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College | Story | 5/3/2019

Bleday does it the Vandy way

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: JJ Bleday (Vanderbilt Athletics)

College Player Rankings | Top 300 MLB Draft Prospects | College Top 25

Just over the past week, a chorus of good vibrations provided those associated with the Vanderbilt baseball program ample opportunity for celebration.

It started with a Southeastern Conference series sweep of Auburn and continued with a midweek win over Tennessee Tech, victories that ran the Commodores’ winning streak to eight games heading into this weekend’s important SEC series at South Carolina. They have built a two-game lead in the SEC East Division standings and have climbed to No. 4 in the Perfect Game College Top 25 National Rankings.

There were a lot of good things happening in Nashville as the 2019 season barreled head-first into the pivotal month of  May. And while there were plenty of reasons for fist-bumps on the field, the Dores’ slugging junior outfielder and top MLB Draft prospect JJ Bleday found something even more important to celebrate off the field.

“I just got done with school work for the whole year,” Bleday exclaimed, setting the tone for a free and easy telephone conversation with Perfect Game on Wednesday. “I’m all done with my finals, so thank God that’s over with. It’s kind of like summer ball now, where all you have to worry about is having a good time with the team and just playing baseball.”

The No. 4-ranked Dores upped their overall record to 35-9 with a 21-10 victory over Tennessee Tech Tuesday night for their eighth-straight win. They’ve now won 11 of their last 12 games, a run that includes winning eight of their last nine SEC games after sweeping series with Alabama and Auburn the last two weekends.

Vanderbilt is 15-6 in league play, good for a two-game lead over Georgia for first place in the SEC East. It will be favored in their remaining three weekend series at South Carolina (May 3-5), at home with Missouri (May 10-12) and Kentucky (May 16-18).

“The only thing that matters right now for us is if we can continue to get better as a team,” head coach Tim Corbin told PG this week. “We’ve been pretty consistent and we have some older kids, which has helped, but the consistency of the group academically, socially and athletically has been nice to see; we just hope that that continues.”

Corbin’s message to his players this week was pretty straightforward: stay focused on your academics – specifically those final exams – because that’s the most important item on the table right now.

“And once you get out on the field," Corbin tells them, "clear your mind so that we can celebrate what we’re doing with one another on the field. After that, it’s just stay centered on your training prior to the game. We’re pretty methodical in what we do; we don’t really live beyond what we’re doing and that goes back to the maturity of the group.”

The biggest challenge the coaching staff faced during finals week was simply getting the entire team together at the same time for practices because each players’ exam schedule is different. But Corbin knows most of his players’ baseball careers will come to an end after college, which makes the academic side of the equation all the more important.

“The main goal is to come here and set a good example for the younger guys and be professional about the way that you go about your business on and off the field,” Bleday said. “You need to stick to a routine before practice or training and being able to pay attention in class – be attentive and take notes – and really just be a leader.”

Bleday is leading this veteran Commodores club by example this spring, and it’s been a pretty impressive example of hitting excellence. He boasts a slash line of .337/.447/.750; the slugging percentage is a team-best. He is also the team leader – by a large margin – in home runs (21), RBI (56), runs (55) and total bases (129).

He’s not doing it alone. The Commodores hit .321 as a team and average almost 8½ runs a game with every day players like sophomore utility Austin Martin (.413, 11 2Bs, 4 3Bs, 5 HRs) leading the way.

Senior infielder Ethan Paul, sophomore outfielder Cooper Davis, sophomore catcher Philip Clarke, senior utility Stephen Scott and junior infielder Harrison Ray all swinging it well while playing in at least 32 of the Dores’ 44 games; Bleday and Paul have started all 44.

Clarke played at the 2016 PG All-American Classic and 2016 PG National Showcase, as did sophomore outfielder Pat DeMarco, who has started 26 games this season. The seniors Paul and Scott were at the 2014 PG National and both were drafted last June – Paul by the Pirates in the 26th round and Scott by the Marlins in the 31st round – but decided to return for their senior season.

DeMarco (Yankees, 24th Rnd), Davis (Blue Jays, 25th Rnd) and  Martin (Indians, 37th Rnd) were all drafted out of their respective high schools in 2017.

“One through nine, there’s some interchangeable parts, but I think the balance throughout the lineup has been, again, consistent from the time that we started through right now,” Corbin said. “We’ve been consistent against the pitching, too, whether its right-handed or left-handed, which is good to see.”

Bleday concurred: “It’s a pretty diverse lineup, whether it’s getting on base, getting a bunt down, hitting a home run, hitting the ball in the gap. One through nine, anyone is able to do that and I think that gives us a huge advantage over other teams. Even the guys on the bench are able to come in and get the job done. … The amount of depth that we have is just on a different level, and we can take that and use it to our advantage.”

The pitching staff sports a combined 3.87 ERA, and junior right-hander Drake Fellows (9-0. 3.67 ERA), senior right-hander Patrick Raby (7-1, 2.77) and freshman righty Kumar Rocker (5-4, 4.31) have been the primary weekend starters; Fellows was at the 2015 PGAAC and Rocker at the 2017 PGAAC.

Sophomore right-hander Mason Hickman, an alumnus of the 2016 PG National, has made 13 appearances – six starts – and is 6-0 with a 2.05 ERA. Sophomore righty Tyler Brown leads the staff with nine saves; freshman righty Austin Becker, who has made two appearances out of the pen this season, joined Rocker as a 2017 PG All-American.

“It’s kind of a work in progress but the starters have been pretty consistent,” Corbin said. “The collection of starters has been pretty good and in terms of the bullpen we’re still trying to find the right mix of kids, but it’s been getting progressively better.”

Those are the numbers, the who, what, why, where, how. Now, let’s get to know a little bit more about the young man that’s driving the bus.

 


… … …


THE NOW 21-YEAR-OLD JJ BLEDAY DID MOST OF HIS GROWING UP IN TITUSVILLE, PA.,
before his parents Raymond and Kathy moved the family to Panama City Beach, Fla., after his sophomore year in high school.

He is a product of A. Crawford Mosley High School in Lynn Haven, Fla., where he also excelled in swimming and golf in addition to his prowess on the baseball field.

Bleday made his Perfect Game debut at age 14, playing with the Detroit Bees at the 2012 PG WWBA 14u National Championship in Marietta, Ga., where he earned all-tournament team recognition. He played with the Houston Banditos at the 2012 14u PG World Series in Marietta, but by the start of the 2013 summer travel ball season, Bleday was a fulltime member of the Indiana Prospects organization.

He began playing for Shane Stout and the Prospects while still living in Pennsylvania mostly because his older brother, Adam Bleday, was a part of the program. Adam went on to play collegiately at Virginia and Penn and was a Houston Astros farmhand in 2017-18.

“Shane recruited me with my brother to play in some tournaments and I became an Indiana Prospect when I was 15 years old,” Bleday said. “I stayed with them and I committed to Vanderbilt when I was with the organization.”

It proved to be a mutually beneficial partnership. The Prospects’ teams Bleday played on did a lot winning, and he was named to five more all-tournament teams in 2013-14 while wearing a Prospects’ uniform. He was also an all-tournament selection at the 2015 PG Southeast Qualifier #2 while playing with his new team, the North Florida Prospects.

“Those were great experiences,” Bleday said. “You get to meet a lot of new people, whether they’re on your team or a different team, and it’s just a lot of fun. You’re completely in the moment at that age and you’re not really worried about anything except having a good time with your guys. That helps you develop into a (better) player in the future, just being able to appreciate the little things like that.”

All told, Bleday is an alumni of 15 PG WWBA and PG BCS tournaments, performing both as an outfielder and a left-handed pitcher with a 90 mph fastball. He also earned Top Prospect List recognition at the 2014 PG Northeast Underclass Showcase and was named to the Top Prospect Team at the 2015 National Showcase in Fort Myers, Fla. Bleday was ultimately selected in the 39th round of the 2016 MLB June Amateur Draft, but he went unsigned and packed his bags for Nashville.

That was pretty much the plan all along. Bleday told PG he was “bound and determined” to honor his commitment to Vanderbilt, even though he had always thought it would be pretty cool to be drafted out of high school. But in the back of his mind he knew he wasn’t yet ready to play at the professional level and was sure three years playing collegiately would pay big dividends in terms of advancing his game.

“That’s why I came to Vanderbilt,” he said. “It’s the best program in the country in terms of development and coach Corbin develops you into a young man, whether it’s baseball or academics off the field. It gives you an opportunity to really see who you are and to grow as an individual physically and mentally, and I’m glad I chose this instead of professional baseball out of high school.”

Once he was on campus and a part of the program, Bleday stepped right into the Dores’ starting lineup during his freshman season in 2017; he hit .256 with two home runs, 22 RBI and 23 runs scored in 51 games. He missed 22 games with an oblique injury early in the 2018 season but came back to hit .368 with four home runs, 15 RBI and 26 runs scored.

That is not a misprint. It’s true that Bleday hit a total of six home runs and recorded 37 RBI in his first 90 games wearing a Vanderbilt uniform and has 21 home runs and 56 RBI in 44 games this season.

Nothing has changed fundamentally with his swing, Bleday noted, adding that he spent the offseason working to get stronger and more flexible while improving his hand-speed. He doesn’t step into the box thinking home run, and instead concentrates on sticking to his same approach and staying in his zone regardless of the count.

“The main thing that’s changed this year is just my maturity at the plate,” he said. “You’re more comfortable in certain situations, whether it’s guys on base, big situations or small situations. You’re just a more mature hitter and you know yourself better … and you have the ability to hit more frequent mistakes regardless of what the pitch is.

“God’s given you a swing, and it’s kind of like in your DNA,” he continued. “It’s going to evolve naturally, so don’t try to do too much. That’s my philosophy, just to stick with what you’re given and get a good pitch to hit; be aggressive, always attack.”

Bleday played in the Cape Cod League with the East Division champion Orleans Firebirds last summer, and league officials named him the Top Pro Prospect at season’s end. He feels like his game progressed in leaps and bounds during his time on the Cape.

“I started to slug a little bit more when I was up there, hitting some doubles and homers; that was probably the main thing that I noticed,” he said. “You’re facing some of the best competition up there on a daily basis, so it’s going to help you regardless of how you do.”

Corbin called Bleday’s approach to hitting “very balanced” while noting that he’s good at using the middle of the field and trying to get to the middle of the ball, and also not trying to manufacture his power. He’s got a very good understanding of the strike zone, Corbin said, and it’s rare when you see him come out of his approach.

“He’s pretty good about just staying within himself,” Corbin added. “He just doesn’t have any bad days emotionally, it’s just very balanced. You know what you’re going to get; you’re not guessing on the personality. When you’re not guessing on the personality there’s more consistency in the outcomes.”

PG National Scouting Coordinator Vincent Cervino had the opportunity to scout Bleday at a game in late February and offered the following as part of his observations:

(Bleday) fits prototypically into that category of “college right fielder” very well. … The profile is well-rounded, led by his easily projectable profile of corner-outfielder, along with one of the best pure it tools in the draft, at any level. The barrel control, arm strength and potentially the onset of pull-side power all bode extraordinarily well for Bleday who will be expected to hear his name called on Day 1 of the draft come June.

In its most recent 2019 Top MLB Draft Prospects list published April 24, Perfect Game ranked Bleday at No. 7 overall (college, juco, high school). He ranks as the No. 4 college position-player available behind Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman, California first baseman Andrew Vaughn and UNLV shortstop Bryson Stott.

PG also published its first MLB Mock Draft last week, an exercise that had Bleday going 10th overall to the San Francisco Giants. Other early mock drafts also project the Vandy outfielder as consensus top-10 pick.

… … …


JJ BLEDAY DOESN'T DENY THAT THOUGHTS OF THE UPCOMING MLB DRAFT
are lurking nearby, right there in the back of his mind, in fact; it's difficult to block out all the noise. He avoids social media as much as possible simply because what he reads or hears on feels like those platforms will only become a distraction he really doesn’t need to deal with right now.

So, he chooses to do the one thing he can somewhat control, and that’s help lead the Commodores back to the College World Series in Omaha after a three-year absence. And there’s no one else Corbin would rather have leading that difficult march than Bleday, if for no other reason than JJ's  winning personality.

“He’s just fun to be around,” the head coach said. “He’s like coaching your dad. It’s a 35-year-old man who drops his kids off at school and then comes to the ballpark and plays with the young kids: that’s him. He’s just very mature, low maintenance … and he’s not looking at anything but what he can do to help the team. It’s rare – these kids are more rare all the time – and it’s a godsend.

“When somebody asks me about that kid I just say that the mentality is impeccable,” Corbin added. “It’s just a very strong mentality for life, and because of that it’s a strong mentality inside of the game of baseball.”

And the thing that Corbin most appreciates about his rising star is the impression Bleday makes on the Dores’ younger players. The coaches tell those guys that it’s very important they pay close attention to the things Bleday does well during the time the potential first round draft pick is still a part of the program.

It is, after all, a tremendous opportunity to learn from someone who is enjoying a phenomenal season, handles himself appropriately and never allows himself to look ahead, not too far, anyway. There is, the people around the
Vanderbilt program will tell you. still so much more to accomplish today.

“Good for (Bleday's) parents,” Corbin said of Raymond and Kathy. “Good for his parents that they raised someone like that and I appreciate them giving him to us for three years. It’s too short, but it’s been a lot of fun with him and I’m just going to try to enjoy it.”

Corbin, now in his 17th season at Vanderbilt, has guided his share of early round draft picks during his tenure; former Commodores David Price and Dansby Swanson were the No. 1 overall picks in 2007 and 2015, respectively. He doesn’t necessarily jump out of his socks when he sees many of his former players wearing a big-league uniform, although he's happy and proud that those guys were given the opportunity to realize a lifelong dream.

What he really enjoys, however, is seeing the way they handle the weeks and days leading up to the draft, whether or not they can continue to make other people around them better and how they interact with teammates inside the clubhouse.

“And also how they handle situations beyond Vanderbilt because if they do that with some consistency it means that we as a university helped them and (we) did well,” Corbin said. “If they play well, that’s one thing, but if they manage life outside of here that’s the part that I look upon as being the greatest asset of what Vanderbilt and our university does for them.”

Bleday didn’t arrive at Vanderbilt back in the fall of 2016 thinking he would be projected to be a top-10 pick in the MLB June Amateur Draft in the spring of 2019. He’s mostly just grateful for being given the opportunity to be a part of the culture that defines Vanderbilt Baseball and that enabled him to grow and prosper as both a player and a person. He appreciates it and takes some pride in the fact that all the attention he is receiving provides proof in the pudding that hard work can pay off.

The high-flying Commodores have certainly put themselves in a great position to win an SEC regular-season championship and earn a top seed in the SEC tournament; they sit No. 2 in RPI and if the winning continues they will host both an NCAA Regional and Super Regional.

“We’ve earned the spot that we’re in right now,” Bleday said. “We do a lot of hard work on a daily basis; we train hard and we have a good time doing it. We try not to get ahead of ourselves to try and get results, we just pretty much stay in the moment. We do our best to attack guys and try to win each frame and win each pitch and put ourselves in a good position to just win a ballgame.”

It is the goal of Bleday and his teammates to win the last ballgame of the season under the bright lights at TD Ameritrade Park on a warm mid-June night in Omaha. When that happens and the Commodores have secured their second CWS championship since 2015, everything will have come full circle for JJ Bleday and his three-year Vanderbilt experience. And the thought of taking that last final exam will be distant but lasting memory.

“I knew it was going to be tough trying to adjust, whether it be classes or training or something else,” Bleday said, looking back on his freshman year. “But the environment and the culture that the older guys brought you into, it’s something that you’re never going to forget. … It’s definitely been a fun ride and I’m excited to keep it going.”



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