Ben Joyce is a source of history and of mystery.
The 21-year-old right-hander can throw a baseball harder than anybody else in the world. But how far can that fastball take him?
You might have seen the pitch that made Joyce, a redshirt junior reliever at Tennessee, a household name in the baseball universe. It was a 105.5 mph blur that sailed several inches off the plate for a ball in a May 1 outing against Auburn. That pitch set off a stir on social media … and in Joyce’s own family.
“The coolest part for me was talking to my parents after the game,” Joyce says. “My mom actually started crying.”
On Monday, he was drafted by the Angels in the third round, the 89th overall pick in the Draft.
A pitcher throwing that hard would make a baseball scout cry tears of joy, too. It was the fastest pitch on record in college baseball history. The only MLB pitches we know to have been thrown harder were both by Aroldis Chapman -- a 105.7 mph heater on July 18, 2016, and a 105.8 mph record-setter on Sept. 24, 2010.
But Joyce, who threw 28 fastballs 103 mph or greater in four shutout innings that fateful day against Auburn, enters his professional path with so much to prove.
He is a 6-foot-5, 225-pound physical specimen and a star student whose performance for the Vols -- the SEC regular-season and tournament champs -- earned him the nickname “The Volunteer Fireman.” And his 105.5 mph pitch even earned him his own NFT marketplace.
He came in at No. 116 on MLB Pipeline’s ranking of the top 200 prospects in this year’s Draft. From a scouting perspective, Joyce’s track record -- long on injuries and, therefore, short on actual pitching experience -- casts a cloud over that fiery fastball.
In one season for Tennessee -- a team that won 57 games before its surprising elimination from the NCAA postseason by Notre Dame in the Super Regional -- Joyce was electric and erratic. He made 27 appearances, including one start, striking out 53 batters in 32 1/3 innings with a 2.23 ERA. He also walked 14 batters, hit three more and threw eight wild pitches. Tennessee was cautious with his calendar. He wasn’t the club’s closer. He pitched on back-to-back days just once (one-third of an inning each time) and typically went more than two days between outings.
Because Joyce also nursed injuries for a good chunk of his career at Farragut (Tenn.) High School and Walters State Community College, it takes a leap of faith in the fastball to project big things from him in the big leagues.
“I bet he hasn’t pitched 100 innings in his life,” says Matt Buckner, Joyce’s high school head coach. “The track record is scary for a Major League team. But it’s scary if you don’t pay attention to him, too.”
When Buckner met Ben and his identical twin brother, Zach, they were scrawny middle schoolers who had fallen in love with the game in a community just outside of Knoxville, Tenn., that has baseball in its blood. The Farragut High School squad has made 21 state tournament appearances and 17 finals appearances with 11 state titles, including 2022. It has produced five big leaguers.
Ben and Zach weren’t exactly roster locks when they showed up to Farragut as freshmen.
“They tried out for the high school team at 13 years old,” Buckner recalls. “They were really young, and I’m not joking when I say they were maybe 5-foot-4, 120 pounds. They were so tiny. And to be honest, they weren’t very good.”
But Buckner loved the Joyce twins because of how hard they worked. They each grew about eight inches by their junior year, leading to growth-plate problems that hampered their playing time and prevented them from getting much attention from Division I colleges. They wound up at Walters State in nearby Morristown, Tenn.
During Ben’s freshman year at Walters, growth-plate issues in his throwing elbow sidelined him again. He couldn’t pitch, so he went hard in the weight room, putting on about 20 pounds of muscle and growing another two inches. When he came back his sophomore year, he was a monster. That’s when he touched 100 mph for the first time.
Suddenly, D-1 programs were a lot more interested in the Joyce brothers, even as Zach was recuperating from Tommy John surgery.
“Within months,” Buckner says, “both were committed to UT.”
Zach has yet to pitch for Tennessee. Worn down by the grind of injury rehab, he decided to step away in the fall of 2020. Only in recent weeks has Zach decided to pitch again. He’ll suit up for the Vols next season.
“He finally feels he’s in a good place, mentally and physically, to try to give it one more shot,” Ben says.
Ben’s own recovery from Tommy John caused him to miss the 2021 season at Tennessee. He finally debuted on Feb. 20 of this year against Georgia Southern. His first pitch was a 100 mph fastball, and the intrigue has grown with each uptick from there. The absurd fastball led to some comically inept swings on his slider.
“It was really cool,” Joyce says, “to see all that hard work and all those hours finally pay off.”
Joyce’s famous fastball had people on campus calling him “Mr. 105,” and the NFT (made possible by the name, image and likeness policy adopted by the NCAA in 2021) allowed him to capitalize on the craze.
“I’m using it as a fundraiser for the East Tennessee Children’s Hospital,” says Joyce, “which is a good cause.”
Joyce has his priorities in order and his velocity intact. It could be that past injury portends future injury, and he never reaches the potential that comes with that blazing heat. Or, it could be that all the past setbacks have left him with a fresh arm and limitless potential.
“You can say I haven’t done much, but I think that’s gonna benefit me in the long run,” he says. “I feel like I’m ready to take on a lot right now, physically, with how I feel and how I’ve built up my body. I don’t think I’m even close to the finished product yet.”