2021 Baseball Position Preview: Pitchers

 

Vols RHP Chad Dallas / Credit: UT Athletics

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – The 2021 baseball season is just three days away and leading up to opening day, UTSports.com is previewing each position group for this year’s team.

The final installment of the series will focus on Tennessee’s pitching staff. Read up on UT’s outfielders HERE and infielders/catchers HERE.

The Vols bring back the majority of their pitching staff from last season, returning 81% of their total innings pitched and 79% of their strikeouts from last year. Returners also accounted for 14 of Tennessee’s 15 victories in 2020.

The Big Orange will have to replace three players that are now in the professional ranks. Hard-throwing lefty Garrett Crochet was selected with the 11th overall pick in the 2020 MLB Draft by the Chicago White Sox and went on to have an immediate impact for the franchise, becoming the first player to go from the draft to the big leagues without playing in the minors since Mike Leake in 2010. Crochet made six appearances for the White Sox during the 2020 season, including one postseason outing. In those six games, he did not allow a single run and gave up just three hits while racking up 10 strikeouts in 6.2 innings of relief.

UT will also have to replace right handers Chase Wallace and Kody Davidson, who signed free agent contracts with the Royals and Mets, respectively.

Returners (Listed Numerically)

#1 Drew Gilbert – Sophomore – LHP – 5-9 / 182 – Stillwater, Minn.
Career Stats (1 Season): 1-0, 5.62 ERA, 4 APP, 8.0 IP, 9 K, 2 BB, 1.38 WHIP, .290 OPP AVG

A two-way player for the Vols who is likely to be one of the team’s starting outfielders, as well, Gilbert proved to be an effective relief option for UT as a true freshman. The lefty allowed just one run in his first three outings, including an impressive performance against No. 25 Stanford at the Round Rock Classic. Gilbert gave up just one run and had three strikeouts in 4.1 innings of relief to earn his first-career win and help the Vols cap a perfect 3-0 weekend at the tournament.  The Stillwater, Minnesota, native will look to be a reliable option out of the bullpen this season.

#11 Will Heflin – Senior – LHP – 5-11 / 175 – Morristown, Tenn.
Career Stats (3 Seasons): 8-4, 3.86 ERA, 55 APP, 6 GS, 86.1 IP, 71 K, 45 BB, 1.53 WHIP, .262 OPP AVG

Heflin returns for his final season with the Vols after missing all of last year while rehabbing from an offseason knee injury. The local product from Morristown was set to make his return when the season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Heflin was coming off the best season of his career in 2019, posting a 4-1 record with a 2.20 ERA in 26 appearances. He was one of the Vols’ top relief pitchers during that season and could be one of the Vols’ top options out of the bullpen this year if he’s able to regain his 2019 form. The experienced left hander has also started six games during his career and can be used in a number of different roles.

#16 Camden Sewell – Junior – RHP – 6-4 / 190 – Cleveland, Tenn.
Career Stats (2 Seasons): 4-1, 2.23 ERA, 21 APP, 6 GS, 1 SV, 48.1 IP, 48 K, 23 BB, 1.10 WHIP, .180 OPP AVG

Sewell had a great debut season in 2019 with a 4-1 record and 2.18 ERA, which was the lowest by a true freshman in program history. The Cleveland, Tennessee, native made just one appearance in 2020 after missing the first month of the season with a minor injury. Sewell returned and made his lone appearance in what turned out to be the Vols’ final game of the season, getting the start in UT’s 17-5 win over ETSU on March 10.

Now healthy, Sewell will have a chance to earn a starting spot for the Big Orange and could also be a valuable asset to the Vols’ bullpen. Either way, the talented right hander should have a significant role on Tennessee’s staff this season.

#20 Connor Housley – Sophomore – RHP – 6-4 / 200 – Tyrone, Ga.

Housley will look to log his first action at the collegiate level in 2021 after not making any appearances as a true freshman last season. The Georgia native was a 17th round pick by the Texas Rangers out of high school, but decided to forgo a professional career and join the Vols. Housley was rated as a Top 500 recruit nationally by Perfect Game and was named to the site’s 2019 Preseason All-America and All-Region teams. The hard-throwing right hander tossed four complete games and had 65 strikeouts in just 41.0 innings of work as a senior at Sandy Creek High School in 2019.

#25 Christian Delashmit – Sophomore – RHP – 6-3 / 190 – Covington, Tenn.
Career Stats (1 Season): 3-0, 0.77 ERA, 5 APP, 1 GS, 11.2 IP, 16 K, 2 BB, 1.03 WHIP, .227 OPP AVG

Delashmit was off to a fantastic start to his collegiate career in 2020, posting a 3-0 record and 0.77 ERA in five appearances. He was one of UT’s primarily midweek pitchers as a true freshman, making four relief appearances and one start. In that start, Delashmit threw 4.2 scoreless innings and struck out seven in a 15-1 victory over Northern Kentucky. The Covington, Tennessee, native did not allow a single run and issued just two walks over his final four appearances (10.2 innings).

#26 Jason Rackers – RS-Junior – RHP – 6-7 / 225 – Jefferson City, Mo.

Rackers is set to make his Tennessee debut in 2021 after undergoing Tommy John surgery and missing the 2020 season. The imposing right hander joined the Vols after two impressive seasons at JUCO powerhouse Jefferson College, where he helped lead the Vikings to 101 wins during his stint with the program. Rackers went 8-3 with a 3.97 ERA, two complete games and 82 strikeouts in 65.2 innings pitched in 2019. He earned NJCAA All-Region XVI second team honors after an impressive freshman campaign in 2018. The Missouri native was 11-1 on the year with a 2.63 ERA and tossed four complete games to help Jefferson College reach the NJCAA Division I College World Series. He also racked up 103 strikeouts and issued just 23 walks in 82.0 innings of work. A healthy Rackers could play an important role as a starter or reliever for the Vols this season.

#28 Elijah Pleasants – Junior – RHP – 6-5 / 200 – Clarksville, Tenn.
Career Stats (2 Seasons): 1-0, 1.90 ERA, 18 APP, 3 GS, 23.2 IP, 14 K, 12 BB, 1.14 WHIP, .185 OPP AVG

Pleasants will look to take the next step in his progression this season after showing flashes of his potential during his first two years on Rocky Top. The lanky right hander is one of a handful of pitchers battling for spots in the Vols’ weekend rotation this season. Pleasants was off to a solid start in 2020, going 1-0 with a 1.42 ERA in seven appearances (two starts). The junior from Clarksville will look to carry his momentum from a solid offseason into the 2021 campaign.

#31 Jackson Leath – Senior – RHP – 6-1 / 192 – Waxahachie, Texas
Career Stats (1 Season): 4-0, 1.45 ERA, 5 APP, 2 GS, 18.2 IP, 29 K, 5 BB, 0.86 WHIP, .167 OPP AVG

With Crochet sidelined for the majority of the year, Leath was arguably Tennessee’s top pitcher during the shortened 2020 season. The powerful right hander split time as a starter and reliever but led the team with a 4-0 record and 29 strikeouts. His four wins ranked first in the SEC and tied for second in the nation while his 13.98 strikeouts per nine innings ranked sixth in the conference.

Leath was named to the Round Rock Classic All-Tournament Team thanks to an eight-strikeout performance over 4.2 innings of relief in a win over Houston. The Texas native enters his senior season with some lofty expectations after being named a preseason second-team All-American by Baseball America. Leath’s versatility will be a valuable weapon for UT this season, as he possesses the ability to start or fill multiple roles out of the bullpen.

#32 Sean Hunley – Senior – RHP – 6-4 / 220 – Mount Juliet, Tenn.
Career Stats (3 Seasons): 11-3, 2.37 ERA, 41 APP, 20 GS, 1 CG, 1 SHO, 4 SV, 136.2 IP, 96 K, 32 BB, 1.12 WHIP, .241 OPP AVG

Since stepping on campus as a freshman in 2018, Hunley has been one of Tennessee’s most valuable and effective pitchers. The Mount Juliet native enters the 2021 season as the team’s active leader in games started, victories and innings pitched. He is one of just three pitchers in the SEC that enters this season with a sub-3.00 ERA and more than 100 innings pitched. Described as a swiss army knife by UT’s coaching staff, Hunley has proven to be effective in any role he’s been asked to perform during his career.

Hunley was a Collegiate Baseball Newspaper Freshman All-American in 2018 after starting 14 games and posting a 7-3 record and 2.64 ERA. As a sophomore, Hunley served more in a relief role, but was just as effective with a perfect 4-0 record and 2.60 ERA in 45.0 innings of work. The senior right hander was nearly unhittable in six appearances (one start) last year, posting a 0.54 ERA and a team-leading three saves in 16.2 innings. Whatever role he’s asked to fill, there’s no doubt that Hunley will be a key factor for Tennessee’s pitching staff once again in 2021.

#33 Mark McLaughlin – Sophomore – RHP – 6-3 / 220 – Johns Creek, Ga.
Career Stats (1 Season): 1-0, 1.80 ERA, 5 APP, 1 GS, 10.0 IP, 12 K, 1 BB, 0.60 WHIP, .147 OPP AVG

McLaughlin was another freshman that shined during the shortened 2020 season. Similar to Delashmit, the majority of McLaughlin’s work came during midweek action. The Georgia native posted an impressive strikeout to walk ratio of 12-to-1 and did not allow a run in four of his five appearances. In his most impressive outing of the year, McLaughlin allowed just one hit and struck out five over five scoreless innings against UNC Asheville to earn his first-career win.

#35 Kirby Connell – Sophomore – LHP – 5-10 / 190 – Blacksburg, S.C.
Career Stats (1 Season): 0-0, 6.35 ERA, 4 APP, 0 GS, 5.2 IP, 7 K, 1 BB, 1.06 WHIP, .238 OPP AVG

Aside from one bad outing, Connell was very effective in his limited opportunities out of the bullpen last season. He allowed just two hits and did not give up a single run in his first three appearances. In his first-career game, Connell pitched two shutout innings and had two strikeouts against Northern Kentucky. The South Carolina native will look to carve out a role in the Vols’ bullpen this season.

#36 Chad Dallas – Junior – RHP – 5-11 / 206 – Orange, Texas
Career Stats (1 Season): 3-0, 2.53 ERA, 4 APP, 4 GS, 21.1 IP, 21 K, 6 BB, 1.17 WHIP, .235 OPP AVG

Dallas was one of Tennessee’s most impressive pitchers during the shortened 2020 season. After being thrust into the starting rotation due to injuries to Crochet and Sewell early in the year, he took full advantage of the opportunity by going 3-0 in his four starts and leading the team in innings pitched. Dallas got the starting nod on opening day and responded by giving up just one hit in five scoreless innings to lead UT to a 3-0 win over Western Illinois. One week later, in his home state of Texas, Dallas was incredible in the Vols’ upset of No. 1 Texas Tech at the Round Rock Classic, striking out a career-high eight batters in five innings of work.  The junior right hander will once again be in the mix for a starting spot in Tennessee’s weekend rotation this season.

#41 Will Mabrey – Sophomore – LHP – 6-0 / 185 – Cookeville, Tenn.
Career Stats (1 Season): 0-0, 2.25 ERA, 5 APP, 0 GS, 4.0 IP, 3 K, 1 BB, 0.75 WHIP, .154 OPP AVG

Mabrey is another one of UT’s plethora of lefty relievers. The Cookeville native fared well in limited action as a true freshman, allowing just two hits and one run in five appearances. Mabrey has had a solid offseason and could see an increased role in the bullpen this season.

#46 Redmond Walsh – RS-Senior – LHP – 5-10 / 170 – Louisville, Tenn.
Career Stats (3 Seasons): 3-3, 1.32 ERA, 49 APP, 0 GS, 11 SV, 75.0 IP, 74 K, 19 BB, 1.05 WHIP, .219 OPP AVG

One of the most experienced relievers in the SEC, Walsh figures to be a staple at the back end of the Vols’ bullpen once again in 2021. The crafty lefty enters the year tied for fourth in program history with 11 saves, nine of which came during the 2019 season when he took over the role as UT’s primary closer. Walsh looked to be in for another impressive year in 2020, as he led the staff with a 0.00 ERA and had two saves in six appearances while holding opposing batters to a .125 batting average. The Louisville, Tennessee, native will likely see as much action as any pitcher on the Vols’ staff this season.

Newcomers

Tennessee has added a solid crop of newcomers to compliment its experienced group of returning pitchers. Highlighting the group are a pair of talented freshmen in RHP Blade Tidwell and LHP Jake Fitzgibbons. Both Tidwell and Fitzgibbons have been impressive this offseason and have a chance to make an immediate impact this year.

Tidwell was the No. 71 overall recruit in the nation according to Perfect Game and has the potential to be an immediate impact player for the Orange and White. An explosive right hander with a fastball that has been clocked in the upper 90s, Tidwell came in at No. 20 on D1Baseball.com’s preseason list for SEC impact freshmen.

Fitzgibbons was the 19th ranked player in the state of Tennessee out of Mount Juliet High School in the Nashville area. He was a Perfect Game Preseason All-America selection and helped lead his club team to the Perfect Game 18U World Series championship in 2020.

The following pitchers will also join the Vols this season and look to push UT’s returners for innings:

Listed Alphabetically: LHP Colin Ahearn, RHP Charez Butcher, RHP Hollis Fanning, RHP Brock Lucas, LHP Shawn Scott and LHP Zander Sechrist.

-UT Athletics

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