Cal first baseman Andrew Vaughn has gone from unknown to a candidate for Pac-12 Player of the Year

What makes Cal first baseman Andrew Vaughn tick? From hitting home runs over his neighbors' fence, to earning a pair of coveted sandals with his only high school home run, to learning the finer points of hitting in Healdsburg, the Bears' freshman phenom has become a Pac-12 powerhouse.

Before his final game at Santa Rosa (Calif.) Maria Carrillo, shortstop Andrew Vaughn's old second baseman -- Jake Scheiner, now a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award -- made a bet with him. Scheiner had always had a pair of sandals Vaughn admired -- "We called them the Jesus Ones," Vaughn said. So, for Vaughn's final high school game, Scheiner -- then at Santa Rosa Junior College -- told Vaughn that if he hit a home run, he'd buy him a pair.

It may not sound like much of a challenge now -- Vaughn, now California's starting first baseman, leads the Pac-12 with 12 home runs -- but a year ago, it was a big deal. Vaughn had never hit a home run in a high school game. But, for a pair of sandals, he obliged.

"We were at Cardinal Newman High School," said Vaughn, sitting in a folding chair the shadow of Haas Pavilion, overlooking an event staff softball game on Evans Diamond, before the Bears' trip to Oregon State. "We were down 13-1, so it didn't really matter at the time, and I just hit one over the left field fence." Vaughn had hit plenty of home runs in summer ball, including a three-run job in the COPABE Pan American Championships title game against Cuba, in Columbia, the summer after his freshman year at Maria Carrillo. He had just never hit one in high school, until that tater against Cardinal Newman.

"Little League, he always hit 'em, travel ball he used to hit them all the time. I don't know what happened in high school," said Vaughn's father, Toby Vaughn. "Our fields are brutal here. All the wind blows in."

That wasn't a problem for the right-handed slugger against USC in April. On April 21, he skied a towering first-inning home run over the Edwards Track Stadium grandstands and onto the track beyond right center field, and in the ninth, he popped a walk-off grand slam over the right field fence. It was one of two walk-off home runs he'd hit on the weekend, in front of over a dozen family and friends.

"We've seen few and far between of those balls hit that direction that get out of the park," said head coach David Esquer, who's had his fair share of left-handed power, in big leaguer Andrew Knapp (a switch-hitter), former big leaguer David Cooper and 2011 playoff hero Devon Rodriguez. "The home run he hit against USC on that Friday was as far a home run I've seen hit to right field by a right-handed hitter here, even through the juiced bat era."

It was during that juiced bat era that Toby Vaughn took his son to his first Cal game. Both remember a two-way player hitting two home runs in that game, though neither can remember who it was (most likely the left-handed hitting Blake Smith). That was when Andrew fell in love with the Bears. Toby Vaughn grew up with former Bears infielder Darryl Vice (1986-89), and since Andrew was 7, he'd regularly taken him to games. Andrew figured he'd gone to over a dozen games at Evans Diamond, before the summer after his freshman year, when he earned his one and only scholarship offer after a prospect camp. It was an offer he took, immediately.

"I never talked to anybody too much. I got that email from UCLA that everybody gets about the camps, because they go after guys early. But, this was my first offer, and I took it," Vaughn said. "I didn't really want any other offers."

Vaughn wasn't a well-known MLB Draft prospect like classmate Jared Horn. He hit .380 in his career at Maria Carrillo (126-for-332), and got his fair share of local recognition -- first-team all-state for medium schools by both MaxPreps and, first-team all-North Coast Section and second team all-Metro by the San Francisco Chronicle, and North Bay Player of the Year and Redwood Empire Player of the Year -- but his name wasn't known outside of the Bay Area.

"He wasn't really a super high-profile high school player," said one Major League scout. "I didn't see him a whole lot. I don't think people saw him a whole lot."

Now, he leads Pac-12 freshmen in every single offensive category -- home runs (12; 1st overall), batting average (.347; 7th overall), slugging (.579; 2nd overall), on-base percentage (.421; 8th overall), hits (66; 6th overall), RBIs (47; 4th overall) and total bases (110; 2nd overall).  Playing a position he's never played before -- first base -- the career shortstop has committed just 2 errors all season, and boasts a .996 fielding percentage.

That little-known local prospect could wind up as the Pac-12's Newcomer of the Year, if not the conference's Player of the Year. It's a leap that's almost unheard of. 

"No. Nothing like that," the scout said. "I haven't seen many guys make that kind of a jump ... It's amazing."

"He's unreal," said former Cal pitching coach and recruiting coordinator Mike Neu, now the head coach at Pacific. "It's unreal."

Mrs. Wilford's Fence

From the age of 4, Andrew was a baseball junkie. He still remembers his first Major League game, between the Texas Rangers and the Oakland Athletics. It's one of his earliest memories, so it's not complete, but he did remember the reason that game was his first: His father, Toby Vaughn -- a stand out at Santa Rosa (Calif.) Piner, who later played two years at Sonoma State as an all-conference utility player -- played against and with then-Rangers closer John Wetteland.

"John went to rival Cardinal Newman, and we played American Legion baseball together. I played with John Wetteland, and I grew up with some pretty good ballplayers," Toby said. "It was cool. It was good that he got to see him, and at least get to say 'Hi.' John was John, and it was good for him to see what it was like, and he's blossomed from what he's done, just watching people. Andrew was probably 4. Andrew wasn't that old. I remember, I brought my dad with me. It has been that long, because my dad didn't have cancer then. We paid tickets. We bought our own tickets. He didn't know we were coming or anything like that. I walked down and yelled his name, he turned around and saw who it was. I went down and shook hands, talked for a couple minutes, then here come some autographers, so we ran, and he ran. It was a good memory for him." Shortly thereafter, Vaughn's mother had her thyroid scratched during a surgery. She's required medication ever since, but hasn't missed a game, from Little League to Cal.

"They're pretty tight, those two," Toby Vaughn said. "I can vouch for that."

Every day for the next three or four years, Toby would come home from work as a water distribution operator for the town of Windsor, Calif., and before he could get out of his work clothes, Andrew would beg him to go out in the back yard and hit. 

"He learned it at a young age," Toby said. "We worked a lot, when he was little, and he just took to it, and loved it. He just always hit the ball farther than anybody."

It took him a while to get there, though. 100 feet away in the Vaughn back yard was a wooden fence, separating the Vaughn family's back yard from that of Mr. and Mrs. Wilford, an elderly couple and the parents of one of Toby's high school acquaintances. To one side was the Vaughn house, and to the other, more houses. So, Andrew learned to hit to center.

"Every day, I'd just go swing in the back yard, and he'd just flip me balls, and we'd perfect it," Andrew said. "My goal, when I was a kid, was, we had a fence in our back yard, which was a little over 100 feet away. When I was small, it was my goal ... It was a big obstacle for me. Me and my dad spent days, months out there, trying to do it ... I had to hit it over that fence, before I could go hit on the field ... They knew what I was trying to do, and once I finally got it, they'd get the ball and tossed it back over."

Once those shots came more frequently, the two moved on to greener pastures, as it were, to hit at the local little league field, just two blocks from the house, at Mark West Elementary.

"We would hit so often," Vaughn said. "I probably took more swings when I was 5 through 10 than I do now, which is hard to say, because I take a lot now. Every day, I'd just go swing in the back yard, and he'd just flip me balls, and we'd perfect it. I'd hit buckets full. I'd hit five or six buckets and make my dad flip them to me. It'd be different, every day, depending on how tired I got. If I was still going, I was still going."

The Little League field was one that Andrew walked to regularly. He'd grab his friends, who were also playing that day, and snake down the street, and watch his friends play, then play himself, and finally, get his customary game day hot dog. He figured he walks farther every day to class.

He's certainly walked more than his fair share this season.

Vaughn has been walked 19 times in 45 games, with all but one of those coming in the last 24 games. The most times he ever walked in a high school season was 16, as a junior, when he hit .440 in 26 games. 

The Philosophy of Hitting

The scout who spoke with BearTerritory said he'd never seen a freshman who was as feared as Vaughn has become. The fact that he's been walked as frequently as he has, with power-hitting Denis Karas (second in the Pac-12 with 11 home runs) behind him, is testament to that. "One of the high school kids said, 'What is Andrew doing different at Cal than he was in high school?' This was two months ago," Toby said last week. "I said, 'The funny thing is, Andrew hasn't changed. They're not afraid of him in college. They'll pitch to him. In high school, they wouldn't pitch to him,' and we get out here, and here we go again."

Andrew Vaughn is a different kind of hitter, part of a newer school of hitting philosophy. During spring training, former American League MVP Josh Donaldson filmed a spot that was posted by on April 6, explaining his philosophy -- "pulling the string" between his hands and front foot as he strides and loads, simultaneously; keeping the front forearm on a higher plane than his top hand; putting the bat on a slightly upward trajectory through the zone -- and all of it, each mechanical tick, is present in Vaughn's swing. He doesn't have Donaldson's leg kick, but he's developed one since arriving at Cal.

"We come at it from different ways, but yeah, a lot of it's the same," Vaughn said. "I've always thought of my power as being gap-to-gap, right center to left center. I'm just trying to hit the ball where it's pitched. If it's middle-away-away, and I put my best swing on it, I should be able to hit it just as far to right center as I can to left center."

Vaughn puts his whole body into his swing, without selling out to pull everything, and rarely getting out in front of himself. He stays balanced, and as a result, can hit with equal power to all fields.

"He's got what we call in the professional world, he's very hitter-ish," said one American League scout. "He's got a hitter-ish type mentality. Put him in the lineup, and he's going to hit."

"It's a short, flat swing, he can hit the ball hard, he has a little bit of power," Neu said of his first impressions of Vaughn's swing, four years ago. "It looked really, really good. He's a confident player. He loves the game, and he plays hard. We just felt like it was all the things we were looking for when we got him. We felt good about him. He was literally one of our top guys, in that class, and our first commit in that class."

When asked about his approach, Vaughn equivocates. To him, hitting is hitting. The roots of his approach trace to his father. "He was a contact guy," Vaughn said. "My dad hit for average when he played. I've seen his stats. In high school, he hit well over .400 his junior and senior year. I really haven't looked into his stats in college, but he was a contact guy. He was fast."

Vaughn laughed, reflexively. He's not the fleetest of foot, he admitted. Beyond that simple contact-based approach, he prefers to defer to Joey Gomes, brother of former big leaguer Jonny Gomes, a former pro himself, and the coach of the Healdsburg Prune Packers -- the summer wooden-bat league team for whom Vaughn played this past summer.

When Jonny Gomes spent a week this summer in Healdsburg, Vaughn was attached to the 13-year Major League veteran at the hip.

"When my brother came and visited the team and talked to the team for a week, he wanted to be in his back pocket," Gomes said. "Andrew's not the kid to ask what kind of car Derek Jeter drives. It's not that stuff. He really wants to know what you've got to do to be a professional baseball player, and how do you conduct yourself like that -- real questions that you just don't hear 17-, 18-year olds ask, ever. It's what's between his ears and right there in his chest."

"That kind of changed my outlook on hitting, learning from Joey Gomes, who played 10-plus years," Vaughn said. "Jonny also came out, too, but he was just out there for a couple days. Joey really showed me some things about hitting. Everything was just so simplified down. He'd tell us: 'You guys have the skills. You got here. You know how to hit. Don't think; just do it. Don't think; just hit.'"

Not thinking isn't something Vaughn does easily -- he was on the honor roll all eight semesters at Maria Carrillo -- but Joey Gomes's approach spoke to him. 

"Whenever anything's going wrong, he said, just simplify," Vaughn said. "If you think you're not seeing the ball well, just simplify it; do the things you grew up doing, and make it like a Little League game, honestly. He's a big statistics guy. He's smart about all the physics and stuff -- hitting the ball right, the angles and stuff -- but to be a big leaguer, he said, you have to put your best swing on the ball, 10 out of 10 times to bat .300."

He certainly didn't think much when there were two outs, in the bottom of the ninth, and the bases loaded against the Trojans, facing one of the conference's top flame-throwing closers in Bryce Dyrda. Both of the walk-offs Vaughn hit against USC, in fact, came against Dyrda.

“The thing that I see him now, he is much more comfortable in uncomfortable situations," Gomes said. "Here's my take with [the walk-offs]: All summer, any hitter, any hitter is going to hear this language, and that language is: No one's guarding you. No one's guarding you in this sport. No one's guarding you at the plate. You can put any move you want on any pitch you want, and if you're mentally tough enough, and mentally focused enough, you can take your best swing when the time comes for you to take your best swing. Andrew texted me after both of those games, and he's with Cal right now, and I only touch base with Andrew when he reaches out to me, but I could tell that he's changing by the texts that I'm getting." Vaughn doesn't have one mechanic, or even one swing. When he got to Healdsburg, Vaughn got his front foot down early -- which helps some hitters -- but it created a few more problems than it solved.

“I didn’t want Andrew to change," Gomes said. I wanted Andrew to evolve. Whatever the evolutionary process was going to be over this work from the summer, that was going to be the adjustment. When I say that, it's not to be pretentious at all. It's to say, 'I don't know what you're swing will look like when we're done. It's going to look like whatever it needs to look like.' To say that there's some Josh [Donaldson], yeah, there is some Josh in there, but probably because they're both blond and 5-11 and hit homers."

Gomes didn't have an end goal when it came to Vaughn, save for the fact that he wanted him to find a natural rhythm, and to be free, to take a different swing depending on the pitch and location.

“Andrew Vaughn has got some of the best bat-on-ball presence that I have seen," Gomes said. "I’ve seen a lot of good hitters, and I played for a long, long time, too, and he’s got some of the best bat-on-baseball coordination that I have seen. Really, the fix was never a fix. It was to let him be free. We created a little bit of a soft, slow rhythm, where things start slow and they gradually pick up. Now, when his front foot hits the ground, it’s a thunder storm coming through. I would talk to him a little bit about some of the guys that have success with that kind of a rhythm, and when he started doing it, I’ll tell you what, it was one of the most impressive batting practices I’ve seen from an 18-year old kid.”

Vaughn is adaptable, he's flexible and, most of all, he's unlocked his potential.

"He’s not really the kind of guy that is seeking a bunch of technical information," Gomes said. "I just explained this to another school about him — I said he’s not really a big draw-lines-on-the-iPad guy. You’ve got all the apps, you’ve got your iPad out and you’re trying to figure out a kid’s swing, and when I got him, he was more interested in talking to me about what it meant to be a professional hitter, and what it meant to be a guy that really takes care of his at-bats. He was a guy that was really more interested in what does it mean to be consistent, and to conduct yourself like a professional. To be honest, and to Andrew’s credit, I don’t get those questions very often, or at all. Jake Scheiner was a guy like that."

Vaughn hit .312 this past summer in the California Collegiate League, with 2 home runs and 28 RBIs.

Toby Vaughn said that he enjoyed college ball, but knew he wasn't going anywhere after that. He demurs when asked about his own contribution to his son's swing. He was just the one flipping balls out of the bucket.

"Andrew was just getting out of high school, and those guys were all college kids. For us, we didn't know what we were getting into," said Toby. "He was always more mature than the kids he's played with, because he's always played up. I think he really bonded with that group of kids. Joey Gomes has been wonderful for him. I've always worked with Andrew on hitting. I'll go throw with him in the cage, but when he comes home, he goes, 'I want to go see Joey,' so I say, 'Go see Joey.' It's meant a lot to him. As a parent, I really appreciate that. Just look at all those kids who were on the Prune Packers last year -- every one of them is excelling. It's just amazing the college careers they're having this year." One of Vaughn's teammates on the Prune Packers was Scheiner, his former high school teammate. He's ridden those Jesus Ones to Houston, where he's hitting .360 (4th in the American Athletic Conference), slugging .686 (leading the AAC) with a .447 on-base percentage (3rd in the AAC) and a conference-leading 13 home runs in his first season out of junior college.

Vaughn, of course, is the toast of the Pac-12, able to hit to all fields with power, and even hitting pitches at his eyes to parts of the park balls just don't go.

“Freedom allows him to do that. He’s not bound by a mechanic," Gomes said. "Think of a mechanic as a one-dimensional tool, or function. A mechanic — you hit the on button, you hit the off button. That’s what that operating system allows you to do. When you don’t subscribe to those types of rules, you don’t have a swing; you’re just a good hitter. That’s what we turned him and Jake Scheiner into.

"I don't want to even go down the road of, 'What's your one thing,' because the one thing is whatever works for the hitter that you've got. Unlocking potential, that's the secret. Unlock the kid's potential. The trick of it is, can you unlock each individual's hidden potential, why the kid was signed, why he's there, why he got his at-bat or his inning. Can you unlock that potential? I keep Andrew grounded by saying, 'Anybody can do what you're doing. No one's guarding you. Anyone can do it,' but it's a joke. The joke is that anybody can put a good swing on a ball and do that, and it's different when you're motivated. Andrew loves the game so much, that it doesn't take these outside influences to spark him. He shows up like that all the time."

Camp Cal

In the summer of 2013, fellow Santa Rosa native Tony Arnerich -- then Cal's hitting coach -- began to hear about Vaughn, then a shortstop at Maria Carrillo, from the Pumas' head coach, an old friend of Arnerich's named Derek DeBenedetti.

Vaughn had just finished his freshman season in high school, hitting .321 with 4 doubles and 9 runs, while going 2-1 with a 1.45 ERA in 19.1 innings over 5 appearances on the mound. Arnerich and Neu invited Vaughn to a summer prospect camp.

"[Debenedetti] told me about him, and so he came to our showcase, and really impressed," Arnerich said. "I still text with him here and there. Always been grateful for everything, and humble."

Four years later, Vaughn is a leading contender for the Pac-12 Player of the Year, and, failing that, would almost certainly be a lock for Pac-12 Freshman of the Year. No player has ever won both awards, and no Cal player has ever taken home the top freshman honors. Last season, catcher Brett Cumberland (now in the Atlanta Braves system) was named the Player of the Year, the first Bear since Tony Renda in 2011. 

Appropriately enough, when Vaughn first arrived on Cal's campus for that prospect camp, his swing reminded Neu of Renda's -- it was vicious and physical, without being over-wrought and recklessly violent.

"He came to our prospect camp, and I knew he could hit. The guy his swing reminded me of, and me and Eskie talked about it, was Renda," Neu said. "He just squared a lot of balls up, and he just had a really flat swing. The ball just exploded off his bat ... It was pretty immediate that we felt, 'Hey, we've got something here.' Once he was taking BP, we were like, 'Yep, this is a guy.'"

Within a week, the Bears offered him. He committed on the spot.

Every single prospect camp -- two, sometimes three a year -- saw Vaughn come back.

"Andrew hates to watch baseball," Toby said. "He loves to play it, but it's hard for him to watch."

"I was a big camp guy. You can ask Eskie," Andrew said. "I think I came to the most. I just loved coming to them. Even after I committed, I would come and just hang out with the guys, and just have fun on the field. I remember after Homecoming, after Prom [junior year], I'd be here the next day, at camp, just to see the coaches and play, just to be out here, just to be on the field." Over the course of those camps, the staff saw something beyond just a hitter. 

"He'd keep coming. He just wanted to be comfortable, be on the field, have us throw him batting practice. He's just always wanted to be around campus. He's a throwback, he really is," Esquer said. "He's really a throwback baseball player. He's gritty. He's tough. He almost has a disdain for pitchers, in a good way. I think those are qualities you'd like to see in more of your players."

There was a hardness to Vaughn, a persistence. It was something Esquer has seen in big leaguers like Renda and Mark Canha.

"I think he's got a little bit of Renda and Canha in him. Both of those guys had a little bit of a nasty streak in them, as far as how they played the game, and how they embraced competition," Esquer said. "He liked that. They're a little confrontational, and that's something we talk about a lot in our program. You've got to embrace the confrontation between you and the opponent. It's not just a flexing of athletic performance. There's will involved, when you're competing against somebody."

Get Him Out

There was never an explicit directive to Cal's pitchers to find every hole in Vaughn's swing, once he got to campus this fall. That being said, that's what happened.

"I remember facing all of our guys -- [Tanner] Dodson, Horn, [Erik] Martinez, Joey [Matulovich] -- and I just remember them giving me their best stuff, and that's what I wanted, of course, to make myself better," Vaughn said. "Every time I'd get a hit, I'd hear Thomas [Eager] say something under his breath in the dugout."

Eager said he never told his pitchers to find every one of Vaughn's holes, or to be especially hard on him.

"To be completely honest with you, I don't know if I said that, so to speak," Eager said. "I know in the fall, he was extremely difficult to get out, and we were trying everything. We tried different pitches, different counts, trying to speed him up, to get him to want to pull, to throw slow away, try to get him to jam him in, and he does such a good job of hitting, he's tough to pitch to, man. Honestly, he's difficult to pitch to. It's crazy.

"It sounds like a good story, but that's not something I would say, knowing us, knowing my personality. That wouldn't be what I would say, but in retrospect, I was asking guys to do things that maybe some of our pitchers weren't comfortable doing, in the sense of, 'Hey, we're going to try to find his weakness, so we can exploit it in the fall,' as opposed to pitch to our pitchers' strengths, for us. I don't think we ever really found a weakness. I will say this, though: We did keep him in the ballpark a hell of a lot more in the fall than some of the other teams have."

As for his grumblings each time Vaughn would run up the first base line after frustrating one of his charges? Well, they weren't exactly PG-13.

"I'd be like, 'Oh, man, you ...' Like, 'What are we doing? Are you serious?'" Eager said. "It was unbelievable. He's fun to call pitches against, and I'm always blessed he's on our team, I'll tell you that. There would be times where we'd set him up to jam him, and we'd throw a fastball, and he'd hit a jam shot over the second baseman, and I'd be like, 'What the hell?' Then, you set him up to pull, and you throw him a change away, and he'd either hit it to the four-hole or the six-hole, and you're like, 'Son of a bitch. He gets hits wherever it goes.' It's not necessarily that he'd barrel them the whole time, but he got a lot of hits. What we tell hitters all the time is, 'How many hits do you have in your swing?' Vaughn's got a lot of hits in his swing. He's got a lot of different hits." All Vaughn did was smile. There's a simplicity in both the swing and the man, an inherent honesty that comes through his feet, his hands and his bat. It's pure. It's love.

"It's the approach I've always had, and always will have," Vaughn said.

"This kid, his mentality, the ability to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations is what's going to carry him in this game," Gomes said. "You know why they call him a throwback player? Because he doesn't run a 6.5 60. He's not pretty on defense. He's slow, he's right-handed. He knows it, and we joke about it all the time, but when you get in the batter's box, none of that matters in there. It really doesn't. If you put your good swing on a ball, and throw some stuff up in the gap, you're already at second. That's what's going to make that kid not just survive, but he's going to thrive."

Like another Santa Rosa native, former Bears ace and Major Leaguer Erik Johnson, there's something different about this bright-eyed, broad-shouldered, blond bull.

"He's got some country in him," Toby laughed.

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