Get ready for the start of the Vols’ 2020 baseball season with our position previews! Up first is a look at Tennessee’s pitching staff.
Seniors: LHP Will Heflin
Juniors: LHP Garrett Crochet, RHP Chase Wallace, RHP Sean Hunley, LHP Redmond Walsh, RHP Jackson Leath, RHP Jason Rackers, RHP Kody Davidson
Sophomores: RHP Camden Sewell, RHP Elijah Pleasants, RHP Chad Dallas
Freshmen: LHP Drew Gilbert, LHP Kirby Connell, RHP Christian Delashmit, RHP Sam Fulton, LHP Brandon Gielow, RHP Sean Goodwin, RHP Cameron Hansen, RHP Connor Housley, LHP Will Mabrey, RHP Mark McLaughlin, LHP Logan Ransom, RHP Tommy Wilcox, RHP Ga’von Wray, RHP Ethan Anderson
Garrett Crochet enters his junior season as the ace of Frank Anderson’s pitching staff following an offseason full of accolades.
Crochet was named a preseason First Team All-American by Baseball America and a preseason Third Team All-American by Perfect Game. D1 Baseball deemed Crochet’s fastball the “best fastball” in all of college baseball.
The southpaw’s fastball can touch 100 miles per hour, but it usually sits between 96-100. Crochet also possesses one of the best changeups in the country that sits around 90 MPH and keeps hitters off-balance. He also possesses an 82-85 mph slider that has great spin to it.
Along with preseason All-American honors, Crochet has been rated as one of the top prospects for the upcoming 2020 MLB Draft, which will be held in June. MLB.com tabbed him as the No. 10 overall prospect, while Baseball America tabbed him No. 11 overall. D1 Baseball listed him at No. 12 overall. Jim Callis — MLB.com’s senior writer for MLB pipeline — projected the Seattle Mariners to draft Crochet No. 6 overall.
Crochet is 10-9 with a 4.76 ERA in his two seasons on Rocky Top. The Ocean Springs, Mississippi native has recorded 143 strikeouts in 128.2 innings of work while allowing 135 hits and 48 walks. Coming out of high school, the 6-foot-6 lefty was drafted in the 34th round by the Milwaukee Brewers, but he chose to come to Tennessee.
A line drive that hit him derailed the end of his sophomore campaign, but Crochet bounced back with a tremendous fall. He’ll serve as Tennessee’s Friday night starter to begin the season.
Tennessee lost three key pieces of their pitching staff following last season in Garrett Stallings, Zach Linginfelter, and Andrew Schultz. All three were drafted following their junior campaign and chose to sign with their respective organizations. But only one should be viewed as a big loss — that being Stallings, who was drafted in the fifth round by the Los Angeles Angels.
Stallings went 8-5 last season with a 3.33 ERA and 106 strikeouts through 102.2 innings of work. He made 16 appearances, all of which were starts. Linginfelter and Schultz, however, were unreliable at times as both struggled with command.
This year, Anderson will be relying on the addition of junior college signees to replace the trio lost from last season. All indications are that the JUCO pitchers will serve as upgrades and help the pitching staff as a whole take another step forward.
Tony Vitello and Anderson added four pitchers from the JUCO ranks over the offseason in Jason Rackers, Jackson Leath, Chad Dallas, and Kody Davidson. All four are right-handers who figure to have an important role for the Vols this year — particularly Rackers, Leath, and Dallas.
Rackers and Leath were two of the 10 best arms in junior college baseball last season. Rackers arrives in Knoxville from Jefferson College in Jefferson City, Missouri, while Leath played for Blinn College in Waxahachie, Texas.
At 6-foot-7, 246 lbs., Rackers possesses a power fastball to go along with a slider and changeup. Rackers will miss the beginning of the season with mono, however. Upon his return, which should be before conference play, he could push for a spot in the weekend rotation. If not, he should factor in as a key piece out of the bullpen.
Leath who possesses a great arsenal with a mid-90s fastball, a power slider, a curveball, and a changeup, will start in the bullpen as well. He could factor in as a starter, but he will most likely serve as a relief pitcher who comes in and airs it out for multiple innings in the middle of a big game.
Regardless of whether they start games or are one of the first arms out of the bullpen, both Rackers and Leath will be two of Tennessee’s better pitchers this spring.
As for Dallas, the Orange, Texas native who arrives from Panola College will be in the bullpen, as will Davidson, who is from South Fulton, Tennessee and played at Walters State Community College last year. Dallas is the lone sophomore of the four junior college signees. His wipeout breaking ball and power fastball has generated quite a bit of buzz.
Davidson will likely see innings in mid-week games out of the bullpen.
Projected Weekend Starters
For the first time in years, multiple players are capable of starting games on the weekend this spring for UT, which is a huge testament in Vitello’s ability to flip the roster in just three offseasons. In order to be successful in the SEC, a good pitching staff is critical. With the depth the Vols bolster entering the season, they have a chance to be one of the better staffs from top-to-bottom in the conference.
Crochet enters the season as the Friday starter and will likely receive the ball for the Vols season-opener against Western Illinois on Valentine’s Day. Behind Crochet, as many as seven other pitchers could start. That list consists of Chase Wallace, Sean Hunley, Leath, Rackers, Camden Sewell, Elijah Pleasants, and Drew Gilbert.
As for the opening weekend starters against Western Illinois, it appears as if Crochet will start on Friday, and then Wallace and Hunley will start on Saturday or Sunday, respectively.
No Vol had as good of an offseason as Wallace did. The junior out of Sevier County High School in nearby Sevierville, Tennessee has positioned himself as the No. 2 starter entering the season. Wallace appeared in 25 games through his first two years on campus, throwing just 35.0 innings. Wallace’s 88-94 MPH sinker that drops off significantly as it approaches the plate will lead the way. But his hard slider, cutter, and changeup has him poised for a breakout season.
Hunley has also had a terrific offseason. The junior doesn’t over-power anybody with his arsenal, but he simply gets the job done as one of the most effective pitchers on Tennessee’s staff. Hunley fills up the strike zone and has a great feel for what he is trying to get done on the mound.
The Mount Juliet, Tennessee native made 15 appearances with 14 starts as a true freshman for the Vols in 2018, earning Freshman All-American Honors from Collegiate Baseball Newspaper. As a sophomore last year, Hunley went 4-0 with a 2.60 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 45.0 innings. He made 20 appearances with five starts.
The competition to earn a start on the weekend is intense, and the competition to start mid-week games is just as fierce.
With Crochet, Wallace, and Hunley appearing to have earned the weekend starting spots to begin the season, the mid-week starters will be much more fluid. Most everyone will have the opportunity, but Sewell and Pleasants are the most likely to be the mid-week starters at the beginning of the season.
Entering his second season, Sewell has seen his confidence grow over an offseason in which he focused on developing his secondary pitches and cutting down on his walks. The Cleveland, Tennessee native added much-needed weight over the summer despite dealing with a back injury that kept him out of fall practice. He’ll have to manage it throughout the season, but the sophomore is poised for a big second year.
Sewell went 4-1 as a freshman. His 2.18 ERA is the lowest by a freshman in program history. Behind 43 strikeouts in 45.1 innings of work in 20 appearances — five of which were starts — Sewell became a key member of Tennessee’s bullpen by the end of the season.
Vitello has always been high on Pleasants. The Clarksville native made strides over the offseason that Tennessee’s coaching staff expected, and they still believe the 6-foot-5 righty will be an impact starter at some point in his career. But right now, he’s stuck behind Crochet, Hunley, and Wallace. Look for the sophomore to earn multiple starts in mid-week games this season.
Pleasants made 11 appearances as a true freshman last season. He finished with a 2.45 ERA, tallied five strikeouts in 11.0 innings of work, and made one start. With a lively fastball, a strong changeup, and a good breaking ball, Pleasants could play himself into a key role sooner rather than later.
Also look for Vitello to throw multiple arms in mid-week games, also known as “Johnny Wholestaff.” It’s a great way to get pitchers needed work over the course of the season.
As is the theme with Tennessee’s pitching staff as a whole, the bullpen is as deep as it’s been in years.
Redshirt junior Redmond Walsh is the key piece out of the pen returning from last year’s team that went to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005. Walsh doesn’t blow hitters away, but he’s effective. The Alcoa, Tennessee native’s nasty changeup is a strikeout pitch, which allows for his finesse fastball to be more difficult to hit than hitters anticipate.
Walsh had a team-leading 1.38 ERA last season. He recorded 48 strikeouts in 45.2 innings of work and made 27 appearances. After recording nine saves last season, Walsh was named a Preseason Second-Team All-American by the National College Baseball Writers Association.
Will Heflin plays a similar role to Walsh and will serve the Tennessee bullpen in a similar role. Heflin can come in for a favorable match-up in the seventh inning of a tie game, he can start games, or he can eat up innings if need be.
Unfortunately for Heflin, he won’t be able to pitch until the second or third weekend of SEC play as he battles back from a torn ACL suffered during fall practice. Tennessee will bring him along slowly and could be a redshirt candidate.
Heflin’s veteran presence will be missed. He appeared in 26 games last season and made one start. Heflin went 4-1 with a 2.20 ERA and 35 strikeouts in 32.2 innings of work.
Walsh and Heflin are the two main fixtures in the bullpen, but Rackers, Leath, Dallas, Sewell, and Pleasants will be heavily relied upon out of the bullpen as well, as could Wallace and Hunley. After all, only one person can start a game.
Factoring in as Freshman
Drew Gilbert is poised to be one of the best freshmen in all of college baseball this season as a two-way player who will see plenty of time in the outfield — likely in center field — and on the mound.
Gilbert was a late pickup in the 2019 recruiting class, as Vitello flipped the spunky lefty from Oregon State — the 2018 College World Series Champions. The Lake Elmo, Minnesota native has already made a lasting impact on Tennessee’s baseball program before even playing in a game.
A bulldog on the mound and a spastic demeanor that ignites the locker room, Gilbert will have an immediate impact as a freshman. He has a fast arm and more strength than his 5-foot-9 athletic frame would indicate. Gilbert can start on the mound, he can eat up innings, and he can finish out a game.
Kirby Connell is another freshman that has generated some noise. The left-hander from Blacksburg, South Carolina has come on strong after being injured in the fall. Connell could see time during mid-week games. Right-hander Christian Delashmit could see action in mid-week games as well.
The theme to Tennessee’s 2020 pitching staff is going to be versatility, which is why the unit will be even better than it was last season. There’s only one defined role, which belongs to Crochet, who we know will receive the ball every Friday night.
In this case, however, it’s not a bad thing that there’s only one defined role. Tennessee’s pitching staff is 13-deep as of Opening Day, and all 13 can pretty much do anything asked of them.
Wallace and Hunley will begin the season as starters, but they could also be relied upon as key pieces out of the bullpen if need be. Rackers, Leath, Dallas, Heflin, Walsh, Gilbert, Sewell, and Pleasants will all begin the season in the bullpen, but each one has the ability to start conference games or record key outs from the bullpen in big games.
The entire staff is a Swiss Army Knife, and with pitching coach Frank Anderson leading the way, they’ll only continue to get better. Tennessee will go as the pitching staff goes, and this season it should be one of the best in the SEC.