Zach Joyce doesn’t know who sent the video.
But he knows who received it.
Tennessee baseball pitching coach Frank Anderson called Joyce in May with a message: The Vols’ coaches had watched it.
“Watched what?” Joyce responded.
Without Joyce knowing, someone had sent the video to UT’s staff of him throwing a May bullpen session at Farragut High School. Anderson liked what he saw from Joyce, who had left the program but was quietly prepping in private during the spring with hopes of being a Tennessee pitcher again.
Anderson’s unexpected call was a milestone in the process.
“It was realizing this is a possibility and how hard I was working, people could see it now,” Joyce said.
Everyone will see it soon. Joyce rejoined Tennessee in June, almost two years after he left the team to address personal struggles. He’s back and has regained not only his lethal repertoire of pitches but the mentality to match it.
Why Zach Joyce stepped away from the Vols
Joyce joined the Vols for the first time in 2020.
He and his twin brother, Ben Joyce — a household name for his record-setting fastballs — signed with Tennessee out of Walters State Community College.
Zach Joyce never pitched for the Vols. He left baseball amid mental health battles with anxiety and depression that reached new levels in fall 2020.
“I just blamed it on baseball,” Joyce said. “I thought the best thing for me to do was step away. I wasn’t in the right head space to play baseball.”
STRENGTH:Quentin Eberhardt returning to Tennessee baseball as strength and conditioning coach
Joyce had battled anxiety for years before arriving at Tennessee. His recovery from Tommy John surgery in January 2020 added to it. He wasn’t coming back the way he expected and rehab was a struggle. He couldn’t find comfort throwing a baseball, which dug into him mentally.
His mind took over, he lost his confidence and daily anxiety attacks followed.
Joyce opened up to Anderson and Vols coach Tony Vitello, who was supportive of where Joyce was — and what he needed to do. He left the team to work through the struggles and address his mental health.
Vitello connected Joyce with former UT and major league catcher JP Arencibia, who has dealt with anxiety. Joyce sought therapy and voiced the issues he was facing.
His dad, Alan, sent him articles about the ways Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto and Chicago White Sox pitcher Michael Kopech have handled their mental health. Joyce stopped feeling like it was uncommon to fight anxiety and depression.
“The biggest thing is taking control of it,” Joyce said.
Joyce didn’t watch a single Tennessee game in 2021.
He had grown up going to games at Lindsey Nelson Stadium but couldn’t bring himself to watch an inning of one of the best seasons in program history.
Joyce couldn’t shake that idea that baseball was the reason for his anxiety and depression. But as he talked through the hardships, he accepted it wasn’t about one thing getting in his head.
Joyce began coming around baseball in 2022.
Ben Joyce was back after undergoing Tommy John surgery and a fixture of the UT bullpen. Zach Joyce was a fixture in the concourse at games, standing out for his 6-foot-5, well-built frame that rivals that of his brother.
“It was hard to watch and not be down there,” Zach Joyce said. “I know all the guys. I know how much work I put into baseball since I was 4 years old. It took a while to realize I had put the blame on baseball.”
Joyce missed playing the game. He watched as his brother generated national attention for his fastball velocity, which routinely was more than 100 mph and reached as high as a college-record 105.5 mph.
“My parents could tell that I was itching to come back,” Joyce said. “My mom was like, ‘Why don’t you try it before it is too late?'”
How Zach Joyce worked back to pitching
Joyce hadn’t picked up a baseball in more than a year when he decided to see what he had left.
He started throwing in mid-April but did so discreetly. He worked out at D1 Sports Training and Therapy in Hardin Valley with Devin Driscoll, who developed a throwing program with Joyce.
“Coming back and throwing felt 100 times better than I thought it would,” Joyce said.
Joyce started slowly, only playing catch initially. He moved into throwing bullpens at various fields around Knoxville, seeking privacy and seclusion as he tried to figure out if the comeback he hoped for was even possible.
He worked out at Farragut, including the flat-ground session that was taped and sent to Tennessee coaches before Joyce knew it. He threw with his dad at first, but as his velocity returned he started seeking new throwing partners.
Farragut coach Matt Buckner helped, providing Admirals players to assist.
“I was still building up that confidence and I didn’t want anyone to start saying stuff before I even know if it was a possibility or something,” Joyce said.
It quickly became clear it was. Joyce was throwing in the upper-90s. His breaking ball feel returned and he started working on a couple of new pitches.
“I was going to reach out to the UT coaches at some point,” Joyce said. “Coach Anderson heard from someone before I even went to tell him. They reached out to me and it started blooming there.”
Rejoining Tennessee baseball
Joyce hasn’t thrown in a game since fall 2019 at Walters State, before his injury and subsequent surgery.
He never expected nor planned on such a hiatus. But he needed it to be that way, escaping from baseball to take care of himself and putting his well-being in the forefront. He feels like he is in a better place now mentally but plans to continue being candid about how he is feeling.
Joyce knows the Tennessee staff is supporting him still as it did the day he decided to step aside in 2020.
“The coaches are just happy I was doing better in general,” Joyce said.
They’re also thrilled to see the pitcher he is right now. Joyce felt Anderson’s excitement when he called after getting that first video of a session at Farragut. The other coaches showed similar sentiments.
Joyce officially rejoined the team in June. He has been back at the facility throwing with his brother and catcher Jared Dickey, who has been open about mental-health struggles he faced as a freshman at Tennessee.
He is taking steps toward a role at Tennessee during the 2023 season. They’re small steps, but that’s OK with Joyce. He’s elated to be back around the program and around baseball again.
“This whole journey hasn’t gone exactly how I wanted,” Joyce said. “But how much work I have put in to come back just to get to this point to be back on the team is pretty hard to put into words.
“Just how hard of a journey it has been, how long of a journey it has been. I can’t wait.”
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.