It is now February and Punxsutawney Phil has made his presence felt, which means that the Tennessee baseball team is ramping up despite the groundhog’s chilly forecast.
Tony Vitello’s squad is looking to build off what was a blazing start in 2020 before the season was abruptly cut short by the pandemic. The Vols went 15-2 a season ago, which included a sweep of the Round Rock Classic. Their success in the tournament included a defeat of a top-ranked Texas Tech team.
Tennessee lost a few key players to the modified 5-round MLB draft in 2020, but still return an abundance of talent. One of the subtractions is former ace, Garrett Crochet. While replacing that talent is unlikely, the Vols are more than capable of presenting enough problems for opposing hitters from the mound.
This will be the first installment of Fanrun’s “Vols Baseball Preview” series. Here is what to know and who you’ll see, as Tony V’s pitching staff looks to keep momentum going in Knoxville.
Big Shoes to Fill
The Vols didn’t get to fully experience the fruition of Crochet’s rehab leading up to the 2020 season. The former Tennessee pitcher had a delayed start to the season last year to help combat shoulder soreness. Crochet threw 3.1 innings of shut-out ball and recorded six strikeouts in his lone college start of 2020. The road to Omaha was closed two days later.
Everyone heard of the work Crochet was putting into the 2020 season, both with his rehab and mechanics. While Vol fans and teammates just caught a glimpse during spring, it was the Chicago White Sox who reaped the full reward of the Ocean Springs, Miss. product come fall of 2020.
Crochet was selected as the 16th overall pick in the first-year eligible draft last summer. Three months later, the former Volunteer was mowing down big league hitters as the Sox made a playoff run. The towering lefty became the first pitcher since 1978 to make his MLB debut in the same year as he was drafted.
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) September 19, 2020
Next Pitchers Up
The bad news for the Vols: Crochet dons the black and white pinstripes now. The good news for Tennessee: Plenty of viable arms return.
The rotation will likely start with a core of Jackson Leath, Chad Dallas and Elijah Pleasants. The trio combined for 59 SO in 51.5 IP a season ago. They collectively recorded an 8-0 record.
Leath, a senior, had the best K/BB rate (5.9/1) of the bunch in 2020. He also recorded the most strikeouts (29) in just 18.2 IP. As a JUCO transfer from Blinn College (TX), Leath worked as a Swiss army knife for Tennessee in his first year on Rocky Top. The Texas native made two starts and three relief appearances. No matter the leverage, Leath answered the bell. The right-hander recorded a 1.45 ERA and WHIP of .860 while facing 66 batters. Leath is listed as a preseason All-American selection (2nd team) by Baseball America.
Dallas finished second on the team in SO (21) and first in IP (21.1). The junior is also a Texas native offering some heat. The righty had his fastball up to 95 mph this past fall. Dallas was solidly placed in front of the rotation for the Vols in 2020. That likely won’t change this season. Dallas will surely be a weekend showcase. All four of the sophomore’s appearances were starts a season ago.
Pleasants might be the most interesting arm to watch. The Clarksville, Tenn. native led all Tennessee pitchers in appearances with seven in 2020. Pleasants made two starts and had a mix of short work. The right-hander registered nine strikeouts in 12.2 innings. Despite giving up 13 hits and five doubles, Pleasants surrendered just 2 ER. Standing 6-foot-5, the junior has a fastball that jumps on batters. The offering registers in the low 90s.
The Pitchers in the Pen
Senior Redmond Walsh will likely be the premiere closer for Vitello’s pen. The left-handed stopper has developed into quite the cleaner over the years. As a redshirt freshman in 2018, Walsh made 16 appearances for the Vols, while posting a team-best 2.04 ERA. He led the team in the same category the following season through 45.2 innings of work.
In the abbreviated 2020 season, Walsh didn’t allow a single earned run. The senior held batters to a .125 average in 11.2 innings of work. Walsh has a career ERA of 1.32 and has punched 74 SO over 75 IP.
Senior Sean Hunley, also a Tennessee native, looks to play an important role for the whole staff. The Mt. Juliet product has made 41 appearances in his Volunteer career. Almost half of those have been starts (20). Hunley’s usage has trended towards more of a relief role over the years. The 6-foot-4, right-hander has six starts between the 2019 and 2020 campaigns. During his freshman season, 15 of the 16 appearances were starts. Hunley’s 7-3 record, combined with a 2.64 ERA, earned him All-American honors by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper in 2018. Look for Hunley to get long work out of the pen, while also spot-starting during the week.
Another senior looking to go out in style is Will Heflin. The left-hander is a Morristown West product who impressed early on in his Tennessee career. Heflin saw action on the mound as well as in the box back in 2017. In addition to 15.1 innings of relief, the lefty drove in six runs on six hits during his freshman year. Heflin’s brightest spot came in 2019 when he recorded 35 SO in 32.2 IP. Out of 26 appearances that year, 25 were made in relief. Heflin finished his junior year with a 2.20 ERA. He missed the abbreviated 2020 season due to rehabilitation from a knee injury.
What It Means for The Vols
These names are just a few examples of the stable of arms on Rocky Top. Despite having to replace an elite talent in the starting rotation, there doesn’t seem to be a sizeable gap to bridge that production. The Vols don’t lack for flexible pitchers, with even more looking to jump into the mix in 2021. The key for the Tennessee pitching staff will be establishing a front-line weekend pitcher, and solidifying long-relief arms who can also start when called upon. All the pieces are there for a staff that could be among the top in the conference. For Vitello, it’s just a matter of fitting them together.