BERKELEY, Calif. - A Twitter user posed an interesting question last week: Is Andrew Vaughn the best college hitter ever? Considering all the great bats that have passed through college baseball over the decades, it's impossible to put that label on any single player, past or present. But the fact that Vaughn is right there in the discussion with any of the all-time greats is telling.
Few college hitters have ever shown the combination of elite power and elite hitting ability that Vaughn has demonstrated during his three-year college career at California. He hit .349/.414/.555 with 12 homers and 50 RBIs to earn freshman All-America honors in 2017. He hit .402/.531/.819 with 23 homers, 14 doubles, 63 RBIs to become just the Division I underclassman this century to win the Golden Spikes Award in 2018. That season, he had more than twice as many extra-base hits and walks (44) as strikeouts (18).
And Vaughn has kept on terrorizing opposing pitchers at a remarkable level as a junior this spring, hitting .344/.519/.708 with 10 homers and 30 RBIs, along with 31 walks and 20 strikeouts. Despite returning to campus as the reigning Golden Spikes Award winner and a slam-dunk top-10 (probably top-five) pick in the upcoming draft, Vaughn hasn't been fazed one iota by any external expectations or pressures.
"It's just a game, man. That's all I've got to play it as," Vaughn said. "I just go out there every day, try to do my best, help my teammates win, and everything else takes care of itself. I mean, it is a great stage to be on, winning that Golden Spikes last year was unbelievable, but just gotta go out there and play the game. Can't think about trying to win it again, or try to go out and do better than I did last year - can't think that way, or you're not gonna do well."
Vaughn is as even-keeled as athletes get. He said he hasn't gotten any extra attention walking around campus as the reigning national player of the year, but he likes it just fine that way. "I just like to stay to myself and be a quiet guy," he said.
He's focused on playing for his teammates, on a mission to get Cal to the postseason for the first time since 2015.
"We talk about it all the time with all of our draft guys - 'Hey, just put the team first, do what you're supposed to do for the team and it'll all work out for the draft,' but it's a lot easier said than done," said second-year Cal coach Mike Neu. "A lot of guys, it's tough, there's distractions, there's a lot of scouts, there's so many things that happen. But he just truly has lived that. He's just, 'Hey, I'm gonna do whatever I can to help the team win.' I think that's why it's working out for him. He has some distractions but it doesn't affect him. He just goes out and plays the same way every day."
And the way he plays every day is nothing short of dazzling. If he comes to the plate with first base occupied, and you know he might actually get something to hit, you can't help but inch forward in your seat in anticipation of seeing something special. In Saturday's win against Washington State, Vaughn walked in his first at-bat - something he's used to doing, like most elite sluggers. In his second at-bat, he drove a screaming double the other way into the right-center gap and went on to score.
In his third at-bat, he hit one of the most jaw-dropping moon shots you'll ever see. Wazzu lefty A.J. Block left an 87 mph fastball over the heart of the plate, and Vaughn deposited it on the roof of the second building beyond the left-field wall for a monstrous two-run homer.
"Either that one or the one I hit at Cal Poly this year - they were very close, some of the farthest balls I've ever hit," Vaughn said.
An ultra-physical 6-foot, 214-pound righthanded hitter, Vaughn seems in complete control of the strike zone at all times, and there's no obvious way to get him out - he can crush the ball to the opposite field, as I saw him do for a solo homer to right in Week One in Arizona and again for that double to right-center on Saturday. Or he can turn on the ball with authority as well as any hitter in the country. Even though pitchers work him very carefully every time he comes to the plate, he seldom chases out of the zone, and his career walk-strikeout mark is now 94-62, which is particularly insane for an elite power hitter.
"Just being a hitter first, that's the biggest thing," Vaughn said. "Knowing my strike zone, the strike zone may change game to game, but it's still the same box. Just get my pitches in that zone and hit 'em. I think I've grown into it a little more. Throughout high school I had a good eye, but then coming in here and learning it even better, better umpires so the zone gets better. I just came into my own and learned it good."
And that's what makes Vaughn so special: not only does he have prodigious power, but he also might be the best pure hitter in college baseball.
"The combination of him just, he's a hitter, he can get a hit, he can use the whole field, he can take a walk, and then he can launch a ball as far as anybody in the country," Neu said. "It's just such a rare combination. You just really don't see that this level, almost ever. So it's pretty fun to watch. I'm glad I'm getting to see him for these two years, it's just impressive."
Vaughn is also an ideal teammate. When freshman Grant Holman decided to dye his hair pink to support his mother's fight against cancer, Vaughn was right there with him.
"Beginning of the year he was like, 'Hey man, I'm gonna dye my hair pink.' He was telling a couple guys, 'Hey, come over to my house, let's do it.' We cut up some mohawks and put pink dye in it," Vaughn said with a chuckle. "It said it was gonna come out in 30 washes, but it's been two months, so I think it's in there for a while."
"It's just him being a great teammate again," Neu said. "Just one of those things like, 'Yep, hey. You've got a battle, I'm in it with you.' Pretty cool.
"Not only is he an unbelievable hitter and an unbelievable player, but he puts the team first all the time. And he just wants to win. It's just fun to see him take batting practice every day, and to see how far he hit that ball today, that was impressive. I think this is my sixth year at Cal, and I don't think I've seen one hit that far in a game before. That was unbelievable. I just enjoy watching him play every day."
Anyone who's gotten the chance to watch Vaughn do his thing over the last three years surely feels the same way - watching him play feels like one of those rare privileges that should never be taken for granted.
||D1Baseball.com is your online home for college baseball scores, schedules, standings, statistics, analysis, features, podcasts and prospect coverage.