Tennessee baseball coach Tony Vitello met with the local media on Thursday morning to put a bow on the Vols’ 2023 fall practice ahead of the 2024 season.
In the six-week fall practice, Tennessee played 18-inning scrimmages against Virginia Tech and Samford, held its three-game Fall World Series across East Tennessee and held a myriad of intrasquad scrimmages.
Here’s what Vitello said about his team exiting fall practice.
More From RTI: SEC Announces Permanent Baseball Opponents
On Alabama and Vanderbilt being the Vols’ permanent SEC opponents
“They announced that to us when we met in September as head coaches. So it’s been a while since you kind of know about that. You kind of could anticipate what, who would be some of the options— could even throw Georgia, South Carolina in there, obviously Kentucky, but I think part of it is married to football a little bit, and you talk about Alabama and Tennessee football, there’s certainly something there. Anyone that’s within a couple hour drive like Vanderbilt is, makes sense as well. So bottom line is you’re, you’re adding two of the most storied programs in the history of college baseball to the SEC, which is arguably the most storied conference in college baseball. So things are gonna get better for the fans and they’re gonna get more challenging for the athletes.”
On who the most consistent defensive shortstops were this fall
“Well you said shortstops with an s. So there was a lot. I think consistency’s the key and it depended on the day. It’s kind of the easy way out. We had Alex Perry on video a couple times during field review and it’s almost like what he saw clicked and he was our best guy on that particular day. This was just a couple days ago. Obviously Ariel’s (Antigua) very gifted. He does some things that other guys simply can’t do. CMo and especially early in the fall when that’s all he was doing, camping out at shortstop really showed determination to learn the position, play it at a high level. Dean Curley had a couple days where he looked like he’s fully capable of doing that. And, Bradke really stinks. We had him out most of the fall. Cause he seems to be kind of a spark plug when he’s out there for us, just with the attitude and energy that he presents. So I don’t have a definitive answer for you. It depended on the day. It depended on who was healthy and then part of it is the opportunities that we gave them too. There’s certain days where we ask guys to move around a little bit. The bottom line is, I think all guys know the position. It’s still up in the air what the best combination is there. And it might not be who’s the best guy there, just who’s the best overall combination as valuable as a position we realize as it is.”
On Cannon Peebles and the catcher group
“The group of catchers immediately took to each other. I think, under Coach Elander, they’re gonna work really hard. So you kinda seem to get a little camaraderie there because you’re going through tough times, kinda like our guys do in the weight room with Q (Quentin Eberhardt), and then they’re all just very eager to learn. I think that’s a position if you’re in your twenties even, I don’t know, you can say, Yadi Molina or Mike Scioscia, whoever you want to pick out, it’s a challenging position. Everyday experience is probably the most important thing that comes with it.
“And all those guys realize that and they’re eager to learn, and Peoples is just one of those who you could see that just in Nashville, he caught way better than he did in Greeneville. That was in a two week span. And I don’t think it was because of a different location or the pitchers he was catching. It was simply because of improvement and willingness to learn.”
On what Cannon Peebles has done well at the plate
“He does not give away any at bats. And if you’re talking about team at-bats, quality at-bats, you can turn a lot of different ways, but we have a certain definition that probably most teams in college do on what a good at-bat is. And he had the highest percentage of success this fall, and he’s gifted, and he works hard at it. But all of our guys are gifted and work hard at it to an extent. I think where he kind of separates himself is, like Pete Rose, he has the most hits and one of the reasons is he didn’t give away any at bats. And I’m not condoning gambling or anything like that this weekend, but I like having a guy that approaches each at-bat like Pete Rose, where it’s fighting tooth and nail like it’s the last at-bat he’s ever gonna have.”
On Blake Burke and Christian Moore playing in the outfield
“They asked for it. I think as you get older, the fall kind of becomes a little bit experimental as much as it is competitive. And it’s not like those guys aren’t bringing it every day. I think that was one of the positives of the fall was the group had a good environment every day, but as you get older, you look for new challenges or different things, and those guys ask to be out there to kind of diversify what they could do for the team. Because they recognize that it might help them in their pro career to show they have versatility, but also it might help them win more games in what could be their last year here, because we have other options and positions that they play.”
On SS Ariel Antigua’s growth
“Am I allowed to make a height joke? [laughter]. He’s grown in maturity and how he approaches things. And the players tease him about that (height), I don’t, so kind of maybe a locker room joke there. But the bottom line is, he’s developed work-ethic wise, how he approaches things like a pro, but he’s nowhere near what he needs to be. Because he could be playing in the middle of the in-field at second or short or wherever, or he could have a career here of three or four years playing a huge percentage of our games, and that comes with a lot of responsibility. So you have to be a pro at how you approach things and how you react to certain situations. And I think he’s still growing in the infield and offensively on just how to be consistent. He’s got a flair for the dramatic, and he even had an Air Jordan looking play at the Fall World Series if you were in Chattanooga, where he jumped as high as he could and made a dynamic play. So he can make, or even hit, to a point where it’s a Sports Center type effort.”
“But what we need out of him is consistency day in and day out. And a lot of freshmen across the country just don’t realize 56 games is a lot, and if you’re able to have success in the postseason, maybe at 65, 70… that is a lot of reps. So we’ll take consistency way over the Sports Center type deal. And if you can combine them both, then even better.”
On Kavares Tears’ fall
“We’re doing our close fall meetings now. We bring in the individual and we kind of go over things with the whole coaching staff. And the best way I can answer that is just the vibe sitting in there with him this fall compared to this calendar year, a year ago – insanely different. Probably the best one we’ve had so far. Because everyone was kind of just had glowing remarks for him and I think he’s in a really good spot and he’s got good feedback for us. He’s sat and watched and learned and he knows himself very well. He’s coming a long, long way and whenever his time is done here, whether it’s this year or next year, the scouts will be the ones that decide that, not me. We’ll look back and he’ll be one of our favorites as far as just that timeline of progression. And he’s always been a good kid, always been a hard worker, always been a talented player. But again, when guys come into expression, this is a total different deal, in college baseball. And then I would like to think in our program a little bit, and then I know in our league, and he’s kind of gotten to the point where you could pitch him in overall and he can hit it to where you think is going over the fence.”
On freshman Marcus Phillips
“Well, we ask the hitters at times, who do you not like facing or who’s an uncomfortable at bat. The hitters don’t like facing him. I know that. That feedback is probably more valuable than any of us standing there and critiquing his delivery or where he is at. I just know based off where he is from, how much he’s played, which is not a lot – comes from the frozen tundra up there in the Dakotas, with all due respect. He’s just got a lot of room for growth. So, it’s ultra exciting to see where he is at right now. You kind of know how he progressed from August to now, so how’s he going to progress from now until February when we start our season? That’s another thing to get excited about. And while I think he can be dynamic with the bat and we don’t want to give that up, I think right now he’s a pitcher first for us, and he really can serve any role and you can name a role right now, they’re all open. We know guys like Drew Beam can give us a large amount of innings and Kirby [Connell] can be used a ton of times or, you know, for a bunch of appearances. But you can name a role right now and we don’t have a definitive answer who’s going on one day or what spot and, and he can fill any of those.”
On Kavares Tears and Dylan Dreiling struggling against left-handed pitchers last spring and their improvements this fall
“We had a meeting the other day and fortunately we now have Zach Stone as a guy who’s kind of in charge of our analytics and educates, certainly me, our players, some of the other staff. One of these numbers mean that you maybe see on Stat Cast and all that. And he chimed in right away. Dylan is basically at about even. I think some of that last year, if you broke down the numbers, it was more circumstantial. He wasn’t out there every day. He was always in the heat of the battle when he was getting to come off the bench because we trust him so much. I don’t think that’s as much of an issue as it is him, you know, solidifying himself as a defender and a base runner for us to be that everyday guy that’s one of the best players on our team, which he fully can be.
KT, really it’s about, again, that progression freshman year until now. That progression from now until – what he’s kind of become is more patient. I think with the left hand breaking ball, before you bounce the thing and he would chase and I think as you throw BP to him, even now it’s a little bit more of kind of dancing with the pitch or letting the whole thing play out as opposed to just running at it or trying to crush it. He can crush it, but all’s he’s got to do is touch it on a barrel and it’ll go. He’s got unique strength.”
On the big football weekend against Georgia
“The whole week is insane. We got all kinds of stuff going on, so I’m glad you asked. I don’t know where to start. I mean, if you’re gonna start, I think you start with Dolly Parton. She was on the Howard Stern Show yesterday. I called in to a radio show for the first time in my life to try and let her know how much she does for the state of Tennessee. Uh, I got rejected. So maybe I’ll get to say hello to her in person. The Kansas City Chiefs can have Taylor Swift all they want. We’ll take Dolly Parton on Saturday.
“But before we even get to Saturday, we’ve got Todd Helton coming over to our stadium for what will basically be kind of a ribbon cutting for breaking ground on the stadium and others will gather as well. But excited to see Todd. He’s always active and hunting and golfing and things like that. So it’s been a while since he’s been over to the ballpark.
“We have our entire signing class that he just had that was ranked, depends what publication, and again, I’m not too big into hype, but it certainly is the most talented and most draft worthy class we’ve ever had. So how this weekend goes, will kind of impact how much they truly want to be in college. I know Mookie Betts talks about the hair on his arms kind of raising up when he was at the football game on his visit. And he’s so good he didn’t make it to college, but that leaves a lasting impression.
“And then Saturday is gonna be a huge event with us playing Georgia and — I think you guys will do a football presser later. I wish I could be involved. I’m as big of a fan as you guys, but my biggest thing is this is such a tough place to play as a road opponent. The other thing is they kind of haven’t had their game where they kind of say, we didn’t play our best and we haven’t played our best. And so if some variation comes up with that, I think Dolly Parton’s gonna be singing ole Rocky Top.”
On where the pitching rotation is at exiting fall practice
“Yeah, for us it is to try and find the combination that wins us the most games. And you wanna win a weekend series anytime you play. It could be a round robin tournament, like we’ll find in Dallas. You wanna win two out three for obvious reasons. And so what can get us closest to that is the combination that we’ll look for as coaches. And there’s probably no one right answer. Will Heflin was a key ingredient a few years back and we looked smart, or he made us look smart, but maybe there was even another way to do it ‘cause it was a good team. So we’re just gonna have to, you know, flirt with different combinations and try different things and guys are gonna have to be accepting what they’re asked to do. To me, three outs is three outs. Go out there and get your three outs, and maybe you’re only asked to go get one.
But we’ve got a lot of depth, we’ve got a lot of competition. If they all do their work the way they’re supposed to over the winter, we’ll have a lot of options for what you’re talking about. But I don’t think we’ll have those answers probably until March, April, who knows? And maybe it’s a deal where the whole year long we’re just kind of working and scrapping for wins and trying to figure out what works for us. Last year was frustrating at times, but I do think the, the effort the players and the coaches put forth in the park of like, this isn’t working, so let’s try this. That didn’t work that great. This worked a little bit. That’s what baseball is. You get in the cage as a hitter, it’s, you tinker with things a little bit until it works. And that’s what we’ll probably be doing with our pitching staff.”