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Baseball Preview: Mizzou hosts Tennessee in SEC Opener

The Vols are ranked No. 2 and sport a loaded pitching staff

Florida v Tennessee Photo by Donald Page/Getty Images

When No. 2 Tennessee started the year 0-2 with losses to Arizona and Grand Canyon, some around the country started to think about hitting the panic button on a Vols team that lost so much from last year’s juggernaut of a team. But, the Volunteers wasted no time in righting the ship and have won 15 of 16 heading into this weekend.

Despite losing guys like Drew Gilbert, Trey Lipscomb, and Jordan Beck to last year’s MLB Draft, the Vols have reloaded on offense. They have five players in their lineup that an OPS over 1.000, and while they might not be as terrifying as last year’s murderer’s row, this team can still sure as hell swing it.

Everything in this lineup starts with leadoff man SS Maui Ahuna. The transfer from kU was the prize of Tony Vitello’s transfer portal class, and after dealing with some eligibility issues to start the season, Ahuna has hit the ground running for the Volunteers. Ahuna was a preseason All-American and is slashing .297/.438/.649 with 4 HR, 17 RBi and a 147 wRC+ in just 48 PAs this season.

Last year, Ahuna had just 8 HR in 236 PAs, but he did slash .396/.479/.634 with a 160 wRC+. It’s unclear where his power surge at the plate has come from. Perhaps it’s the altitude in Knoxville, or maybe it’s a concerted to hit for power to impress scouts. Either way his fly ball rate has jumped from 28.3% to 42.9% this season, and it’s resulted in him being halfway to his 2022 HR total in about 20% of the PAs.

One thing worth noting, the last time Ahuna played at Taylor Stadium, he was in that ugly red and blue jersey that team west of CoMo wears. In a blowout victory for Mizzou, Ahuna made three errors and got into a screaming match with some fans in the stands. If you’re at Taylor Stadium this weekend, don’t be afraid to remind him of that fact.

The next name I want to highlight in this Tennessee lineup is 1B Blake Burke. This season he is slashing a ridiculous .394/.459/.864 with 8 HR and 24 RBI and a 191 wRC+. None of this should really come as a surpise after he burst onto the scene last season with 14 HR and a 182 WRC+ to earn Freshman All-American.

Last season, he was more of a complementary piece to a stacked lineup, but this season, he’s done a great job of making himself one of the key pieces in the middle of this order. One thing that’s helped him do so is cutting down on swings and misses significantly. In 2022, his K-rate was 30.8%, but in 2023, it’s dropped to just 12.2%. It feels almost inevitable that Burke will provide at least one big moment for the Vols this weekend, it’ll just be about limiting the number of them for Missouri’s pitchers.

2B Christian Moore typically slides into the 2-hole for Tony Vitello. The stellar sophomore is a leader for the Vols, and, like Burke, is giving a fantastic encore to what was a marvelous freshman campaign.

Moore is slashing .327/.513/.600 with 4 HR and 161 wRC+ this season. He’s also stolen 11 bases. But what might be most impressive about Moore is his plate discipline. As you can probably tell by his OBP that exceeds .500, Moore walks a ton. More importantly, he walks more than he strikes out. Every time Moore steps to the plate this weekend, you can expect a tough, gritty at-bat.

Tennessee’s second biggest addition in the transfer portal was RF Griffin Merritt. Last season’s American Conference Player of the Year, Merritt was brought in to replace the likes of Drew Gilbert/Jordan Beck, and so far, he’s done an admirable job.

After hitting 19 HR in 2022, Merritt has continued to launch balls over fences with 6 HR already this season. That’s the second highest total on the team after Burke. Merritt is slashing .333/.424/.722.

Perhaps the lone flaw in Merritt’s game is his propensity to strike out. He doesn’t draw very many walks either, but considering his SLG% is .722, I doubt Tony Vitello cares.

For most teams, I try to highlight three impact bats, but for this Tennessee team, you really can’t stop at just three. They’re that deep. The next hitter you should look out for is LF Jared Dickey. A preseason All-American, the under-recruited Dickey resdshirted his first year in Knoxville before giving pitchers nightmares in 2022.

Last season, Dickey slashed .380/.484/.690 with a 168 wRC+. In 2023, he hasn’t quite been able to keep that pace, but he’s still not a hitter to look past. A .314/.392/.600 slashline and 133 wRC+ would lead just about any other lineup, and he’s seen an uptick in power this season, launching 5 HR. In 2022, he finished with 7 HR for the entire season.

Despite hitting more balls over the fence, Dickey has actually seen an uptick in his ground ball rate from 2022 to 2023. Perhaps, this is one of the reasons his numbers have taken a slight hit.

The final hitter I will highlight is 3B Zane Denton. A transfer from Alabama, Denton had the impossible task of coming to Knoxville and replacing Trey Lipscomb. All things considered, Denton has done a valiant job slashing .339/.461/.607 so far this year and a 145 wRC+. Both his OPS and wRC+ would be career-highs.

Denton, like many other Tennessee hitters it seems, has also seen an uptick in plate discipline. For the first time in his career, Denton has walked more than he has struckout. It’s fair to say he’s enjoying being in a much deeper lineup this season.

For as good as Tennessee’s hitters are, their pitchers are somehow miles better.

Chase Dollander gets things going on Friday nights. A possible No. 1 overall in pick in next June’s draft, called Dollander the best college arm since Gerritt Cole and Stephen Strasburg. Yup, better than Jack Leiter and better than Case Mize.

Dollander sits 95-97 with his heater and can run it up to 99. He mixes in a slider, curveball, and changeup, but the slider is his best off-speed pitch. His stuff isn’t just great, but he commands it better than just about everyone in the country. As a sophomore in 2022, Dollander was seventh in DI baseball with a 8.33 K-BB ration. He also had a 0.8 WHIP, 3.39 ERA, and 2.33 xFIP. If I need to put it in plainer terms, he was downright exceptional.

He was named first team All-American by multiple news outlets and won SEC Pitcher of the Year. So far this season, he’s picked up right where he left off. His 2.45 ERA and 1.87 xFIP are elite, and he’s striking out 46.1% of batters he faces. When runners do reach base, Dollander is stranding 91% of them.

If you are thinking about braving the weather and catching a game at Taylor Stadium this weekend, I highly suggest you sneak on over to the ballpark at 3 p.m. on Friday. This guy really is something special to watch.

Things don’t get any easier for Missouri’s hitters on Saturday. Chase Burns, a probable first round pick in 2024, will get the ball for the Volunteers. A preseason All-American, Burns had a 2.91 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, and 2.96 xFIP as a true freshman last year.

In 2023, Burns is off to an even better start with a 1.88 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, and 2.06 xFIP with 39K in 24 innings. He can run his heater into the mid-to-upper 90s like Dollander, but his secondary stuff is a little weaker. Burns is pretty much a fastball-slider guy, but against college hitters, he doesn’t need much more.

Missouri gave Burns some trouble last year and were able to knock him out of the game in his third inning of work. If they can replicate that success, the Tigers would surely take it.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, Tennessee’s starter on Sunday was a consensus preseason All-American. It’s almost not fair how good this staff is. Drew Beam would be the Friday night starter on pretty much every other team in America. He was SEC Freshman of the Year in 2022, beating out Burns for the honor.

His 2.72 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, and 3.92 xFIP in 2022 were great. The 2023 version of Beam has been just as good. His 2.57 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 3.10 xFIP are amongst the best in the SEC, but his biggest leap this season has come with his command. His K-BB rate has jumped from 2.81 to 4.42 this year.

His numbers are just as good as Dollander’s and Burns’, but where Beam lags a little behind is in the stuff department. His fastball sits in the low 90s instead of the mid-to-upper 90s, but he has a great changeup that misses tons of barrels. Last season, it was actually Beam that was gave Missouri hitters the most fits allowing just 2 ER in 6.1 innings against the Tigers.

Per usual, Tennessee also has a nasty bullpen. A few names you should keep an eye on are former Mizzou pitcher Seth Halvorsen, Zander Sechrist, and Andrew Lindsay. Halvorsen has been the anchor of this year’s bullpen with a 2.40 ERA in 15 innings. He has two saves this year and can still run his heater up near triple digits as Tigers fans should remember. Sechrist and Lindsay are the only other two relievers with more than 10 innings this season, and both have an ERA under 1.00. With that being said, this whole staff is absolute nails and has great stuff. You can expect any arm the Vols run out there to be tough.

Game Schedule:

Friday @ 3 p.m.

Saturday @ 2 p.m.

Sunday @ 1 p.m.

These are all subject to change based on the weather so stay plugged in on social for time changes.