Ben Joyce's Big Remaining To-Do List
In less than a year, Ben Joyce has gone from being the most famous reliever in college baseball to being one who appears to be battling for a spot in the Angels' Opening Day bullpen.
Joyce has one of the best arms in baseball. He’s touched 102 mph this spring and shown improved secondary offerings. He’s yet to allow a run in five spring training appearances (officially four since his appearance against Team USA doesn’t count for spring training stats).
But there’s one way in which Joyce is not really prepared for the reality of life in a big league bullpen. It's clear that he has the stuff to be a successful MLB reliever. So far, he's shown signs of being reliable as well.
But when it comes to durability, that's a big unknown, because so far, Joyce hasn't gotten a chance to show if he can actually handle the job he will be asked to do in the majors.
Between his time at Walters State (Tenn.) JC, Tennessee, Double-A Rocket City and now spring training with the Angels’ MLB team, Joyce has almost always worked on multiple days of rest.
That’s not how MLB relievers work. If Joyce does break camp with the Angels they would likely end up asking him to learn how to pitch on back-to-back days at the major league level.
Joyce was a starter at Walters State. He moved to the bullpen at Tennessee after he recovered from Tommy John surgery. But with a very deep bullpen, the Vols had little need to ever hand Joyce a taxing workload. He worked back-to-back days only once, when he retired one batter on March 5, 2022 and another batter on March 6. That pair of .1 inning outings were the only back-to-back appearances Joyce has made at the college or pro level.
Much more often, Joyce has had two or three days of rest before he’s been asked to pitch again. Joyce did get stretched out to two four-inning appearances last year with the Vols, but more often, he’s been asked to throw one inning or fewer. The rest pattern is not because he was being used as a quasi-starter. Of his 45 relief appearances in college and pro ball, 37 have been one inning or fewer.
As a pro, Joyce has been asked to throw one inning, rest for several days and throw one more inning. There’s an understandable reluctance for teams to ask college relievers to carry heavier workloads, as there are fears that a pitcher may get injured.
But as we wrote in 2019, MLB has a truly horrendous record of developing successful college relievers into successful MLB relievers. There are a multitude of reasons, but a notable one is pro teams don’t ask those relievers to work in the minors the way they will be asked to work in the majors.
Teams don't want to ruin great arms by asking too much of them too soon. But when you look at how rarely a top-four round college reliever turns into an excellent MLB reliever, it's worth wondering if this is a case of being a little too careful.
As we wrote in 2019:
Baseball America looked at 10 college relievers who were drafted in the top four rounds this decade. With few exceptions, those relievers worked with more rest in the minors than they would ever see in the major leagues. For those 10 relievers, just five percent of their minor league appearances came on back-to-back days, and just 18 percent of appearances followed one day off. A full 77 percent of appearances came with two or more days of rest.
Joyce’s experience so far has been similar. Between college and the minors last year, 86% of his appearances came on two or more days of rest. As a pro, 0 of his outings have come on no days of rest and 25% have come on one day of rest.
In doing so, Joyce has yet to experience the reality of what a big league reliever's workload looks like. Here’s how Joyce has pitched in college and pro ball as far as days of rest compared to the Angels’ top reliever in 2022—Raisel Iglesias.
Of Iglesias' 67 appearances for the Angels and Braves last year, 56% came on zero or one day of rest. He even pitched both games of a doubleheader. For Joyce, it's been 15%.
It’s possible that the Angels could break Joyce in lightly at the MLB level, but that’s hard to do as the demands of filling innings every day during an MLB season put heavy demands on the bullpen.
But if the Angels decide to send Joyce to Triple-A for more seasoning, the logical reason is to let him get accustomed to one of the toughest parts of being a big league reliever—pitching effectively when you’re tired.