores have found a way to harness the potential of undersized hurlers at the collegiate level. If there is a way to do what Vanderbilt has done at the big league level, it could change the outlook of an innovative organization for years to come.