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TCU Baseball: TCU vs Vanderbilt Preview

TCU and defending national champion Vanderbilt will face off today with the winning team advancing to the CWS semi-finals. The other will be cast into the loser's bracket, where few have gone and lived to tell the tale.....

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Here come the Frogs!!
Here come the Frogs!!
Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports
[Editor's note: Tonight's starters are TCU's Alex Young vs. Vandy's Phillip Pfeifer]

Oh how close we came to an all-SEC elimination game in TCU's side of the CWS bracket.  Cal State Fullerton is a great team, but I think we all would have preferred to face the Titans over the defending CWS champion; not to mention the fun we would have had watching ESPN panic as they tried to explain the SEC's failure to dominate every sporting event in every conceivable way.  I'd imagine that would have been like in sci-fi movies when the robot keeps repeating "does not compute" and shaking violently until its head explodes.

All that aside, what an impressive victory by the Commodores yesterday.  Down 3-1 with one out in the bottom of the ninth, the 'Dores next three at bats resulted in a double, an RBI double and a 2 run, walk off home run.  Who hit that home run? Freshman Jeren Kendall. Thats....uh....prettyyyyy....pretty good.  Even though they will have to play TCU on short rest, I'm sure that Vandy is riding high on emotion coming off that finish.  The Frogs have reason to be excited themselves though, after they absolutely took it to an LSU team that was ranked #1 in the country for a considerable portion of the regular season and is still the highest ranked national seed remaining in the tournament.

Back in March TCU actually defeated this Vanderbilt team, then ranked #1 in the country, 4-2 on a neutral site in their only meeting of the season.  In that game, P-Mo earned the win allowing only two hits in six innings while TCU chased Vandy's starter, Walker Buehler, from the game after four innings.  The Commodores went on to own a 20-10 record in the SEC losing series to Ole Miss, South Carolina and Florida.  They also made it all the way to the championship game of the SEC tournament in which they, once again, lost to Florida.  You can check out this awesome FOW infographic by Andrew Felts for an overview on Vandy's accolades and their road to the CWS.  Long story short, they have not lost in the postseason and they have three first round draft picks with two in the top 10 picks: Dansby Swanson (No. 1 overall) and Carson Fulmer (No. 8 overall).

Pitching Comparison
Predicted Starters ERA H/9 K/9 BB/9 K:BB
LHP Alex Young (9-2) 2.31 7.3 9.2 2.1 4.33:1
LHP Philip Pfeifer (5-4) 4.09 7.5 11.4 4.3 2.63:1
RHP Walker Buehler (4-2) 2.97 9.0 9.3 2.9 3.24:1

I could bang my head against the wall all day long trying to figure out how Vanderbilt will choose to attack this TCU team.  One would think that they would throw their best lefty, as this has been the most popular strategy that opposing coaches have gone with against TCU's lefty heavy lineup throughout the year.  This strategy has worked pretty well throughout the playoffs as NC State and Texas A&M claimed their only victories against the Horned Frogs behind strong performances from their best LHPs. It worked pretty well for LSU on Sunday through three innings too, but after that it went not-so-well pretty quickly.

Philip Pfeifer is the 'Dore's best lefty. He is a Junior who was absent from the team last year after failing to meet team standards. He became their regular Saturday starter about half way through the year and has performed very well in the postseason this year, lasting at least 6 innings in both starts and earning wins in the regional round against Indiana and in the super regional round against Illinois. The fact that they pitched Pfeifer in the second game of the super regional opposite Illinois starter Tyler Jay (6th overall pick in the 2015 MLB draft) says that they have a lot of confidence in him. While he has an impressive K/9 ratio, he has been a little inconsistent at times and is prone to giving up walks with 40 on the season.

The other approach would be for Vanderbilt to go with the steadier Walker Buehler, who has been their regular Sunday starter this season. While he has not been as proficient as Pfeifer in getting Ks, he has the lower ERA and walks about half as many batters. With a team like TCU that loves to take advantage of your mistakes, its good to not give them free base runners. Buehler was also the starter when TCU defeated Vandy 4-2 back in March. He was chased from the game after four innings while giving up one run and was replaced by Pfeifer who pitched 5 innings and gave up the other three runs.  The good news is that unlike when Vandy played TCU earlier this year, they probably can't afford to use both of these pitchers against us in the same game.  That is a good thing because Vandy's bullpen has lost 11 games this year and has allowed 4.15 walks per nine innings.

My guess is that Pfeifer takes the mound, but I wouldn't really be surprised either way.  As I am writing this neither team has made an announcement about their starting pitcher, but I would expect TCU to go with Alex Young.  Young's performance against A&M last Monday was just too impressive and he has been a lot more consistent over the course of the season than Tyler Alexander, whom I expect would be TCU's next choice for this game.

Hitting Comparison
Offense Runs/G AVG OBP SLG HRs
TCU 6.0 0.288 0.371 0.378 27
Vanderbilt 6.9 0.294 0.384 0.464 67

The 2015 version of the 'Dores is actually a better hitting team than the 2014 team that won the CWS.  Their lead-off hitter, Dansby Swanson (.345/ .436 /.651), was the number one overall selection in the 2015 MLB draft last week and is leading the team with 15 home runs and 29 total extra base hits.  The lineup in general is good at getting the ball outside of the infield and are ranked 3rd nationally in both doubles and triples on the season. So, the rest of the team can hit for extra bases too.  That "rest of the team" is led by Zander Wiel (.319/ .409 / .576) and Rhett Wiseman (.317/ .417/ .565), both of whom are right behind Dansby with 14 home runs. Once you get past those guys it doesn't get a lot better.  They have 4 more guys who are all hitting close to or above .300 with 20 home runs between them.

In the other dugout, TCU has finally gotten their runs/game up to six!!! I've been watching this stat all year and Marsh has also talked about it a lot in his articles throughout the season.  This is really exciting when you consider that TCU's runs per game ratio was 4.8 back in 2014.  While TCU hasn't exactly been an offensive juggernaut, they have shown that they can hit and other than Vandy's ability to hit long balls, they don't have a considerable advantage over TCU offensively.  What TCU lacks in power, they make up for with aggressive base running.  In terms of stolen bases, TCU has 117 to Vanderbilt's 102 which rank 5th and 12th in the nation, respectively.  Both teams are also solid defensively, with TCU (9th overall) and Vandy (12th overall) both fielding .978.

When the Frogs opened up the season with a top 10 ranking, they wanted a shot at the defending national champion to prove to the country (and perhaps to themselves) that they were going to be a force to be reckoned with in 2015.  When they got that shot back in March they made the most of it.  Since then both teams have had their respective struggles, but have fought hard to climb the mountain and put themselves in this position.  Win today and you're one win away from the CWS championship series.  Lose today and, well, that's just one more mountain to climb.