When Dave Serrano arrived at Tennessee in 2011, he was practically attached at the hip to Greg Bergeron. They had been together as long as Serrano had been a head coach.
Serrano’s background was entirely in pitching. He was a junior college All-American pitcher at Cerritos College, and his assistant coaching positions all focused on pitching. Serrano needed an offensive coach to handle the rest of the team, and for 11 years, Bergeron was very successful in that role. Serrano and Bergeron coached in six NCAA tournaments together and made College World Series runs at both UC-Irvine and Cal State Fullerton.
“Greg has been a huge part of any success that I have had as a head coach and I don’t expect that to change,” Serrano is quoted as saying in Tennessee’s media guide. “He is one of the best offensive strategists in college baseball and he has done a fabulous job of developing infielders into first-round picks and gritty, grinding players.”
Four years after Serrano and Bergeron arrived, however, Bergeron is out after having presided over the lowest-scoring offense in the SEC. The Vols scored 229 runs, just 4.6 per game, in a 24-26 season and finished 12th in the conference before losing to Arkansas 2-1 in the first round of the SEC tournament.
Officially, Bergeron resigned. Attempts to discuss the situation further with Serrano and Bergeron were unsuccessful, as Serrano did not return a phone call and Bergeron declined comment when reached. However, Serrano strongly suggested he would be looking to make philosophical changes heading into the final year of his five-year contract, so it’s not that surprising to see a staff move.
So what changed? Why are the Vols looking to make a philosophical change after losing a coach that Serrano considered one of the game’s best offensive minds?
There are a number of explanations, many of them out of Bergeron’s control, including season-ending injuries to outfielders Vincent Jackson, Brodie Leftridge and Derek Lance that kept the Vols from fulfilling the image of Bergeron’s previous offenses. But one significant difference is that when Serrano and Bergeron moved from the West Coast to the SEC, they encountered a much different brand of offensive baseball. In the Big West, they were playing against like-minded teams and were better at executing the predominant style of play in the conference than the rest of the teams in their league. In the SEC, they are foreigners who have attempted to win mostly by going against the grain. They have adapted to the SEC style of play to some degree, but maintained many of their philosophies and found it difficult.
Bergeron called his style of baseball “pressure offense,” which is what many other people call small ball. They put pressure on pitchers and defenses with sacrifice bunts, stolen bases, hit-and-run and other tactics, and were massively successful in that regard.
It helped his cause, though, that everyone in the conference in which he built his reputation was trying to do the same thing.
The West Coast is known as small ball territory and the statistics in the Big West — which arguably, is to baseball what the Atlantic 10 is to basketball — bear that out. Bergeron’s style of baseball wasn’t unique in the Big West, it just so happened that his teams, and Fullerton especially, were better at it than most if not all of their league opponents.
For the sake of comparison, its best to look at the 2011 season as an indicator for what Bergeron was facing at Fullerton compared to what he faced through this season at Tennessee, because that was the first year the NCAA adopted the BBCOR standard, making the bats used in Division I less potent. The Titans won the Big West that season, going 41-17 overall, 19-5 in conference before losing to Illinois and Stanford in an NCAA regional they hosted.
The Titans were clearly one of the most potent offensive teams in the Big West that season, ranking second in the conference in batting average, runs, hits, and slugging percentage. It’s very telling about the league, though, that the Titans were not in the top 100 in any of those four categories.
The Big West of 2011 had just one team ranked in the top 100 in batting average (UC Irvine, No. 71). The Anteaters were also the only team ranked higher than 150 nationally in runs per game at No. 101 and the only team in the top 125 in total runs at No. 68. The conference didn’t place a single team in the top 170 in slugging percentage or the top 180 in home runs or runs per game. Just two teams were in the top 100 in doubles per game, and no one was in the top 100 in total doubles.
The conference was much closer to the top of the landscape, however, in the small ball categories.
Fullerton led the conference in sacrifice bunts with 79 that season, ranking eighth nationally, but the Titans were one of three Big West teams in the top 12. They ranked third in triples, but were one of three teams in the top 100 in that category.
The only category in which the Titans were a positive statistical outlier on offense was stolen bases. The Big West didn’t steal as much as you’d expect a small ball league to do. Fullerton ranked 20th nationally in stolen bases per game, 121 spots better than the next best Big West team.
The SEC, though, plays a much different game.
Heading into this weekend’s NCAA regionals, six of the SEC’s 14 teams rank in the top 100 in batting average. Five are in the top 100 in runs per game and seven are in the top 100 in total runs, including four in the top 25.
Eight SEC teams rank in the top 90 in hits, six rank in the top 100 in doubles, 10 are in the top 100 in triples and 10 are in the top 100 in home runs. Five are in the top 40 in slugging percentage.
And on the flip side, SEC teams use small ball tactics less. They don’t rely entirely on brute strength, and are more of a gap-to-gap league than a home run league, and they use speed, with seven teams in the top 115 in stolen bases. However, they don’t bunt much. Tennessee leads the conference in sacrifice bunts, ranked 31st nationally. No one else ranks higher than No. 95, and the Vols are the only team in the SEC that averaged more than one successful sacrifice bunt per game this season. By contrast, five Big West teams had more sacrifice bunts this season than the Vols.
In Bergeron’s tenure, Tennessee gradually became more like the rest of the SEC. With sluggers Christin Stewart and Andrew Lee in the middle of the order, the Vols hit 35 home runs, the most they’ve had in a season in the BBCOR era, and their slugging percentage was also the highest its been in that time. Their biggest problem was that they lacked depth of power in the lineup, getting little run production outside of Stewart, Lee, junior shortstop A.J. Simcox and sophomore second baseman Nick Senzel until late in the season when Jordan Rodgers and others stepped up. While Stewart and Lee were able to buoy the home run numbers, the Vols finished with just 66 doubles, which ranked 270th among 295 Division I teams.
If the plan was for the Vols to challenge the status quo, zig while everyone else was zagging and win with small ball, they never had a team that had as much talent for that style as the Fullerton teams did. They also never had a pitching staff that was as successful as the ones they had at Fullerton, which is obviously necessary if you don’t score a ton of runs. This year’s squad posted a 4.07 earned run average was ranked 109th nationally. The 2011 Fullerton team posted an ERA of 2.88, which was 12th nationally.
Small ball is by no means an inferior style of baseball. Two seasons ago, UCLA won the national championship despite ranking 261st nationally with just 4.4 runs per game and ranking 22nd in sacrifice bunts. But that UCLA team played against like-minded teams most of the season, it ranked third in the nation in ERA and it took advantage of cavernous TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha once it got to the College World Series.
Trying to win with an approach that contradicts the rest of the league you play in is harder over a longer timeline. It’s easier to win games 2-1 or 3-2 if everyone else in your league is trying to do the same thing and conceding outs for one run than if everyone else is swinging away and playing for big innings. As Serrano considers a change in philosophy going into the last year of his contract, this will certainly be part of his calculation.