They’ve spent three years making history together, with who-knows-how-many-more to come.
Vanderbilt’s Walker Buehler, Carson Fulmer and Dansby Swanson not only led the Commodores to a national title in 2014 and a runner-up finish in the College World Series in 2015, but they were also all drafted in the first round of the 2015 Major League Baseball First Year Player Draft. Today, we take a look at perhaps the most successful trio of VU athletes ever as each has started his professional career.
Walker Buehler looks more like your lab partner from your high school chemistry classes than he does a baseball player. Listed at 6-foot-2 and 175 pounds and probably not an ounce over that, there’s nothing about Buehler that looks even remotely intimidating.
But give him a baseball, and watch Superman shove Clark Kent out of the way.
Coach Tim Corbin knew he had something special when Buehler showed up for fall practice in 2012, a roster full of veteran players who’d set a Southeastern Conference record for league wins (26) the next spring couldn’t hit him. It wasn’t exactly a shock; the highly-touted Buehler could have easily signed a six-figure contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates out of Lexington’s (Kentucky) Henry Clay High School.
Buehler posted a 4-3 record and a 3.14 ERA as a freshman, pitching out of the bullpen on a staff rich with talent and experience. He made the most of his rotation chance as a sophomore, posting 12 wins (tied for the fourth-best single-season mark in VU history) and a sparkling 2.64 ERA. His biggest contribution came when he threw 5 1/3 no-hit innings in a CWS win over UC Irvine.
Elbow soreness cost Buehler the first couple of weeks of the 2015 season and perhaps a few spots in the draft, too (he was picked 24th). Still, his final numbers—a 5-2 record and a 2.95 ERA, with 92 strikeouts in 88 1/3 innings—were the envy of most starting pitchers.
Buehler has everything it takes to excel at the professional level. There’s a fastball that runs 95-96 mph consistently, and his low-effort delivery that should ease the chances of any further arm injury. He’s got a good curveball and slider and a serviceable change-up; the fact that he can mix them effectively has a chance to make him special if his command improves just a hair. The moment the Los Angeles Dodgers nabbed him with the 24th pick, MLB Network analyst Harold Reynolds compared him to former Dodgers great Orel Hershiser, who went 204-150, made three All-Star games and won a Cy Young during his illustrious 18-year major league career.
Buehler has his work cut out to get to that level, but as perhaps the most polished pitcher VU has ever produced, it’s not out of reach.
As good as Buehler was, he spent most of his career in Carson Fulmer’s shadow.
Of course, just about anyone would have played second fiddle to Fulmer, who ended his career with his name all over the VU record book. His career stats and ranks on the VU charts: a 24-3 record (tied for fourth in wins), a 1.99 ERA (second) in 271 1/3 innings, 14 saves (fifth) and 313 strikeouts (fifth).
Those are pretty special numbers, considering VU’s pitching history. Since Corbin’s arrival in 2003, Vanderbilt has had seven other pitchers—Buehler, Tyler Beede, Sonny Gray, Grayson Garvin, Mike Minor, David Price and Jeremy Sowers—selected in the first round alone.
Unlike Buehler, there’s nothing subtle about Fulmer, who spent the rest of his summer playing with the Winston-Salem Dash.
Barrel-chested and donning glasses, with a mane of sandy brown hair flowing out of the back of his cap, Fulmer works quickly—he pitches almost as if the baseball is on fire—has a violent delivery, and backs down from no one; it was not uncommon to see Fulmer engaging in a verbal back-and-forth with an opposing dugout throughout his career.
His competitive streak is off the charts; though Fulmer knew he’d almost assuredly be a millionaire, he nearly pulled off a 4.0 in the classroom last fall. The night before his starts, Fulmer was so keyed-up that he had difficulty sleeping and instead put his energy towards doing the team’s laundry. He learned self-discipline at an early age, earning a black belt in taekwondo by the time he turned 10.
The other uncommon thing about Fulmer is his maturity.
As a highly-recruited high-schooler out of All Saints’ Academy in Lakeland, Florida, Fulmer personally managed his own recruiting process, scheduling and making college visits by himself. While a quick glimpse of the hyper-competitive Fulmer on the mound might lead someone to think he’s arrogant, that couldn’t be much further from the truth: you’d have a hard time finding a more likable, polite, engaging, humble superstar than Fulmer.
Those are the reasons why, when Corbin was asked to describe Fulmer, the phrase “old soul” was used often.
His attributes as a baseball player are also special. Fulmer routinely sat in the mid-90s with his fastball and touched 98 with it at times, threw a curveball that may have been the most un-hittable pitch in college baseball in 2015, and even flashed an improved change-up when it suited him.
With his talent and competitive make-up, some thought Fulmer could be the first pick of the draft. Instead, he went eighth to the Chicago White Sox. Teams were concerned about his height—teams prefer starters a few inches taller than his six feet—and the combination of that and the violent delivery had scouts wondering if Fulmer can stand up to the workload of being professional starter.
If that’s true, the consolation prize for the Sox would be to get Fulmer as a reliever, a role in which he excelled for the first half of his college career. Of course, Fulmer’s the same guy who could still pound his fastball into the mid-90s with his 120th pitch of his 2015 starts, the same dude who beat Virginia in the College World Series title series in 2015 despite pitching with flu-like symptoms.
The one thing we know: if you bet against Carson Fulmer, you do so at your own risk.
One reason that Fulmer didn’t go first overall is because his best friend, Swanson, did.
When God drew up the blueprint for a shortstop, it was almost as if Swanson, who finished his season with the Hillsboro Hops, were what He had in mind. Swanson, a native of Marietta, Georgia., has outstanding athleticism—he’s both quick and fast—and excellent coordination, not to mention a quick release on his throws. He almost never makes a mental mistake, and he has a Derek Jeter-like gift for anticipating what comes next and making plays nobody else would think to make. The knock on Swanson has been arm strength—he played second as a sophomore due to circumstances beyond his control—but a quick Internet search reveals one highlight-reel play after another in which he gunned out a stunned baserunner.
Those gifts alone could get Swanson to the majors, but that’s only half the equation. He was one of the the SEC’s top hitters in ’15, batting .335/.423/.623. He’s got speed—he stole 39 bases in 47 career tries—and the knack of knowing when to take an extra base without being thrown out. He’s been more of a line-drive hitter throughout his career—he’s VU’s single-season record-holder for doubles—but ranked 18th in the NCAA in 2015 with 15 home runs.
When it comes to personality, Swanson is the anti-Fulmer in some ways. His personality is different than Fulmer’s. He rarely shows emotion on the field and isn’t quite as engaging in a one-on-one interaction, but the two are cut from the same cloth when it comes to competitive make-up. (The two admit that may not be a great recipe for roommates, which they were.) Corbin regards Swanson’s leadership and character as on-par with his baseball gifts.
The road to stardom is littered with No. 1 overall picks who never fulfilled their promise. Most of the misses, though, never had the combination of Swanson’s physical talents and his brain.
How special a feat is it for a school to have three first-round picks in one year? It’s only happened three other times in the 50-year history of the draft: Michigan in 1979 (Rick Leach, Steve Howe and Steve Perry), Rice in 2004 (Philip Humber, Jeff Niemann and Wade Townsend) and Miami in 2008 (Yonder Alonso, Jemile Weeks and Carlos Gutierrez).
And get this: the Commodores have at least four potential high picks—pitchers Ben Bowden, Jordan Sheffield and Hayden Stone, plus outfielder Bryan Reynolds—in next year’s draft. The same can be said for freshmen outfielder Jeren Kendall, third baseman Will Toffey and pitcher Kyle Wright in ’18.
With VU recruiting one No. 1 class after another, there may be who-knows-how-many-more of these drafts to come.