Throwing 105.5 mph: How Tennessee's Ben Joyce became college baseball's unexpected pitching sensation
Jordan Beck put his right hand at eye level and held his left hand belt-high.
Those pitches create what Beck labels near-impossible at-bats. But they’re better because of the main offering.
“He throws 104,” Beck said.
Joyce is a national attraction for his sizzling fastball, which has been clocked as fast as 105.5 mph. It's an unexpected feat — believed to be the hardest-thrown pitch in college baseball history — by a pitcher who has refused to be slowed by injuries and obstacles on his way to being a flame-throwing sensation.
“He’s an alien,” said Matt Buckner, Joyce’s high school coach at Farragut in Knoxville. “I don’t know why he throws 105 mph. I’m not sure anybody knows that. But by gosh he can.”
Ben Joyce almost didn't make his high school team
Buckner recently texted Joyce a picture.
It’s Joyce and his twin brother, Zach, as freshmen at Farragut in full uniform standing in front of the scoreboard. One twin has a hat. The other has a glove and ball.
Buckner can’t tell you which twin is which — he routinely refers to them as a pair and not individuals. But the point of the photo is clear: The Joyce twins were tiny.
“You will probably never hear a story of a guy that is an absolute superstar that has come from the story that they come from,” Buckner said.
Joyce was 5-foot-4 and approximately 100 pounds when he started high school as a 13-year-old with a September birthday. Collectively, the pair weighed 200 pounds — less than Joyce's 225 pounds on his 6-5 frame these days.
He threw 65 mph. He’s not convinced he should have made the team. Buckner didn’t refute that belief. But he had a soft spot for the Joyce twins, who worked hard and were always around the field.
“There was nothing they were good at in baseball at that point,” Buckner said.
Both played the field early in their careers, but not well. The twins worked out frantically in the weight room and at the field. They long-tossed to develop arm strength while holding to strict, healthy diets.
Joyce grew eight inches his junior year. The rapid growth caused growth-plate issues. He didn’t pitch his junior season due to the resulting back and hip problems. There was little doubt for Buckner then, though: Joyce was a pitcher who looked the part and had dialed up his skills.
He pitched well in 24 innings as a senior, throwing in the upper 80s and touching 90. Buckner made countless calls to schools trying to find a place for the twins; Zach had developed right along with Ben.
A couple of Division II schools showed interest, but the Joyces opted to go to junior college.
“I kind of got lucky getting into Walters State,” Ben Joyce said. “I didn’t really have much of a high school career.”
Hitting 100 for the first time
Walters State coach David Shelton has seen pitchers throw 100 mph before on television. But Joyce gave him a first.
“He is still the only kid that I have ever physically been holding a radar gun and seen triple digits on,” Shelton said.
Joyce hit 100 mph for the first time in a scrimmage at Walters State in spring 2020, his sophomore year at the Morristown junior college powerhouse.
Shelton was open to taking the Joyce brothers because of their work ethic and upside. At the time, Zach had more experience and pitching ability. He threw as a freshman while Ben was sidelined with growth-plate issues again, this time in his right elbow.
Ben shut down throwing. His love for lifting weights took on new life as he could only work out. He went through a heavy regimen and worked with medicine balls.
He put on 20 pounds of muscle and grew a couple more inches to 6-4.
“I think going through the throwing rehab then helped my arm get to the next level,” Joyce said. “I don’t know if I want to prove people wrong or prove myself right. It is something I have always wanted to do is put in the work and get as good as I can possibly be.”
Joyce started throwing off the mound the summer after his freshman season and was hitting the upper 90s. A fastball was all he really had as his injuries didn’t afford him the opportunity to develop secondary pitches. He wanted to throw strikes and compete. He logged 20⅔ innings in 2020 with 35 strikeouts, serving as a weekend starter.
“At some point we had to take the training wheels off and allow him to pitch,” Shelton said. “He needed to learn how to pitch.”
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An 'unprecedented' pitcher
Joyce made his Tennessee debut on Feb. 20, 2022, against Georgia Southern. He threw a 100 mph fastball on his first pitch, the start of the phenomenon that has grown with each uptick in velocity.
“For me, it is unprecedented,” Vols pitching coach Frank Anderson said. “I’ve had 100 mph arms, but not like him. I don’t know that anybody has had anything quite like this in college.”
Anderson saw the Joyces pitch for Farragut.But the interest didn't grow until they did, and the pair committed to UT in September 2019.
“We bet on what was to come, and obviously that is paying off pretty well,” Anderson said.
It took more than two years for one of them to debut. Zach hasn’t pitched for the Vols, choosing to step away from baseball last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery while at Walters State.
Ben felt his elbow pop during his first scrimmage at Tennessee in fall 2020. He, like his brother, had the Tommy John procedure and missed last season. Ben remade his body during rehab again. He dropped 15 pounds and worked on his mobility, focusing on adding strength and power through flexibility.
He started throwing off the mound in July. He got into scrimmages in August and September. UT didn’t allow him to throw in front of a radar gun. He felt like he was throwing hard, but wasn’t sure how hard.
He put a number on his velocity in the fall. He was hitting 102.
“That was pretty crazy to know I still had it and even a little more,” Joyce said.
Joyce and Anderson have worked closely to refine his off-speed pitches. They focused especially on the grips for his slider and changeup, which he continues to be more comfortable throwing since he resumed throwing breaking balls in late January.
“I think it continues to be a work in progress, but it is getting better and better,” Anderson said. “His better days are continuing to come because every time he gets out there, it is something new for him and something to get better at.”
Could Ben Joyce throw 106 mph?
Joyce didn’t know which pitch he threw 105.5 mph against Auburn on May 1.
Vols outfielder Jared Dickey challenged him to break the record for the fastest pitch in MLB history, a 105.8 mph pitch from Aroldis Chapman for the Cincinnati Reds against the San Diego Padres on Sept. 24, 2010.
“The guys on the team love it,” Joyce said. “It is so fun to see those numbers and know that I am in pretty elite company with that velocity. It is exciting to think about, but I am just trying to do what I can to help the team win.”
Joyce threw 28 of 33 fastballs faster than 103 mph in his four-inning outing against Auburn. He threw 15 of at least 104 mph and three of 105 mph or more.
His pitching was as impressive as the numbers. He came in during a crucial situation, shut it down and buzzed through the rest of the game. He struck out six in a season-long four innings and allowed one hit, a seventh-inning single.
Joyce has a 1.23 ERA in 20 appearances with 39 strikeouts in 22 innings. He’s a certainty to be selected in the 2022 MLB Draft in July. Anderson and Vols coach Tony Vitello have floated the idea of Joyce being a starter one day.
“He is going to have three above-average pitches as he goes down the road,” Anderson said.
The fastball is the ticket right now for Joyce. The other pitches are coming — and so could be a 106 mph fastball.
“It is crazy to think I am pretty close to that,” Joyce said. “My body feels great and I am continuing to get stronger, so maybe soon.”
Mike Wilson covers University of Tennessee athletics. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByMikeWilson. If you enjoy Mike’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.