Tony Kemp tries not to dwell on his size too much.
Instead, he plays above his 5-foot-6 frame.
“Tony, when you look at him, he is a lot of different things in one small package,” coach Tim Corbin said. “The small package plays about 7-feet tall even though he is 5-7.”
On Tuesday, the Southeastern Conference coaches said Kemp stood higher than anyone else this season by naming him the SEC Player of the Year. The junior from Franklin is the second Vanderbilt player to earn the honor, joining Hunter Bledsoe (1999).
For Kemp, he was alerted of the honor with a phone call from his brother.
“My heart was kind of racing just because I said this could go either one of two ways,” Kemp said. “He called and said, ‘Congratulations.’ I knew at about 8:45 [Tuesday] morning. I don’t even think my eyes were open. I didn’t want it for myself but I wanted it for coach Corbin because he works so hard. … I really want to just give this award to my teammates and coaches honestly. “I’m just a small part of a big team and am just happy to be on teams that have been successful.”
He joined Mike Yastrzemski on the first team and was one of seven Commodores to earn All-SEC honors. Corbin was named the SEC Coach of the Year after leading Vanderbilt to its third 50-win season ever – all coming in the last seven years. He joins Larry Schmittou (1973-74) as the only Commodores coaches to win the award twice.
The Commodores (51-9) won the regular-season championship, are the No. 2 national seed in the NCAA Tournament and host a Regional on Friday.
“He is the program. He does everything here,” Yastrzemski said. “He works with people in the community, he works with the players, the staff. He works with the [team] managers. He could be the mayor of this city. I can’t say enough about him. I’m just really happy to be able to come and play four years for a guy like that. I’m glad he is getting recognized for it.”
For Kemp, he is the third player in SEC history to be named both freshman and player of the year in his career. The Centennial native leads the conference in batting average (.402), on-base percentage (.482), runs scored (61), hits (96) and stolen bases (30). He has also flashed defensive gems throughout the season at second base, which he started to play in 2012 after a year and a half as a left fielder.
“What people in the stands don’t see is what he does in the locker room, what he does off the field,” he said. “They see the smile. They see the exuberance and they see the positive light force that he is and what he creates for our team. That just as much as his physical abilities are just important to our success. He infuses energy into the guys.”
Kemp said he worked on being more aggressive this year after hitting .261 with 42 strikeouts in 2012.
Last year, he took more pitches to serve as the “guinea pig” in the leadoff spot. He then relayed what he saw from the pitchers to his teammates.
“You’re seeing what the pitcher has, what his movement has at the beginning of the game,” Kemp said. “I think I was taking a lot of pitches and getting counts where I’m 0-2, 1-2 and I’m having to fend off changeups, curveballs and sliders. Rather than getting in those counts, I’ve been more aggressive hunting the fastball all year.”
As for his stature, Kemp’s not using the award as a platform for the undersized baseball player.
After all, he has never felt out of place.
“I don’t try to prove anything to anybody,” he said. “I just have fun playing baseball. I’m just blessed to have the opportunity that God has given me, the ability to come out here and play on a beautiful field with the beautiful academics and beautiful coaches. I can’t be put in a better spot.”
• SEC honors: Yastrzemski joined Kemp on both the first team and all-defensive team.
The right fielder batted .320 with 17 doubles and 40 RBIs. In conference play, he led the league with a .407 batting average. Center fielder Connor Harrell was named to the second team after batting .320 with 11 homers and an SEC-best 64 RBIs. Sophomore right-hander Tyler Beede (14-0, 2.10 ERA) was also tabbed to the second team.
Three players were selected to the all-freshman team: third baseman Xavier Turner (.318, 30 RBIs), designated hitter/utility player Zander Wiel (.288, four home runs, 25 RBIs) and relief pitcher Carson Fulmer (2.98 ERA, 2-0, four saves).