There are myriad reasons why Tony Vitello’s first season at Tennessee won’t be easy.
First and foremost, the Volunteers just haven’t done a ton of winning lately. They haven’t been to a regional since 2005, which also happens to be the last time the program has been better than .500 in SEC play. Beyond that, it’s also a concern that the 2017 offense went as Jordan Rodgers and Jeff Moberg went, and both of those guys are off in pro ball now. There’s also a question about bullpen depth behind proven guys like Will Heflin (who was effective, but only threw 15.1 innings last season) and Andrew Schultz.
But one thing that it appears Vitello will not have to worry about is starting pitching, as the Volunteers will likely run out a trio that will match up with just about any other in the SEC.
Two of the key pieces, Zach Linginfelter and Garrett Stallings, are guys who burst onto the scene and proved that they belonged in the SEC in a big way last season.
Linginfelter threw 56.1 innings across 22 appearances, including six starts. He had a 3.67 ERA, 61 strikeouts, and a .239 opponent batting average. In his four-inning debut in relief on opening weekend against Memphis, as we wrote at the time, you could already see his raw stuff jumping off of the page. As the season wore on, his ability to do a little bit of everything for the Vols was a huge weapon.
Stallings was second on the team in innings with 70 across 20 appearances, eight of which were starts. He had a 3.47 ERA and a 39-to-13 strikeout-to-walk ratio. With just 39 strikeouts, he wasn’t someone who was blowing away the opposition, but he was clearly pounding the zone and working to avoid giving up free bases.
The final piece in the presumed starting rotation trio is junior Will Neely, and he might be the toughest to hit of the group. Last season, he was also a swingman for the Volunteers, as he appeared in 19 games, eight of which were starts. In 57.2 innings, he had a 3.43 ERA, a 41/13 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and a .213 opponent batting average.
Even the best programs have years when they’re unsure of who will be pitching on weekends, and just about every program has at least one slot up in the air heading into the season. Tennessee could still have a breakout star in spring practice push his way into the conversation, but barring that, the Volunteers look mostly set.
We would be remiss if we talked about Tennessee’s pitching staff in any way and didn’t acknowledge what might be the best assistant coaching hire of the offseason in Vitello luring pitching coach Frank Anderson away from Houston. Anderson is widely considered one of the very best in the sport, and the results he gets from his pitchers tell the story.
Vitello acknowledged immediately after Anderson’s hiring that he’s a coach who checks just about all of the boxes.
“From my playing days and early coaching career in the Big 12, I took note of his pitchers and how he developed them,” said Vitello in the school release announcing the hiring. “He was a tremendous role model for me as a young pitching coach. Coach Anderson has a proven throwing and training program that allows pitchers to make improvements in both velocity and command while also keeping them healthy throughout the season and their college careers. He understands what it takes to recruit and develop Omaha-caliber pitching staffs. He’s a winner with a national championship ring and a long list of NCAA Regionals and Super Regionals on his resume.
In his five years on staff at Houston, he oversaw pitching staffs that had ERAs of 3.74, 2.35, 2.89, 2.48, and 3.43, all the while tutoring future pros such as Austin Pruitt, Patrick Weigel, Jake Lemoine, Nick Hernandez, Andrew Lantrip, and 2017 first-round pick Seth Romero. That’s to say nothing of the loads of pros he coached as the pitching coach at Texas Tech and Texas and as the head coach at Oklahoma State and all of the really effective college pitchers he coached that just weren’t pro prospects.
A rotation of Linginfelter, Stallings, and Neely, in some order, is good to begin with. That trio working closely with a pitching coach like Frank Anderson gives them the potential to be scary good, at least from the perspective of opposing SEC teams.