When you walk up to Evans Diamond on the University of California, Berkeley, the first thing you see is a banner hanging from a light pole of Andrew Vaughn in mid-swing to commemorate him winning the 2018 Golden Spikes Award. Walk into the stadium and you’ll immediately notice pictures of past greats from the school’s baseball program etched above the left-field fence. Years from now, in one way or another, Vaughn is sure to have his name seen in plain sight at the field.
Sitting down with Vaughn on a perfect Berkeley Tuesday afternoon in what wound up being his last practice ever on his college home field -- less than a week away from him being a top pick in the 2019 MLB Draft -- nothing sparks more joy out of the Santa Rosa native than talking about making his first Regional at Cal.
“Making it to a Regional, it’s just awesome,” Vaughn said. “I’m astonished. I’m so happy we get to go to playoffs and show our stuff. We can be the underdogs and get to to the College World Series.”
Vaughn led the Golden Bears to their first Regional since 2015, but they fell short of their goal after losing to TCU and Central Connecticut State in Fayetteville, Ark.
He’s already accrued every accolade imaginable in his college career. The power-hitting first baseman has broken multiple records at Cal and was named one of four finalists for his second straight Golden Spikes Award on Wednesday. Soon, he’ll have a signing bonus in hand that will make him a multi-millionaire, and yet, all he seemed to be worried about is wins and having another day at the yard with his teammates.
This is what makes longtime hitting coach Joey Gomes give Vaughn the ultimate compliment with a comparison that seems unprecedented.
“He cares about the success of the team more than his own success. When in today’s world is the best player on your team also the best teammate? Never. Unless you have someone like a Steph Curry,” Gomes said. “I’m not above mentioning those names if everything is relative. What Curry is to the Warriors, Andrew is to Cal. He literally makes everyone else around him better.”
Using Steph Curry’s name in the same sentence as any other athlete in the Bay Area is off limits in almost any case. But Gomes, a Petaluma native and former eighth-round draft pick of the Tampa Bay Rays in 2002 whose brother Jonny spent over a decade in the big leagues and won the 2013 World Series with the Red Sox, has seen every aspect of Vaughn as a player and person firsthand for years now.
Vaughn started working with Gomes when he was a senior at Maria Carrillo High School. He was then Gomes' youngest player on the Healdsburg Prune Packers in 2016, a summer collegiate team Gomes coaches that features some of the best talent in the country. One memory in the triple-digit Sonoma County summer heat perfectly shows who Andrew is in Gomes’ eyes.
“When I had Andrew, I pulled up and he beat me to the field,” Gomes recalls. “And he was just throwing a ball off the bathroom wall. And it seemed like nothing at the time, but I’m like, ‘Who does that?’ That’s a drill that they did in the 1950s. Now you got guys with a $2,000 ground ball machine on a turf little league field. … You just don’t see that kind of love for the game.”
That love for the game grew in a Santa Rosa backyard. In Andrew’s case, it started as early as two or three years old.
“I’d come home and I wouldn’t even be able to change my work clothes,” Andrew’s father Toby says. “He’d want to hit balls in the back. It was just his goal.”
Toby played college baseball, too. After starting off at Santa Rosa Junior College, he continued down the road where he was an all-conference utility player for D-II Sonoma State University. Though Toby was deeply rooted in the game, he says he and his wife, Diana, never pushed baseball on Andrew.
“He just loves it,” Toby said. “The other kids played because they had to, but he played because he wanted to.”
That love for the game only grew with time. But it also came with a chip on his shoulder. Vaughn wasn’t selected to the Area Code Games, a showcase full of top players, and was only ranked as Perfect Game’s No. 71 overall first baseman in the country when he entered Cal.
“When he didn’t make Area Codes, that made it even more of a chip on his shoulder to prove people wrong,” Toby said. “That’s the way he goes. He never takes it for granted. He just tries to out-work everybody. That’s only made him better.”
Vaughn played four years of varsity baseball in high school, where he primarily was a middle infielder and pitcher his first few years before shifting to the corners. He did receive multiple honors but wasn’t exactly viewed as a top prospect. One reason was his lack of power.
That’s right, one of the most prolific power hitters in college baseball history smacked a grand total of one home run in high school. Vaughn believes multiple factors have helped his growth since coming to Cal, and it all started in the weight room.
“Just really coming into my own, getting my body bigger, my legs and hips more flexible, and really just learning to put good swings on the baseball every time that I get up there,” Vaughn said. “That’s a big thing that me and Joey talk about. Joey preaches it. Put your best move on the ball.
“Hit it two seams down and something’s gonna go over the fence somewhere if you hit it right. It just takes away all the other equations and just lets you have fun when you play.”
(Photo via AP/Tyler Tate)
Vaughn adopted a leg kick as a freshman that grew with a stronger, more flexible build. The results followed with 12 home runs that year, but really, a mantra from Gomes that Sonoma County stars such as Vaughn and Arizona State’s Spencer Torkelson -- along with many others around the country -- has been just as important as anything he’s done to his swing.
“Party out front? That’s where the party’s at. You hit the ball out in front of home plate and good things are going to happen,” Vaughn said. “That’s where the party’s at.”
The origin story is just as good as the slogan. It all started with Gomes giving hitting lessons in a batting cage with one simple objective for his players: To continually feel comfortable and powerful by attacking perfect pitches in the hitter’s sweet spot.
“I had 13 guys in the cage and I was like, ‘We’re gonna have a f---in’ party. We’re gonna have a bash party right here,’” Gomes said.
Everybody grabbed six balls and Gomes put the hitters into pairs of two in the cage, with them taking turns flipping balls to each other. One player would flip the ball belt-high out in front of the plate as the batter hammered meatballs into the netting. The party was on.
And the party only continued for Vaughn. He finished his college career with 50 home runs, which is second all-time for a Cal player. His 23 home runs in 2018 tied a school record, and he set the single-season slugging percentage record at an unprecedented .819 clip last season. Gomes says he hasn’t seen a hitter like Vaughn in the last 15 years.
Cal’s head coach Mike Neu went even further.
“He’s definitely the most talented college hitter that I’ve ever coached or been around,” Neu said. “I don’t think there’s any question about that. His power, his ability to hit, his ability to take walks, his ability to hit to all fields … I have never been around a hitter that is as talented as him and has the mental makeup.
“He just knows how to hit. He’s advanced in so many ways.”
While Vaughn broke a handful of power records at Cal, he never let the long ball change his approach at the plate. He also broke the single-season walk record this year with 59, and finished his career with 47 more walks than strikeouts. Vaughn has been Cal’s best hitter by a long shot every year he’s been in college, though he knows just how valuable it is to draw a walk. He's always had the utmost trust in his teammates to get the job done behind him.
“He’s completely selfless and when you have a player like that on your team, it helps everyone get better,” Neu said. “He’s been unbelievable for our team in that respect.”
Now that Andrew’s college party has come to an end, it’s time to turn to the MLB draft. His family grew up Giants fans living in the Bay Area. Ironically, he even had a poster of Evan Longoria when the Giants third baseman played for the Rays in his childhood bedroom, but that was mostly because Longoria wore No. 3, the same as Vaughn before he turned to No. 20 in college.
However, the family’s fandom “could possibly change here shortly,” Toby says with a laugh.
Why is that? Vaughn likely will be drafted by a different MLB team Monday evening, making the Vaughn's Giants fandom moot.
While the Giants hold the No. 10 pick in this year’s draft, it’s more likely Andrew is off the board before then. Many outlets have mocked him as high as No. 3 overall pick to the Chicago White Sox, fittingly in the same slot as Longoria 13 years ago.
If he does get taken as high as expected, Vaughn will be breaking the mold of the draft. The only right-handed hitting first baseman ever taken in the top five of the draft was Stanford’s Dave McCarty by the Twins in 1991, and he finished his career with a -2.2 bWAR.
“It’s crazy because he is breaking the mold,” Neu said. “That shows you how good he is. When you have an undersized [5-foot-11, 214 pounds], right-handed hitting first baseman who is just far and away almost a better hitter than anybody in the country, it just kind of shows his talent level, and also how much he brings to the table.
“I don’t know what his comparison is. I know we’re trying to compare guys to him moving forward.”
Scouts and front offices spent months trying to figure out who Andrew Vaughn is, not what he isn’t. Baseball is evolving before our eyes. The talent is clear, but talking with those around him turns the volume up even more.
Gomes calls him a “grinder with damn near an 80 hit tool.” His college coach calls him “the complete package,” and in this case, Neu wasn’t even talking about Vaughn as a hitter. Instead, he was referring to the combination of his work ethic, leadership skills and being a great teammate. The last two aspects are what made Vaughn’s voice perk up just as much as making it to Regionals.
He grew into a leader this year through his actions. He wants his teammates to love him. He wants them to come to him whether they're looking for hitting tips or relationship advice. If one of his teammates is thrown at, he wants both teams to know he’ll be the first to make sure that doesn’t happen again. As we talk, however, he wants nothing more than to give his teammates their due as well.
“Everyone’s a leader out here. We go to Cal, we’re pretty intelligent guys,” Vaughn quipped with a quick smirk.
The first thing Vaughn did last year when he came home to Santa Rosa after spending the summer playing for the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team was watch a Prune Packers game in Healdsburg. He wants to be a baseball ambassador for Sonoma County, and it’s extremely important for him to represent the 707 area code with him and Torkelson having the opportunity to be such high draft picks the next two years. Vaughn also wants everyone to know Cal baseball deserves just as much praise as rival Stanford, Oregon State or UCLA, telling me that you can accomplish anything you want both on the field and in the classroom at Berkeley.
When Andrew's name is called during Monday’s draft, Toby semi-sarcastically says it will be a relief after numerous nerve-wracking months. But he also expresses just how proud he and his wife Diana are. This has been a long process for the whole Vaughn family. To Andrew, it’s just another phase that started in a Santa Rosa backyard and has already taken him to ballparks all over the world.
“Truly it’s just the start of a new chapter the day you get drafted. That’s what I’ve been telling myself. You just gotta start a new book and start writing your story,” Vaughn said.
The numbers speak for themselves. The person is someone who an organization will be investing their time with for years to come.
Andrew Vaughn is breaking the mold. Just like Steph Curry.