The fate of the Tennessee baseball coaching staff is very much up in the air as the Vols head into the SEC tournament beginning Tuesday. Coach Dave Serrano is in the fifth and final year of his contract, and has never had a team place better than 11th in the 14-team conference. Serrano would need a contract extension to still be coaching the team in the 2017 season, and athletic director Dave Hart has given no indication whatsoever of his plans.
But if there is an argument that Serrano can make as to why he should be retained, it’s that he learned from his initial mistake –trying to play West Coast baseball in the SEC — and that his difficult decision to change course before this season made an impact. Though the Vols still finished 9-21 in the SEC, there was a clear difference in offensive production from last season with Greg Bergeron working as hitting coach and Larry Simcox at the helm of the offense this season.
Bergeron played for Serrano at Cerritos College, then worked as his hitting coach at UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton. West Coast baseball tends to employ the bunt, steal and other small-ball tactics more than the Southeast, and Bergeron’s “Pressure Offense” was more effective than just about any other team employing the strategy. Fullerton and Irvine’s pitching staffs were also tremendous, and the strategy led to two turns in the College World Series.
But it never quite came together for Bergeron working for the Vols in the SEC, a league that tends to swing away. Last season with one first-round pick In Christin Stewart, a first-round pick-to-be in Nick Senzel and two other top-15 round picks in Andrew Lee and A.J. Simcox in the lineup, the Vols finished last in the SEC and 244th nationally in runs with 229.
Serrano and Bergeron parted ways last offseason and Serrano went with Larry Simcox, father of A.J., long-time Tennessee assistant under Rod Delmonico and coach at the Diamond Baseball School in the Farragut area. It was evident at the beginning of the season that his change in style made a difference, and remains evident with the regular season over comparing the Vols’ 2015 stats and conference/national rankings with their 2016 figures.
The Vols finished last season 11th in the SEC and 212th nationally with a batting average of .263. That figure is up to .289 this season, which ranks sixth in the SEC and 73rd nationally. The Vols were last in the SEC with 229 runs, 4.6 per game. The total was 244th nationally and the average was 236th. The Vols finished this regular season with 343 runs (seventh in the SEC, 63rd in Division I), an average of 6.1 per game (eighth in the SEC, 85th in Division I).
The Vols made the scoring leap despite hitting significantly fewer home runs. With Stewart and Lee combining for 24, Tennessee finished with 35 home runs in 2015. In 2016, they hit 21 total with Nick Senzel and Vincent Jackson hitting eight each, Jordan Rodgers hitting four, and Benito Santiago hitting the other — an inside-the-park home run that came about because the right fielder ran into the wall on the play and did not get back up until it was over. The Vols were actually 95th nationally in home runs last season and fell to 212th this year.
The Vols made up for the dip in raw middle-of-the-order power with more hits and in particular, more doubles. In 2015, Tennessee was last in the SEC and 247th nationally with 424 hits, 13th in the SEC and 270th nationally with 66 doubles. This season, they increased their hits by more than 100, finishing with 548 to rank fifth in the SEC and 55th nationally. They nearly doubled their doubles total, finishing with 110 to rank second in the SEC and 39th in Division I.
The increase in hits and gap-to-gap power came in part to the de-emphasizing of the sacrifice bunt. In 2015, Tennessee led the SEC with 53 sacrifice bunts, which ranked 31st nationally. In 2016, they were 10th in the conference in the category and 237th nationally with 22 bunts.
But while bunting less, they actually stole more. The Vols were ninth in the SEC with 57 stolen bases in 2015, but led the SEC and finished 18th nationally in 2016 with 89 stolen bases. Their on-base percentage jumped 20 points from .354 to .374, so there were more players on the bases to steal.
The added production only made so much of a difference in the win-loss column, in large part because Tennessee was significantly less successful in SEC games than non-league play, hitting .261 and averaging 4.5 runs per game against conference opponents while posting a 5.11 team earned run average in those games. Still, the first year of Larry Simcox’s return provides a decent template for what the Vols will need to do to be successful on offense in the future, whether they’re coached by Serrano or someone else.