College World Series to World Series in one year? Why a Tennessee pitcher with a 104 mph fastball has a chance

There’s a very specific type of heat that releases helium in the baseball world. You may remember it emanating from the halcyon days of Aroldis Chapman, the prospect. Or from the first glimpses of Jordan Hicks. Or from Hunter Greene, the still burgeoning Reds starter.

It is the heat that comes from a velocity reading that not only touches 100 mph, but eclipses it. Baseball fans have gotten used to the concept of three digits flashing on the screen, but when the third digit climbs to be a three, or — heaven help us — a five, the alarm bells will sound.

And if a pitcher is doing that before they are in the majors? Before they are even a professional? Find the fainting couch, forthwith.

This spring, an arm throwing for college baseball’s very best team has been radiating exactly that type of heat. Tennessee’s Ben Joyce, a redshirt junior who pitches out of the bullpen, first caught the internet’s attention in February, when he hit 103.5 mph.

By March, Joyce’s triple-digit darts were staples on the ubiquitous Pitching Ninja Twitter account. Soon, Tennessee was fielding constant requests for the velocity numbers on his hardest pitches. In the less statistically consolidated world of college baseball, his exact top speed is a little murky, but in early May he fired a pitch that was somewhere between 104 and 105.5 mph.

This weekend, Joyce could wow an audience beyond the Twitter-sphere, as the No. 1-seeded Volunteers are hosting Notre Dame in an NCAA tournament super regional — with games set to be broadcast on either ESPN or ESPN2 — that will determine if they advance to the College World Series.

Joyce is also expected to be an early round selection in July’s MLB draft. Given the velocity, the mind wanders toward history. Could Joyce help a contender’s bullpen … this season? Could he replicate former Tennessee teammate Garrett Crochet’s instant rise from college to the Chicago White Sox in 2020? Could he become the second player to pitch in the College World Series and the professional World Series in one year?

Deciphering whether an exciting pitcher can make the leap from college to the majors in one summer can’t actually be done in one fell swoop, though. It’s less one question than an intertwined set of several questions.

1. Would it risk his health to ask for more innings?

Joyce is an interesting case. He missed all of 2021 after having Tommy John surgery and has been handled very carefully in this breakout campaign. He has only thrown 29 innings heading into the super regionals, and only two outings have been longer than two innings.

MLB teams discover unpleasant surprises in draft pick medical examinations all the time, so a lot would depend on whether that caution is truly precautionary or an outcropping of lingering issues.

If everything looks clean, though, a light workload so far in 2022 would make it more feasible for Joyce to keep pitching after the draft.

2. How does Ben Joyce rate as an MLB draft prospect, in a vacuum?

We know Joyce has the fastest fastball in the country. We can’t be totally sure because of the different tracking systems, but he has probably thrown harder than any major leaguer this season — the hardest big-league pitch tracked by Statcast is a 103.3 mph heater from Twins reliever Jhoan Duran. Only six pitchers have touched 103 since 2015. So, the velocity is good.

The pitch itself rates as the NCAA’s best by at least one metric, but that’s not a ticket to stardom in itself.

As Baseball Prospectus lead prospect writer Jeffrey Paternostro explains, Joyce’s headline-grabbing velocity — an elite 80 on the 20-80 scouting scale where a 50 would be major-league average — won’t be the only part of the equation in the pros.

“He throws the ball harder over a short burst than any pitcher on the planet right now except maybe Hunter Greene,” Paternostro said. “I fight myself on wanting to hew close to the velocity table because it’s literally 103 mph and that’s a fraction of a fraction of second to make a decision. But we know so much more about fastballs now than we did even a few years ago.”

Non-velocity factors like command and movement are crucial question marks for Joyce. Paternostro worries that unsteady command and a flat shape could knock the pitch’s overall grade down to a 70 or even a 60.

Just look at Greene. The young Reds ace has taken his lumps in the majors because hitters at that level can time up even a 100+ mph fastball in a matter of innings. At the very least, pitchers need to give their fastball bat-missing movement — making it appear to “rise” or tail away or cut.

Even the hardest throwers also need another option to keep hitters honest to find real success. Joyce’s slider could fit that role, but Paternostro says the pitch is not yet consistent enough to feel confident it will rise to the occasion.

Those questions, combined with the relative certainty that Joyce will top out as a bullpen weapon, means he isn’t likely to come off the board in the first round. Keith Law’s most recent mock draft at The Athletic had three players from Tennessee’s stacked roster going in the first round, and none of them were Joyce.

“He’s more famous than most of the prospects that will go in the first round,” Paternostro told Yahoo Sports, “but I’d expect him to be picked closer to the end of the Day 1 of the draft than the start.”

That would put him somewhere in the second round, perhaps 60 or even 75 picks in — the draft’s first day encompasses the first two rounds and compensation picks.

Tennessee pitcher Ben Joyce throws one of the hardest fastballs in baseball, college or professional. (Photo by Chris McDill/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Tennessee pitcher Ben Joyce, a big part of their run toward the College World Series, throws one of the hardest fastballs in baseball, college or professional. (Photo by Chris McDill/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

3. Which type of team will take him in the MLB draft?

If you’re rooting specifically for Joyce to make the fun-fact-spawning leap from college to the majors in one season, you should root for a contender to draft him.

Teams in the playoff hunt are universally on the lookout for bullpen insurance, and Joyce could qualify. If he winds up being the pick for a rebuilding club, there would be little incentive to take any risks at all with his arm.

Joyce’s trajectory probably makes him more attractive to teams in the hunt, anyway. Paternostro says he is likely to move quickly into a major-league bullpen, even if that isn’t this season. So whoever spends the pick required to draft him will probably be looking for impact at the big-league level in a relatively short timeframe.

4. Could Joyce leap from college to MLB in 2022?

A key thing to understand: You don't have to be the best prospect to be the closest prospect.

The two recent examples of making the jump from college baseball to the majors in one season are Crochet, Joyce’s former Tennessee teammate, and Brandon Finnegan — who jumped from TCU to the Kansas City Royals in 2014 to become the only player in history to play in the College World Series and the World Series in the same year. It's no coincidence they both arrived as relief pitchers.

But unlike Joyce, Crochet and Finnegan were consistently used as starters in college. The fact that Joyce is almost certainly destined for a bullpen eliminates one potential roadblock to history. Rushing a pitcher to the big leagues as a reliever can be a costly interruption of his development. (Even if he’s a model for this history-making path, Crochet is also perhaps a cautionary tale. He has never started an MLB game and is currently injured.)

The reliever-only label is, alas, also a red flag. While Paternostro says Joyce is capable of making the leap if he does match up with the right team, he doesn’t profile as well as Crochet and Finnegan did.

Paternostro distinguishes the raw heat of Joyce from the “quality fastballs” Crochet and Finnegan wielded. Crochet’s had strong spin rates that allowed it to deceive hitters and miss bats, while Finnegan threw a grounder-inducing sinker. Without a chance to develop a more diversified arsenal, Joyce would be reliant on the same fastball that made him a viral sensation. That could produce some strikeouts, but it might also produce nights where he gets squared up.

“I’d be concerned he’s going to be the kind of frustrating, homer-prone bullpen arm that you won’t be that comfortable with in big spots in a playoff race,” Paternostro said.

On the other hand … throwing 103 mph is bound to inspire some YOLO tendencies in pretty much anyone.

“Conversely you could argue that, well, the arm isn’t meant to throw 100+ and he already has had Tommy John,” Paternostro said, acknowledging a pitcher who may be pretty close to his peak form. “So Joyce is just burning daylight in the minors.”