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The Gap Between Tennessee's Pitching And The Rest Of D1 Baseball Grows

Tennessee is clearly the No. 1 team in college baseball. But when it comes to their pitching staff, the gap between the Vols staff and the rest of Division I may be even bigger than the gap between the 27-1 Vols and the rest of the Top 25.

“It’s like Alien U” said Mason McRae, an analytics assistant at VCU. “Tennessee ranks first in stuff+ as a staff and it’s not particularly close”. McRae the son of William & Mary head coach Mike McRae has built a following online focusing his Twitter account on the analytical side of the college game.

Using data available to him McRae constructed a Stuff+ model built off of predicting whiff values and then regressed for each pitch type. While McRae himself admits the model is imperfect, it’s reflective of the way MLB organization’s models are grading the vaunted Tennessee staff.

The Volunteers staff has three pitchers with pitch mixes that rank among the top 30 in McRae’sStuff+ among all pitchers that have thrown in front of a Trackman unit at the D-I level. Two of those pitchers have fastballs that rank within the Top 25 in fastball specific Stuff+ - Chase Dollander and Ben Joyce - and a true freshman in Chase Burns with a slider that ranks Top 10 in Stuff+.

Even more remarkable is the job coach Tony Vitello did recruiting this trio of Dollander, Burns, and Joyce on to campus. 

Dollander spent his freshman season at Georgia Southern before entering the transfer portal last summer, and has been a revelation in the Vols weekend rotation. Burns was the top 2021 draft prospect in the state of Tennessee ranking 49th overall in the 2021 class heading into the July draft. Joyce was little more off the radar than his two highly rated teammates.

Joyce the pitcher who found fame on the sheer power of his right arm that produces 103 mph fastballs regularly, spent his first two collegiate seasons with Tennessee junior college Walters State, before sitting out 2021 post Tommy John surgery and entering the portal this summer.

What makes this group so unique isn’t just their easy plus-plus velocity, though it doesn’t hurt that Joyce has peaked at 104 mph, Dollander at 99 mph, and Burns at 98 mph. It’s the combination of top of the scale velocity combined with outlier release characteristics and raw spin rates.

Joyce, the viral sensation for his easy triple digit velocity, is even more unique when you look under the hood, as he’s throwing 100 mph gyro (a pitch that lacks active spin but typically generates seam-shifted wake) fastballs from a nearly five foot release height. Among pitchers that touched 100 mph in a major league game last season only the Mets duo of Edwin Diaz and Miguel Castro, the Reds Luis Castillo, and the Rockies Justin Lawrence had a lower release height. Joyce despite this has mostly worked in a mop up role as he’s still honing the command of his big stuff. Additionally Joyce’s slider grades out as a top of the scale pitch according to Stuff+ but the sample size in front of Trackman units was insufficient to qualify for models.

Dollander and Burns on the other hand have played prominent roles in the Volunteers weekend rotation softening the blow of the early season injury to staff ace Blade Tidwell. Yet another fire baller, Dollander throws as hard as any weekend starter in the country and he does with fastball metrics that are similar to Mets ace Jacob deGrom. That’s an aggressive comparison but one that’s fair from an analytical standpoint, while Dollander gets just average vertical movement his low release height that measures below 5-foot-5, produces a similar flat vertical approach angle, similar to the Mets ace.

Burns doesn’t share the outlier release height characteristics of his teammates Dollander or Joyce, but he averages 95+ mph with the best induced vertical break of the group. However, it’s Burns slider sitting mid-to-high-80s with slight ride and acute horizontal break. While his raw spin on the pitch has been inconsistent he’s had it above 2500 rpms on multiple occasions.

With the return of righthander Blade Tidwell, the team’s projected ace coming into the season, the Tennessee staff is adding even more firepower to a staff that’s already at the top of the scale. That’s potentially bad news for the rest of the SEC and any other schools whose Omaha dreams pass through Knoxville.

Ben Joyce (Getty Images)

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