Tennessee has been utterly dominant this college baseball season. They’ve lost one series all year. They lead the nation in Home Runs, ERA, and WHIP and are at the top in runs scored, OPS, and K/9. Their schedule features sweeps against Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Florida, and Mississippi State (all of which were preseason top 10 teams). This team could have multiple first round picks in this year’s MLB Draft. An important question to consider here: Does Ben Joyce belong in that conversation?
Ben Joyce has become very well-known on the college baseball scene after breaking the record for the fastest pitch ever recorded in a college game.
Joyce touches 100 MPH with ease. His average fastball velocity sits at 99.5 MPH. The incredible velo of course screams Major League arm.
Let’s take a look at Joyce’s overall profile. Joyce has some of the most prolific stuff in college baseball. When looking only at pure stuff, his fastball would rank among the top pitches in all of professional baseball.
Purely in terms of horizontal and vertical movement, Joyce’s fastball does not necessarily stand out. However, Joyce contains other unique, outlier traits which help create a dominant pitch. The absurd velocity, paired with a low release point and a flat Vertical Approach Angle, allow the pitch to overcome its somewhat vanilla movement profile. His low release point helps create this flat VAA which provides a tough look important for inducing whiffs and missing barrels. The 100 MPH + velo puts this unique look over the top and helps elevate it to one of the best pitches in the game today.
Another thing of note is that Joyce actually gets a decent amount of Vertical Break on his fastball from his specific release point. In fact, its above-average when compared to MLB pitchers at his release height and lower. This only adds to the deception and quality of the pitch.
Joyce’s fastball is really only comparable to a few MLB pitches. The combination of velocity and release point is a true outlier.
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Kimbrel and Díaz are the closest in release point while Muñoz is closer in movement profile and velocity. Only six MLB fastballs (including sinkers) since 2020 have had an avg MPH of at least 99.5. Only four of these were thrown more than 30 times. Joyce has thrown over 450 this season. This attests to the uniqueness of Ben Joyce’s fastball and what it would represent at the next level.
Joyce pairs this outlier fastball with a tremendous sweeper that generates above-average horizontal break. This pitch on its own would be a very good MLB pitch and becomes nearly unhittable when tunneled with a 105 MPH fastball coming from a low release point. Just look at some of the swings Joyce generates on the sweeper. Joyce also mixes in a changeup, but primarily uses his two-pitch mix of fastball-slider.
As of April 22, Mason McRae’s Stuff+ model had Ben Joyce at an overall Stuff+ value of 249, with 100 being league average. The next closest was at 189 overall. His fastball Stuff+ was valued in at 258 with the closest being 200. His slider Stuff+ was valued at 203 with the next closest at 187. His primary two pitches ranked as the best in their respective pitch classifications. The eye test could tell you that Ben Joyce has outlier stuff and the data only confirms this.
Tennessee has recently deployed Ben Joyce as a starting pitcher. He went 4 innings in both outings and seemed to handle the role quite well (8 IP, 4 H, 12 K, 2 BB, 3 ER -coming on 2 HR in his 4th inning). I think Joyce still projects as a high leverage reliever, but the starts are encouraging and important when considering overall versatility as a pitcher.
Enough about how good Ben Joyce’s stuff is. Now onto the important question.
How early should a team draft Ben Joyce?
Ben Joyce presents a low cost of acquisition for a potentially elite reliever. He could join a team’s minor league system as early as late July and hit the ground running. Joyce would have to be called up to the big league club before the August 31 deadline in order to be eligible for the postseason roster. If the stuff is major league ready and he’s adequately ramped up following TJ surgery (roughly 20 months post-op), why not test it out? Worst case he struggles at the big league level and is sent back down and put on a more traditional developmental progression. Best case you’ve gained a stud reliever for a postseason push who consistently throws over 100 MPH with a potentially legit sweeper to back it up. Regardless, the stuff will still be there and should translate at the next level independent of other factors (command, experience, etc).
The knocks on Joyce have to do with his command, sustainability, and overall future value. No matter who you are, it is incredibly difficult to command a pitch moving over 100 MPH. Luckily with Joyce, the overall stuff quality of his fastball affords him extra room for error compared to the average fastball. He doesn’t need to have pin-point command to have success with the fastball. As long as he’s throwing strikes, the stuff should take care of itself.
Also, his premium size and athleticism should bode well for adjustments required at the pro level. Joyce’s body has been built to throw at incredibly high speeds and will hopefully maintain with continued increases in mobility and movement patterns in a pro system.
Aroldis Chapman is one of the premier examples of an absolute flame thrower anchoring the back end of a bullpen. Chapman is currently in his 12th season at age 34. It wasn’t until 12 years in that he has started to experience a concerning dip in velo. The career of Aroldis Chapman is likely a 99th percentile outcome for any power reliever, especially someone in a situation like Ben Joyce. There’s relatively limited college action on his arm, so the wear and tear from a workload perspective isn’t substantial. He’s made a successful recovery from Tommy John Surgery and is throwing 105 nearly 20 months post surgery. His athleticism, mobility, movement patterns, and work ethic should provide a strong base for success at the next level.
Another factor. Elite relievers inherently produce less value than great/elite starting pitchers. In 2021, Liam Hendriks led all reliever in fWAR at 2.7. This would have ranked 45th among starting pitchers with at least 100 IP. Of course, overall workload plays a large factor in overall value. WAR also isn’t the final say in a player’s worth, but it gives us a baseline. Nonetheless, relievers throw less than starting pitchers in nature and the consensus on their overall value varies heavily. If Ben Joyce clearly projects as a future reliever, the question remains of how highly he will be valued.
Let’s say Joyce produces three years of above-average production in a major league bullpen. Was the pick worth it considering they could have found another player who reaches the big leagues five years down the road and produces even more years of quality MLB service time? Even if he reaches his 90th percentile outcome of an absolutely dominant MLB reliever for a sustained period of time, is the pick still justifiable over the likes of a potential middle of the rotation arm or middle of the lineup bat at more premium positions? If a contending team picking on the back side of the first round has a few players graded similarly overall (positional adjusted), do they take Ben Joyce over a guy like Noah Schultz (speaking of outliers) or Jordan Beck? The opportunity cost of a future high-end starter or a surprisingly athletic power bat in a corner outfield spot in a few years may be hard to justify for the price of an elite reliever.
Professional sports drafts naturally provoke these types of questions. Of course, data and organizational models have become a large part of the decision making process. But, nonetheless, the draft presents a few significant behavioral economic theories to consider. Let’s use 6’8″ LHP Noah Schultz for comparison.
Schultz is another extreme outlier profile who the consensus projects to be taken anywhere between the mid First to early Second. By selecting Ben Joyce over Noah Schultz (given that they were graded the same), an organization would be implicitly discounting their future selfs. The notion of present bias is difficult to avoid with many life decisions and appears particularly in this scenario. Present bias describes the phenomenon of people making decisions in favor of immediate outcomes rather than future outcomes. Contrary to the standard assumption of constant discount rate, an executive or team with present-biased preferences has a high discount rate, meaning that they heavily discount the future and place less weight on future utility.
With a higher discount rate, a contending team would likely take a chance on Ben Joyce this year with hopes that he will emerge as a valuable relief weapon in the immediate for a lower acquisition cost that a Major League reliever of his stature would typically be worth. They’re willing to take this risk with Joyce’s power and quality of stuff whose Major League window is now and very much unknown how sustainable or successful it may be. This same contending team may instead opt to select Noah Schultz. Schultz is only 18 years old and has a tremendous frame to grow into and develop. His Major League window is still quite a few years down the line but that’s not to understate his potential future value. A team would take Schultz with a plan to develop his already plus FB/SL mix from an outlier release and sculpt a more well-rounded starting pitching profile. Joyce is drafted for what he can do now and Schultz is drafted for what his tools and frame suggest he can be in the future. Neither is guaranteed to succeed in the minor leagues or at the big league level. There is no clear cut answer as to which is a “safer” pick. Of course there is uncertainty with every pick and situation in the MLB Draft. Teams are looking to minimize as much risk as possible while setting themselves up for current and future success.
This same behavioral theory is often displayed in the NFL Draft when analyzing teams and their decisions to trade up or down in the draft. The MLB has not yet reached that stage, but the same logic applies on a different scale. In order to avoid present bias and future discounting, a team would have to be sure that Ben Joyce is a better prospect than the alternative, regardless of the immediate value he can provide. The notion of discounting the future and placing more weight on the present is another way to think about this draft pick. This isn’t to say that the decision wouldn’t be calculated and thoroughly considered, but the inherent present bias could still hold its place. That doesn’t mean that it would be the wrong decision to take Ben Joyce over someone like Noah Schultz. This may be end up being the right decision, but the risk is much greater earlier in the draft. A quote from recent FanGraphs interview with the Red Sox’s Amateur Scouting Director Paul Toboni reads as follows:
“As it gets later, it becomes of less of, ‘Hey, let’s take the player that has the highest numerical term’ — whatever we’re optimizing for — and more, ‘Hey, let’s take a calculated bet and take this player over that player.’”
This type of decision still presents itself later on in the draft. The risk is of course much lower and can become more of a “calculated bet” to take a Joyce over a Schultz. The risk is infinitely greater at the back end of Round 1 than in the later rounds, so the decision becomes even more important to analyze.
Garrett Crochet is a very recent example comparable to Ben Joyce. Crochet was also out of Tennessee and featured electric stuff from the left side. There were injury concerns and lack of consistent high level production. Many were unsure if he projected as a starting pitcher and had his floor set at high-leverage reliever. Crochet was drafted 11th overall by the White Sox in the 2020 MLB Draft. He was called up three months after being drafted and has pitched 60 innings in 2 years, having yet to start a single game. Crochet had more starting experience than Ben Joyce but the risk was still there. He went 11th overall. Also very much likely on a quick trajectory to the big leagues, Joyce could be sent to the alternate training site or on a brief minor league assignment then called up before August 31.
Is this a wise way for a team to allocate their draft resources?
A team like the Rays who has built an organization with tremendous depth could afford to miss out on the potential Noah Schultz for the immediate Ben Joyce. That’s also not necessarily how they operate. Hit rates are so low considering the percentage of draftees that end up reaching the majors. This doesn’t even take into account how many end up having a significant impact. Ben Joyce could be a great MLB reliever for three years and the other guy a team was considering may never reach the big leagues.
Moving back to value of relief pitchers…
The slot values from Comp Round A to the end of the 3rd round ranges from ~$2.3 million to ~$575k this year. The top 2 relievers in this year’s free agent class (Kenley Jansen and Raisel Iglesias) received AAVs of $16 million and $14.5 million. Liam Hendriks, Josh Hader, and Craig Kimbrel are making an average of $15 million per year between the three of them. Emmanuel Clase just received a 5 year, $20 million extension with a $2 million signing bonus. Clase’s signing bonus alone could end up equaling or even exceeding what a team would have to pay Joyce in draft signing bonus and minimum salary. This is not even considering the additional $4 million per year. In 2022, the average relief pitcher salary is about $1.8 million. Outside of late drafted or internationally signed guys that have truly emerged, a team would be far fetched to find a bullpen option with Ben Joyce caliber stuff for the price of a Comp Round A pick and below.
At the 2021 MLB trade deadline, over 20 relievers were dealt. Nearly 15 different teams acquired at least one reliever. The cost of a few of the higher tier relievers is a tough price to pay. Craig Kimbrel was acquired by the White Sox in exchange for Nick Madrigal and a reliever. Madrigal was the 4th overall pick in the 2018 MLB draft and had been a well-above average hitting middle infielder in the big leagues up to that point. Even with the less premier relievers dealt, the price of acquisition was still quite high. Houston traded away valuable Major League ready talent in Myles Straw and Abraham Toro to acquire Kendall Graveman and Phil Maton. Daniel Hudson and Andrew Chafin were both acquired for a Padre and Cub top 10 prospect. Brad Hand, Mychal Givens, and John Curtiss were acquired for top 20s. You get the point.
On top of premium stuff, the acquisition cost for Ben Joyce could be a substantial bargain. Right in time for the trade deadline too.
All things considered, I would take Ben Joyce as early as the second round given the value is there. Realistically, I think he fits nicely anywhere in that early round window. Where we stand in late May, I personally wouldn’t be surprised if he’s taken anywhere in the first round. I believe taking Ben Joyce early in the draft should have to make sense from a current team perspective, future team perspective, and overall current draft perspective. A team should firmly believe that Ben Joyce will immediately help their Major League team from August and beyond. The stuff and talent should still play even if he isn’t called up for the 2022 season. However, I believe part of his early round appeal does come in the fact that he can be of immediate value to the big league club for a push at a postseason berth. In addition, this same team needs to calculate and be confident in the fact that taking Ben Joyce now and missing out on another guy they would have drafted in that spot won’t put their club at any sort of disadvantage beyond these next few years. This connects to the final point of making sure that the pick aligns with the current draft landscape. Optimally maneuvering the draft is a difficult task but would be as important as ever when dealing with Ben Joyce. This draft class is believed to be an incredible year for HS arms. If a team has a couple Day 2 arms graded similarly to a Noah Schultz type, then it can afford them the ability to pass on Schultz for Joyce and target one of these other arms in Rounds 3-5. Maybe Joyce will sign under slot given his quick track to the big leagues and relief role he’s destined for. This would allow a team to creatively allocate their funds in other rounds.
Anyway you draw it up, these factors should all align if Ben Joyce is your guy early in the 2022 MLB Draft. The talent is undeniable. The surplus value could be substantial. Overall, I believe the true question lies in who a team is willing to miss out on to add the arm talent of Ben Joyce. I would truly consider him in Round 2 and beyond but understand the push for him as a contender in the back end of Round 1. I am excited to see how his draft stock progresses throughout the NCAA Tournament.