Advanced hit tool continues to set Vanderbilt commit Ryan Clifford apart

By Cory McCartney

EMERSON, Ga. — Leading off the fourth inning, Ryan Clifford watched the first offering from Gatorball’s Dalton Knapp, a knee-high fastball that pumped in for a strike. The left-hander then fouled off a breaking ball at chest level on a check swing, the Canes’ outfielder quickly finding himself in hole.

But Clifford battled back, watching as Knapp missed on an outside fastball, before sending another secondary pitch foul. The pitcher bounced two of his next three, with a Clifford fighting off another fastball in between to work the count full.

Finally, as Knapp delivered his eighth pitch of the at-bat, Clifford didn’t budge, the ball spiking in front of the catcher as Clifford took his base during Canes National 17U’s 10-0 rout Friday during the National Program Invitiational.

“He doesn’t swing at bad pitches,” said Canes coach Jeff Petty. “Sometimes that can work against you at this level when the zone is a little bigger, but when he starts getting into professional baseball or if he plays in the SEC, those umpires are really good umpires. He doesn’t swing at bad pitches, so the pitch-selection thing is really going to help him at the higher levels.”

If there’s a common thread when it comes to conversations surrounding Clifford — a Vanderbilt commit, Pro5 Academy star and the third-ranked outfielder in the Class of 2022 (22nd overall) by Prep Baseball Report — it’s in that approach at the plate, a poise beyond his years.

“He’s a hitter,” said PBR national supervisor Nathan Rode. “He has a mature approach. You would not know that he’s the age he is. He’s been like that since he was a freshman; he stood out immediately with the bat. He’s got strength. Obviously he developed physically earlier than other guys, but the aptitude at the plate has always been there.

“He gets in the box, you don’t want to be a pitcher throwing against him, because he’s got a mature approach and when he does connect with the ball, it travels.”

Clifford went 1-for-2 with an RBI single and that fourth-inning walk, a second-inning strikeout in between, during the game, which was halted after four innings. His hit, a ground ball he drove to the opposite field between the left side of Gatorball’s infield, was also a byproduct of that lauded acumen at the plate.

Simply put: Clifford has become adept at being opportunistic.

“It all depends on the situation,” he said of his approach. “In my first at-bat, I had runners at second and third and I had no outs, infield back, I’m trying to hit a ball hard somewhere. I had a ground ball and I got a run in, so that was the whole approach there.

“But (generally) I’m just trying to hit the ball hard up the middle. I’m not trying to do too much. Guys are going to attack me different ways and I have to adjust to that, and that will depend on what I do in my approach.”

The only players ahead of Clifford at his position among 2022s are Miami commit Elijah Green (IMG Academy) and Wesleyan’s Druw Jones, who Clifford roomed with during a Perfect Game event, and like Clifford, is set to play for Vanderbilt after next season.

That Commodores class is ranked No. 1 in the nation, including six of the top 22 players among seniors-to-be in Buford, Ga., right-hander Dylan Lesko (second), American Heritage Plantation (Florida) lefty Brandon Barriera, Jones (sixth), Brebeuf (Indiana) righty Andrew Dutkanych IV and Westminster Christian (Florida) third baseman Sal Stewart.

When Clifford gave his commitment in November, it was an easy one given the pedigree of the program Tim Corbin has built in Nashville.

“I just think they’re going to hold me accountable and they’re going to push me to do my best,” Clifford. “That’s the environment I want to be in. I want to be the best player I can be and the best teammate I can be and they do it really well.”

That same drive led to a change for Clifford after his sophomore season at Raleigh,, N.C.’s Leesville Road High School. Homering three times with 12 RBI and a .692 average through four games before the pandemic hit, Clifford opted to shift his career 29 miles southwest and enroll at Pro5.

“At first it was kind of like (I) was a little big skeptical,” Clifford said. “But once I got there, I knew some kids and it was a great environment. I’m glad I made that decision to play baseball every day. No looking back.”

His first season with the Fighters ended with a National Academies Association championship won at LakePoint Sports, as Clifford capped his junior year slashing .329/.474/.560 with five home runs and six doubles and had nearly as many walks (25) as he did strikeouts (29).

“I think my whole approach is really defined compared to what it used to be,” Clifford said of his growth within that first season at Pro5. “Little things I know I can fix, stuff I can do mid at-bat over the course of a couple games, but I think just learning the game of baseball is a big thing at well.”

At least one mock draft has Clifford being selected near the bottom of the first round of the MLB draft, and his name figures to only become a bigger part of that buildup. But whether the next uniform he wears after his Pro5 days are done is that of the Commodores or an MLB organization, Rode is watching for how Clifford develops in the field. He’s played first base, but was primarily an outfielder at this past season, and is playing there for the Canes as well.

“I certainly would like to see the defense progress, because when you’re a bat-first guy, that defense just gives you a little bit more value,” Rode said. “If you’re going to be a corner guy like him, obviously that bat really does need to play, so just continue to improve that approach and doing what he’s supposed to do.

“He’s going to be a run-producing guy in a middle of an order, so that’s his job and he should continue to embrace it.”