SEC’s newest ace has Tennessee baseball back on the map

Photo credit: University of Tennessee Baseball

The SEC never lacks high-end pitching. This year has been no exception. Auburn’s Tanner Burns and Georgia’s Emerson Hancock have translated their prep pedigree into stellar results in the season’s early going. Mississippi State’s Ethan Small, Texas A&M’s John Doxakis and Florida’s Tommy Mace are anchoring their respective top 25 teams on Friday nights. Yet there’s been another dominant performer flying somewhat under-the-radar in Knoxville. Garrett Stallings may not be a household name nationally, but his last eight months have been eye-opening.

As a sophomore in 2018, Stallings underwhelmed, pitching to a 4.58 ERA for a Volunteers team that went 12-18 in conference play. Filling up the strike zone was never an issue; Stallings issued only eight walks in 78 2/3 innings. He was simply too hittable. Stallings allowed 100 hits on the year, and more alarmingly, struck out only 37. That wasn’t a new issue; Stallings struck out only 39 hitters in 70 innings as a freshman. He didn’t have bat-missing stuff, and without a powerhouse arm at the top of the rotation, it was easy to overlook Tennessee in the nation’s toughest conference. That’s what makes Stallings’ 42 punchouts in his first 35 1/3 innings in 2019 so remarkable.

It’s been no accident, and maybe we could’ve seen it coming. After all, Stallings turned in a 21:0 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 18 innings with Harwich last summer in the Cape Cod League. That was only three starts, though, so one could wave it away as a sample size fluke. The player didn’t, though. He felt he had turned a corner.

“Going up there and facing some of the best hitters and having the results that I had…helped add some more confidence, allowed me to say that I can be a strikeout guy,” Stallings told Prospects Live. “Not that I can’t get ground balls or pop-ups anymore, but the strikeout numbers that I had were pretty (noteworthy).”

Measuring exactly what confidence is worth to a player is impossible, but Stallings felt that he was out-of-whack for much of the 2018 regular season. Getting things under control required rediscovering something he’d lost early on.

“I came in as a freshman with a curveball, but I threw more sliders my freshman and sophomore years and kind of lost the feel for my curveball,” Stallings said. “Adding a curveball made all my pitches better. It makes my fastball play a little bit better; that can surprise people a little bit late. My ability to throw four pitches for strikes separates me from other pitchers. It’s about just going for strikeouts, too. Last year, I’d get to 0-2 and 1-2 and not think I could strike people out.”

As Stallings noted, he hasn’t lost his identity as a pitcher. He remains an adept strike-thrower, having issued just three walks this season. He’s never been one to nibble around the strike zone, and he’s not about to start now. At the same time, he has developed in one of the softer areas of his craft.

“I can read a lineup. If they’re all over my fastball, then I do start pitching backwards. I can attack people in many different ways because I throw so many strikes and have four pitches,” he noted. “I’ll read (swings) throughout a game, but I use my fastball and curveball to punch people out. I personally think my changeup is my best pitch, and getting swings-and-misses in hitters’ counts with that has been big, too.” A deep repertoire helps a pitcher navigate a lineup multiple times, and Stallings now has four pitches he can use in any situation.

In Friday’s SEC opener against Auburn, Stallings made heavy use of a low-90’s fastball, mid-80’s slider and low-80’s changeup early on, using the curveball only sporadically. That changed as he faced the Tigers’ hitters the third time through. While the center field camera isn’t the most conducive to identifying pitch types, Stallings appeared to throw 15 curves on the night, nine of which came in his final two innings of work. He finished off three of his seven strikeouts with hooks, getting potential first-rounder Will Holland to chase one in the dirt to finish off the seventh inning. While Stallings couldn’t keep up with Auburn’s Burns on pure stuff (Stallings started the night sitting 91-93 mph, touching 94, before settling in at 89-91 mph in the middle innings), he was every bit as effective. Only three Volunteer errors in the seventh allowed Auburn to push across two runs in a shutout win.

Stallings hasn’t popped up on any draft rankings yet, but if he keeps up at this trajectory, he will. Matching up against fellow SEC aces every Friday, he’ll have more than ample exposure to scouts. That’s only at the back of his mind, though. “I went through the draft process in high school. In college, they make it easier on you,” he said. “You don’t have as much contact with scouts, they just let you play. If you’re doing things the right way, competing, then they’ll call your name…. The more we win, the better the opportunity for all the players on our team to play the game at the next level.”

Tennessee’s done a lot of winning lately, more than anyone outside of Knoxville would’ve expected entering the season. Despite dropping their SEC opener, the Vols sit at 17-2, having swept Appalachian State and a quality Indiana team, in addition to taking two of three from Fresno State. While that’s not the gauntlet the Tennessee face in the upcoming weeks- with trips to Vanderbilt, Georgia and Florida on the schedule- that’s no cakewalk, either. “People are going to point out that we’re not playing the best competition, but, if you look at it, we have played some really good teams,” Stallings argued. “It’s our time to make some noise in the SEC and show that we belong with the best.”

While their ace has been the biggest reason for their stellar early-season performance, Tennessee’s second-year coaching staff has started to make an imprint on the roster. JUCO transfers Ricky Martinez and Alerick Soularie have been among the team’s top offensive performers in the early going. Toss in Stallings’ emergence as an ace and a seeming step forward from junior right fielder Justin Ammons, and the tide seems to be turning for a program 14 years removed from its most recent NCAA tournament appearance. Stallings says the players can feel the culture shift. “We’re bringing a little more attitude, a little more edge,” he said. “That’s something [the coaches] didn’t tell us to do, but we’ve done it and they loved it.”

Until the Vols perform in SEC play, they’ll have their share of naysayers. Nothing has been guaranteed by their early-season dominance; if they go 12-18 in conference as they did last year, they’ll again be on the outside looking in come June. This year, though, things feel different in Knoxville. The lineup is deeper, the team’s playing with more energy and they’ve got a chance to win every Friday night, thanks to the emergence of a sudden strikeout artist at the top of the rotation. Seemingly out-of-nowhere, everything’s clicked for Garrett Stallings. That just might be true of the program as a whole.