How Frank Anderson turned Tennessee baseball into a pitching juggernaut

Mike Wilson
Knoxville News Sentinel

Chase Dollander didn’t have a clear plan.

The pitcher entered the transfer portal after a Freshman All-America season at Georgia Southern in 2021. Dollander had interest in Tennessee baseball after facing the Vols earlier in the season. He was impressed then, but a single recruiting text from UT coach Tony Vitello changed everything.

Vitello sent Dollander a graphic outlining pitching coach Frank Anderson’s accolades, including the nearly 100 pitchers selected in the MLB Draft and almost 40 major leaguers who had thrived under his watch.

“Holy crap,” Dollander thought. “It is going to be hard to turn something like that down.”

It became impossible. Dollander took a visit to Tennessee and spent time around Anderson. He was hooked by the veteran coach's pitching wizardry and transferred to UT.

“Seeing that resume he had made me want to come here even more,” Dollander said. “It was almost like a seal-the-deal type moment when I saw it. I knew I would be in good hands if I came here.”

Anderson is the maestro leading the top pitching staff in the country. The fiery coach draws out excellence by making pitching simple, exuding expertise while lurking behind the scenes to craft a pitching staff capable of propelling Tennessee to the College World Series and the program's first national title.

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How Frank Anderson makes pitching simple

Anderson’s method is simple — and that’s the point.

Volunteer assistant coach Richard Jackson was at a coaches' conference in January 2020. He was slated to speak on the second day, but on the first day he listened as a coach discussed a 1,000-page pitching manifesto. 

Anderson’s pitching plan is three pages.

“You read it and you are like, 'I know how to do all that,’ ” said Garrett Stallings, who pitched at UT from 2017-19. “Then you read it again and you realize if you just do these simple things, I am going to succeed pretty well.”

Anderson's plan is based on almost four decades in college baseball and 32 years at high-major programs. The Grant, Nebraska, native refined it during the 1990s at Texas Tech and a four-year stint at Texas from 2000-03. It remains largely the same as No. 1 Tennessee (56-7) and Notre Dame (38-14) meet in the Knoxville Super Regional starting Friday (6 p.m. ET, ESPN2).

The premise is throwing strikes, especially on the first pitch — “throwing the first punch,” senior Camden Sewell said.

“His famous quote is, ‘Just throw it over the white thing,’ ” Sewell added. “That is what we all try to do is just throw it over the white thing.”

Tennessee averages 2.5 walks per nine innings this season, the fewest in the country. The Vols have ranked in the top three nationally in each of the past three seasons with fewer than three walks per game — the only three times a pitching staff has done so in UT program history.

Anderson, 63, wants his pitchers to be the aggressor, setting the tone for an at-bat. He isn't bothered by solo homers, often saying solo shots won't beat you. He expects his pitchers to challenge batters to string hits together in order to score runs instead of giving up walks.

It works more often than not. It's part of the reason Vitello coveted adding Anderson to his staff at Tennessee when he was hired in 2017.

“His mindset is you have nasty stuff with your pitches,” said Chad Dallas, Tennessee’s ace in 2020 and 2021. “So throw them in the zone and you will get outs. Hitting is very hard."

Why Frank Anderson empowers pitchers to coach themselves

Anderson watched all of Dollander’s freshman film before his visit to Tennessee. He saw a couple of necessary tweaks.

Dollander had a huge arm; that was clear to Anderson. But Dollander needed to clean up the direction of his body toward the plate. He was inefficient and had a tendency to open up early and throw fastballs up and in.

Anderson told Dollander to focus on using his back hip, a tip he employs during games.

“He gives you these little cues to remember so whenever you are out there, you are your own coach,“ Dollander said. “He wants that from us. When we need him, he is there.”

Mental cues are central to Anderson’s philosophy. He believes the worst thing is for a pitcher to have a million things on their mind on the mound. He focuses on digestible phrases and reminders that don’t clutter thought processes. 

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They’re typically aimed at keeping good body mechanics and efficiency in movement toward the plate. Some apply to all pitchers. But Anderson caters to each pitcher’s needs instead of running an assembly line with a one-size-fits-all view.

Dallas’ focus was on driving with his lower half, especially his back leg. Sewell works to keep his hand in front of him and get through his delivery. 

“The pitcher can block the rest out and focus on the one thing,” said Jackson, who pitched at UT from 2015-19 . “It changes them.”

Dollander has experienced the benefits, blossoming into the SEC pitcher of the year in his first season with the Vols. He is 9-0 with a 2.38 ERA and 103 strikeouts with only 13 walks in 72 innings.

He said Anderson has changed his mentality as a pitcher. He has learned to trust his stuff — the arsenal that makes him a likely first-round pick in the 2023 MLB Draft — and to make batters try and hit it.

“Every bullpen I have, he is like trust it,” Dollander said. “Throw it. It is going to do what it needs to do if you just throw it.”

The genius behind Frank Anderson's coaching

Stallings was in a rut during the 2019 season. Anderson took Stallings to the bullpen and offered one piece of advice: You are better when you are throwing your curveball well.

“You need to start throwing that hard like you are going to go out there and kill somebody,” Stallings recalled Anderson saying.

Stallings, a fifth-round pick of the Baltimore Orioles in 2019, piled up strikeouts in his starts while utilizing his best weapon.

Anderson’s genius lies in small details. He seeks to fine-tune, not overhaul, and doesn't overcoach. He trusts his pitchers' talent — the talent that got them to Tennessee.

“He believes you got there for a reason,” said Dallas, a fourth-round pick by the Toronto Blue Jays in 2021.

Anderson avoids making changes with a pitcher during their first fall at Tennessee. He instead waits and watches to see whether a pitcher figures it out or if a competitive setting solves a practice habit. There aren’t complicated drills, only ones focused on timing and direction to the plate.

He has a knack for finding the best arm slot for a pitcher and establishing repeatable mechanics. He wants each pitcher finding the routine that works best for them.

“If something is really off, he will say this is what needs to happen and you will see a major difference,” Sewell said. “If nothing is really wrong, he lets people do their thing.”

Tennessee video coordinator Sean McCann has long made a point about Anderson. He noted the person who has talked to Anderson the most is his son, Brett Anderson, who spent 13 seasons in the major leagues, talking to his dad all the time.

“He is not just talking to talk,” Stallings said. “He is saying something because he means it and knows it is going to help you out.”

The competitor who is calm and cares

Dallas sat in the stands on his official visit to Tennessee in April 2019 when pitcher Will Neely was struck in the lower leg by a line drive.

The Mississippi State dugout started chirping in the aftermath. Anderson took exception quickly, bursting from the UT dugout and sharing his unfiltered thoughts. He got tossed by the umpire.

“He carries himself like he is 6-foot-5, 280,” Dallas said. “He has some bulldog in him. He won’t back down from a fight.”

Everything Anderson does with his pitchers relies on two-way trust. He is competitive, matching Vitello and hitting coach Josh Elander. But he’s caring and calming all the same, defending his players and fighting for them in any way he can as the veteran presence in the dugout.

The fiery side and the compassionate side permeate Anderson’s mentality, trickling into the pitching staff. He's quick to ask his players in the morning what they have planned for the day. He responds with what he has already accomplished, whether it be a 3-mile run or a Peloton ride. It's good-natured prodding, showing Anderson can be a competitor and a relationship-builder.

“When you have a coach like that who cares about you more as a person than a baseball player, it is not hard to go out there and do your best,” Dallas said.

All you need to know

Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall sat underneath Lindsey Nelson Stadium on Sunday, the Yellow Jackets' season over after a 9-6 loss to Tennessee.

Hall, the winningest active coach in college baseball, rattled off many reasons the Vols are hard to deal with. He started by noting the way runs are being scored in college baseball and pointing to UT’s pitching staff.

“The fact that Tennessee’s team ERA is where they are at, that is really all you need to know,” Hall said.

Under Anderson’s tutelage, Tennessee is having a historic season on the mound as offensive numbers rocket. Tennessee has a 2.38 team ERA, almost three-quarters of a run better than Southern Miss’ 3.12 for the best mark in the country. The Vols lead the nation in hits allowed per nine innings (6.34), WHIP (.98) and walks per nine innings (2.5). They rank second in strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.24).

All 11 pitchers with at least 15 innings have a sub-3.00 ERA, including the starting pitching group of Dollander, Chase Burns, Drew Beam and Blade Tidwell.

“He is one of those guys that is a little quiet, but when it comes to pitching, he is probably one of the smartest guys I have ever met,” Dollander said.

Anderson wouldn’t claim credit for the achievements. That’s not his style. But that list of draft picks Vitello sent to Dollander keeps growing.

Tidwell is a potential first-round selection in July, following Garrett Crochet, who was picked No. 11 in 2020 by the Chicago White Sox and made the big leagues that same year. Dollander is primed to be another first-round pick in 2023 and Burns is a potential No. 1 selection in 2024. Sewell, Ben Joyce, Will Mabrey and Mark McLaughlin are all likely MLB Draft picks next month. 

Dollander came to Tennessee with his aspirations lining up with Anderson’s track record. It’s little wonder to him how Anderson has done it now after a year spent with him.

It’s quite simple really.

“It is pretty obvious he knows how to build a guy to be like that,” Dollander said. “It all shows the consistency he has had as a pitching coach. It would be pretty cool to have my name on that list.”

Mike Wilson covers University of Tennessee athletics. Email him at michael.wilson@knoxnews.com 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.