De Bilt is a small village in The Netherlands. It isn’t famous at all, except that the Dutch weather institute has its main office there and therefore several times a year the village is mentioned in the main Dutch media when some kind of a record is broken in either temperatures, draught or rain fall. I wouldn’t tell you this were it not that one of the main baseball colleges in the U.S. is called Vanderbilt, named after the man who made a gift to build the school, apparently to heal some wounds left open after the American Civil War. Cornelius Vanderbilt could easily make such a gift, because he was a very wealthy man. He was a transport mogul of Dutch heritage, his family was originally from (“van”) De Bilt, although I guess that by the time he lived the only thing that was still Dutch in him was his last name (although I don’t discard that the ruthlessness and ambition might be in the genetics too). His legacy was worth well over $100MM dollars when he died, roughly more than $2Bn dollars nowadays, so the $1MM Nashville got to build a university was peanuts for him. In the years after his death his family squandered all the money and nowadays Cornelius only has this college in Tennessee left that holds his name up high. I bet he wouldn’t have thought of that on his death bed.
You, readers, probably know this a lot better than I do, but Vanderbilt is one of the top universities in the world. Times Higher Education ranks Vanderbilt 113th on its annual list in 2022 (mine is actually 139th, not too shabby...) and is making a name for itself, just like their baseball team does on college level.
It is just a coincidence, but after writing about Stryker Trahan last week, I thought it was remarkable that today’s random Diamondback, Matt Buschmann, attended a high school named Lafayette. Not in Louisiana though, but in Wildwood, on the outskirts of St. Louis, where he was born, a school also attended by former major leaguers like David Freese and Ryan Howard and current MLB-er Luke Voit. That’s good company to be with, and likewise would he find more good company in Nashville, where Buschmann would be teammates with Pedro Alvarez and David Price.
Names like that weren’t a given in the university’s household. The Vanderbilt Commodores (named after Cornelius’ nickname because of commanding a large vessel company) were an unsuccessful baseball program until Tim Corbin became head coach and built Vandy into a force to be reckoned with. Did it deliver just 17 players to the MLB until Corbin took the helm in Nashville, ever since 33 players have made their debut in the MLB, amongst them former Diamondbacks’ first overall pick Dansby Swanson, Walker Buehler, Bryan Reynolds, Tony Kemp, Mike Yastrzemski, Curt Casali, Mike Minor, Sonny Gray, Pedro Alvarez and David Price. But also last year’s #2 pick in the amateur draft Jack Leiter was a Commodore. This year’s #2 and D-Backs’ selection, Druw Jones, was committed to the Vanderbilt program.
Back to 2006 and we find right-handed pitcher Matt Buschmann in the Commodores’ rotation in his final year as a senior, after spending 3 years between the bullpen and a starting role. The results in his final season are solid although unspectacular. He leads the Commodores to a NCAA Atlanta Super Regional appearance and pitches a complete game in the first matchup with Michigan. That ends up being his final game as Vanderbilt is later eliminated by Georgia Tech. Thus he finishes his senior year with a 3.95 ERA and just 6 wins. Although Buschmann is one of the better starters on the team and with 95.2 innings in 15 games there can be hardly any durability concerns, MLB teams pass on the potential talent and he drops to the 15th round until being selected by the San Diego Padres.
After pitching more than 95 innings for Vanderbilt in 2006, Buschmann pitches 73.1 innings more for the Eugene Emeralds and Lake Elsinore Storm in 2006. In 2007 and 2008 he continues to rack up innings on that arm and pitches to sub-3.00 ERAs in A+ and AA.
“Knock on wood, I’ve never really had any problems with my arm. I think a lot of it comes from Vanderbilt where Tim Corbin, the head coach, instills a really good work ethic in all of his players who come out of there, a great pitching coach in Derek Johnson, who’s now the pitching coordinator of the Chicago Cubs, really created a really good arm care program and instilled a process of taking care of your arm and how important it was. Since then, I’ve worked hard to take care of my body, especially my arm. My health is the one thing I have that keeps me in the game and I think I understood that early. Being a 15th round senior sign, my opportunity lies in the fact that I can stay healthy.” - Matt Buschmann in a 2013 interview on a Tampa Bay fan blog on his durability
Though he doesn’t blow away any hitter, the prospect rankings take notice of Buschmann, grading him as a Top 30 prospect in the San Diego Padres’ farm system. Fangraphs calls him the riser in the system and a steal.
“Matt Buschmann was stolen in the 15th round of the 2006 draft out of Vanderbilt University, which is a heavily-scouted college. He has made significant improvements in his pro career and is finally on the cusp of a big league role. Buschmann survived the 2007 while pitching at a very good hitters’ environment. His 2008 numbers were even better upon a promotion to Double-A and he allowed just 137 hits in 147 innings of work. His rates included 3.53 BB/9 and 7.18 K/9. His fastball is fringe-average at 88-90 mph, along with a potentially-plus slider and a developing change-up.” - FanGraphs in late 2008 on Matt Buschmann in an article on the San Diego farm system
Buschmann is set to pitch in the PCL in 2008.
“If you talk to any free agent pitcher that came up and pitched in the PCL, their sole purpose is to get to the International League or at least the east side of the PCL.” - Matt Buschmann in a 2013 interview on a Tampa Bay fan blog on his experience in the PCL
The change-up doesn’t work, the fastball doesn’t blow anyone away and especially lefties feast on the righty’s repertoire in Triple A. A 6.18 ERA in 2009 for Portland, a 9.38 ERA in 2010 for Portland and a 7.31 ERA in 2011 for Tucson leave Buschmann stranded in AAA and being shuffled up and down between the PCL and the AA Texas League and in and out of the rotation and the bullpen.
“If I had to point to one or two things that caused my trouble in the PCL, it was probably fastball command, but also not having a changeup. Everything was just fastball-slider. Hitters at that level, all they’re trying to do is try to eliminate pitches from you, and I think me trying to go after hitters with only two pitches is like trying to run uphill. You basically have to be really good with those two pitches every night, and over the course of the season, you’re never going to have those pitches all the time. [...] If you compare numbers between the PCL and the IL, it’s a little bit of a different game over there. Some interesting ballparks you’re pitching in. Sometimes that gets in your head. For me, it went up there and struggled and I started to question my ability and whatnot. I think that was the biggest difference. I went up there with two pitches and I couldn’t command them both all the time. And if you can’t do that, they’re going to sit on that one pitch you can’t command. And at that time, my fastball command wasn’t good enough either.” - Matt Buschmann in a 2013 interview on a Tampa Bay fan blog on his struggles in the PCL while being a Padre
He finishes the season in AA in 2011 and by the end of the year the Washington Nationals select Buschmann in the Double A portion of the Rule 5 draft. He doesn’t spend much time in the Nationals franchise as in April 2012 he is traded to the Tampa Bay Rays for cash considerations. Raise your hand if you think David Price, Buschmann’s roommate at Vanderbilt, was involved in this move.
He pitches in AA for most of the 2012 season and does there what he is supposed to do. A short stint in AAA goes bad, again, but in 2013 he returns to the Rays’ organisation with a Spring Training invite and he gets a longer look in the Durham Bulls’ jersey and impresses with a new developed change-up to complement the sinker and slider. As a team mate of Merrill Kelly, he pitches to a 2.97 ERA in 97 innings and waits for his MLB debut that season, but the MLB does not knock at the door.
He signs with the Oakland A’s in the offseason and ends up in the PCL, again. But he looks more solid than ever with a 4.52 ERA and more than 133 innings in 23 games. He decides to sign a new minor league deal with the Athletics in the next off-season but at the beginning of the 2015 season the Rays ring his phone again and he gets traded to Florida.
“He was excited. The Rays already knew and liked him. When he pitched well in Durham early in the season, he figured he’d finally get to make his major league debut. Instead, Tampa Bay called up every pitcher under the sun except him [...] “You start to get the feeling that you literally have to be perfect to get called up,” Buschmann says.” - Quote from a 2015 article on grantland.com on Matt Buschmann
Despite steady success in AAA and having an opt-out clause, the Rays refuse to call Buschmann up to the big league roster and the Missouri native decides to opt out and leave the organisation. As the pitcher relates in the quoted interview above, he gets a call from then Red Sox GM Ben Cherington who wants to sign him, but admits he will be behind some talents in the picking order. In that same conversation Cherington brings up the idea to sign with the Reds as they could be dealing away some of their pitchers, leaving a better opportunity to an MLB debut.
So Buschmann signs with Cincinatti, where Cueto and Leake are indeed traded away, but Buschmann has to wait longer than expected until an opportunity rises for a fill-in starter.
“Finally, the Reds called up a veteran, but it was Dylan Axelrod. Buschmann’s numbers were better, but Axelrod had something Buschmann didn’t. “‘We called up a guy with big league experience.’ Well, how do I get that?” Buschmann says. “Is there a pill I can take? What store can I go to? He’s proven to you that he can’t stick. I haven’t proven what I can do. Let me go shit myself up there. “It gets to the point where you wonder if there’s a Wizard of Oz behind the curtain, pulling levers to make sure I never get called up.”” - Storyteling from a 2015 article on grantland.com on Matt Buschmann
He is traded away to the Baltimore Orioles, and motivation drops to an all-time low. But in 2016 he tries to give it a go another time, unable to give up hope, as a player entering his age 32 season.
“I got the call.”
In December 2015 Buschmann signs with the Arizona Diamondbacks, because, as AZ Central later would write down, “he felt the organization would give him a shot if he was the best option, despite his age and career minor-league status.” That shot would come rather sooner than later.
Buschmann wrote about the experience in an article that was published, amongst other media outlets, on ESPN:
“Nev [Phil Nevin, DBE] turned to me and said, “All right ...” My hands started shaking, and I pretty much stopped breathing. I locked eyes with him, and, with a huge smile on his face, he says, “I wanted to meet you here, in person, because I couldn’t tell a guy he’s going to the big leagues for the first time over the phone. Congratulations, man.”” [...] I shook his hand and simply said, “Thank you.” I turned to Mike [Bell, DBE], shook his hand and told him, “Thank you so much for this opportunity.” Two of the most heartfelt thank-yous in my life. They had weight, filled with countless bus miles, PB&Js and crappy offseason jobs. They had a decade of successes, failures and everything in between behind them. And they weren’t just from me, they represented every family member, friend or coach who ever supported me. I stood up — I couldn’t sit down any longer — and they both commented on how long the journey had been and how cool this was. It struck me in the moment how excited they were for me, and that’s something I’ll never forget.” - Matt Buschmann writing about the day he got the call-up to the big leagues.
Matt Buschmann got his call to the major leagues already very early in the 2016 season, a season that would end up in disappointment for the Diamondbacks. They opened the season with a homestand against the Rockies and Cubs and the starter would be used out of the bullpen in his major league debut in the final game of that homestand, a 7-3 loss against the Cubs, who would end up winning the World Series that year. Buschmann enters the game in the 9th inning, with the D-Backs already down 7-3, and gets a groundout against Szczur, while Addisson Russell runs into a double play to end the inning.
“Of course my heart was racing as I ran from the bullpen to the mound, but the entire way I just kept thinking of all the people who have helped and supported me over the last ten years.” - Matt Buschmann on Twitter in 2016 after his debut
Some days later Buschmann pitches a clean 8th inning against the Dodgers in Los Angeles, a game the D-Backs end up losing 5-2. A couple of days later he has to make an early appearance in San Diego when Shelby Miller isn’t able to get out of the second inning. He gets the final out then, but serves a homer to Matt Kemp in the following inning before getting 3 groundouts. Those are fine results, but it doesn’t stop the Diamondbacks from optioning him to Reno some days later when Evan Marshall and Archie Bradley are called up as fresh arms. The Diamondbacks end up playing a lost season and giving a veteran some innings obviously doesn’t enter in their plans. Matt Buschmann ends the season in the PCL in Reno.
In 2017 the pitcher signs a contract with the Toronto Blue Jays and gets an invitation to Spring Training. By the start of the season he is assigned to Triple A Buffalo, but he doesn’t make an appearance for the team because of some arm soreness and by mid 2017 he calls it quits.
“I took some time off after spring training and tried to build my arm back up and see if I could sign by the trade deadline. When the trade deadline came and went in 2017, that was kind of my benchmark, if I hadn’t signed by then I’d be done.” - 2019 interview with Matt Buschmann on sportingnews.com on why he ended his career
Buschmann takes a short leave from the game to spend some precious time with his family: his wife, former ESPN anchor Sara Walsh, gives birth to twins and shortly after is laid off by ESPN. The couple decides to move to Nashville.
But in this case it is impossible to get the man out of baseball and the baseball out of the man: Buschmann is soon back in baseball, albeit in a different position. In 2018 he has a job in the San Francisco Giants’ front office as assistant manager of run prevention, a role he embraces, convinced by the usefulness of technology.
“I was really passionate about bringing in technology into development and really passionate talking about getting hitters out,” Buschmann recalled. “It was a tag team effort between myself and Julio Rangel, who is now the pitching coach with the [Texas] Rangers. It was finding the best way to develop players throughout the minor leagues and what is the best way to prepare them to pitch in the big leagues.” - 2019 interview with Matt Buschmann on sportingnews.com on his role at the Giants
That job didn’t come out of the blue entirely, as Matt Buschmann makes a guest writer appeance in 2015 on ESPN, explaining his vision on how baseball will be in 2045, making many references to technology, something he has learned to appreciate during his time at the Rays’ organisation and at the Durham Bulls.
By the end of the season he lands a new job as bullpen coach for the Toronto Blue Jays and a year later he also takes on the role of director of pitching development.
“His passion for technology that is occurring in and around not just pitching but in helping young baseball players and mature baseball players improve and really realize all of their potentials was elite.” - Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins on the hiring of Matt Buschmann
And it works.
“We were all like, ‘We have no idea what you’re talking about, dude. What even is this? This isn’t baseball,’” Gage remembers. “And then, all of a sudden, four years later, it’s all of baseball. That stuff he was talking about is the entire game. It’s kind of crazy how he was so ahead of the times. He saw this coming before any of us did.” - Matt Gage on his time with Matt Buschmann in 2018 in the Giants’ organisation on sportsnet.ca
But it is not all technology though. The human factor is important as well, and that is one of the best lessons Buschmann will and can give to others.
“We talked through what he had done, the things that he was looking for, and how we could help him. Because he was good — and we obviously wanted him here,” Buschmann says. “But as someone who was a minor league free agent a lot myself, I really just wanted to give him as much information as I could. As much as I wanted him to come to the Blue Jays, I also wanted him to know exactly what we had and what we could offer him, so he could make the best decision for him. Because where he was at — and I’ve been there — it’s really hard to make those decisions. It feels like you don’t get to make many of them.”- Matt Buschmann being honest on trying to give the best advice to players on sportsnet.ca