Thursday, February 2

Why Ben Joyce is an intriguing MLB draft target


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This spring, University of Tennessee right-hander Ben Joyce did two things his veteran pitching coach had never seen before. The first was that 105-mph fastball, which took the internet by storm, and the barrage of 103- and 104-mph fastballs that followed for a whole magical season.

The second was something that Frank Anderson, who has spent nearly four decades coaching, didn’t even think was physically possible: Twice, Joyce generated so much torque with lower body while delivering a fastball that he broke his belt — snapped it, just like that, just from throwing.

“That was pretty crazy. It just tells you the force and power he has when he rotates. I had never seen that ever, and he’s doing it all the time,” said Anderson, who coached the likes of fireballer-turned-instant-major-leaguer Garrett Crochet just a few years ago has seen firsthand some of the best velocity recent college baseball has had to offer.

That unbelievable power has turned Joyce into one of the most interesting case studies in recent MLB draft history. He has thrown just more than 50 college innings, is a year removed from Tommy John surgery, and does exactly one thing better than every other amateur pitcher in the country.

But in a baseball era dominated by velocity, Joyce might find himself as an early round draft pick almost exclusively because of that one attribute — because he can throw harder than anyone ever has.

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Several of Joyce’s Tennessee teammates are potential first-round draft picks with more traditional resumes, including fellow pitcher Blade Tidwell. But among casual fans, Joyce is the one who has become a household name because he is unlike anything they have seen before — a pitcher who throws harder, more often, than Aroldis Chapman and Jordan Hicks, a pitcher who almost single-handedly raised the bar for what is possible.

Even Joyce’s rise to national prominence and up major league draft boards happened with uncommon velocity. He threw 65 mph as a freshman at Farragut High School in Tennessee, grew eight inches so fast he missed time because of the spurt, and didn’t generate much interest from college programs after high school.

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Baseball America ranked him the 318th-best prospect ahead of the 2020 draft after a season at Walters State Community College in which his fastball touched 97. But Tommy John surgery cost him the 2020-21 season, and a player who might have been a late – to mid-round pick then threatened to disappear until he could prove he would be able to light up radar guns again.

Not until last summer did Anderson, the Tennessee pitching coach, begin working with Joyce, overseeing the later stages of his post-surgery throwing program. Not until last fall did Joyce start to feel his velocity returning, though even as he touched 100 mph he did not feel like everything had fallen back into place.

Not until January did Joyce’s rehab progress enough that Anderson and the Tennessee staff could really dig in on his delivery, working on his alignment toward home plate, or start molding professional-strength breaking balls. Not until then, weeks before the season that would change his life, did Joyce feel something click.

“That’s when I was like ‘wait,’ ” Joyce said. “ ‘This might be better than it was before.’ ”

Three months later, Joyce had a pitch clocked at 105.5 miles per hour in a game against Auburn, a new college record. High-profile Twitter accounts like Pitching Ninja started sharing the video. Soon he was getting recognized around Knoxville, Tenn., as “the Volunteer Fireman,” and had a NIL endorsement deal with Outback Steakhouse.

“I mean, some people from high school didn’t even know I was still playing baseball,” said Joyce, who used his newfound exposure to raise money for a children’s hospital, even as he had to turn off his Twitter and Instagram notifications because of the deluge of attention.

Less visibly, attention from major league teams increased, too. The fastball was, quite simply, impossible to ignore. So was the uncertainty.

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Conversations with multiple MLB evaluators, all of whom requested anonymity to speak freely about a potential draft pick, raised concerns about usage, durability and effectiveness against elite hitting.

Joyce pitched on back-to-back days just eleven this season, recording one out in each outing. He threw 32⅓ innings as a reliever, but not a closer, for the Volunteers. He did not get a chance to answer questions about his late-inning mettle, at least not beyond a reasonable doubt.

The extent of his durability is also unclear. Joyce threw 53 total innings since he graduated high school in the spring of 2018. Just more than 20 of those came at Walters State Community College before his surgery. The rest came while Tennessee coaches carefully monitored his workload during his first, and probably only, Division I season.

One evaluator worried Joyce’s max-effort delivery might lead to more breakdowns, rather than long-term success. Indeed, Joyce turns and rocks and hurls his body toward home plate with such force that he seems likely to leave his arm behind one of these days.

And even if he is healthy, more than one evaluator wondered how that fastball would play against good hitters, particularly since Joyce admits his breaking ball, change-up and cutter are works in progress. One wondered if Joyce’s 3.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio — roughly the same as those of Adam Ottavino and Hector Neris by way of potentially unfair major league reliever comparison — was somewhat inflated by inexperienced college hitters chasing more pitches than professional hitters might. Everyone, including Joyce, agrees that the development of his secondary pitches will likely determine his fate at the professional level.

But everyone — from MLB evaluators, to his coaches, to big leaguers like Andrew McCutchen — also agree that velocity such as Joyce’s is the kind of weapon that simply cannot be ignored. As Anderson explained, many pitchers can touch 100 now and then. A few can hit it regularly. But with Joyce, “if it wasn’t 100, that was unusual,” Anderson said.

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Anderson went to the MLB draft combine with Joyce last month. He told representatives from interested teams that Tennessee didn’t use him on back-to-back days or in high-leverage situations because they didn’t have to: They had plenty of options in their bullpen and did not want to push a recent Tommy John patient harder than necessary.

And as for that delivery, Anderson says people don’t realize just how big and strong the 6-foot-5, 225-pound really is, that his Tennessee teammates voted him the team’s hardest worker in the weight room, that he and his twin brother Zach (also a pitcher at Tennessee) began tracking sleep and nutrition as teenagers. If Joyce’s frame is one that can be built into a durable big league pitching body, Anderson believes he will do the work to make it one. The same, he says, will be true of Joyce’s secondary stuff about him. Given time, Anderson speculates those pitches could be elite, too.

“Everybody saw the big fastball and expected this or that out of him. But he’s not going to strike out every guy. He’s just now getting into this,” Anderson said. “You have to give him a pass because he’s just starting to get healthy.”

Some in the industry have wondered if a playoff contender might draft Joyce with the intention of fast tracking him to the major leagues as a late-season bullpen weapon, but Anderson says he hopes whoever chooses Joyce thinks long-term. Given time to get healthy, build innings and develop a broader repertoire, he says, Joyce could even start someday. Joyce says he is open to whatever role his future employer wants him to fill. Six months ago, questions like these, possibilities like those, felt years away. But lately, Ben Joyce, like his fastball, has been moving faster than anyone.




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