Danny Parker

One change was enough for Vols baseball

With questions surrounding the future of Tennessee baseball, will John Currie see one major change two years ago as enough?

It has been nearly six long seasons of Tennessee baseball under Dave Serrano.

Serrano came to Tennessee as only one of 12 coaches ever take two different schools to the College World Series. Many expected that kind of success to take place in Knoxville quickly.

Fast-forward six years later and the mood amongst many around Rocky Top is very different. John Adams, a veteran columnist at the Knoxville News Sentinel, called for new Tennessee athletics director John Currie to make a change at the head of the Volunteer baseball program.

"Many fans were optimistic about the hiring. But the optimism about Tennessee baseball is now limited to the creative writers on the athletic department's wed site," Adams wrote in his story entitled "Serrano should be next on Currie's firing line."

Those suggesting a change should be made under the thinking that "six years is enough" need to look closer and understand that a change has already been made. 

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Serrano enjoyed a great deal of success at previous stops, taking Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine to Omaha. Those that follow college baseball nationwide understand there is a distinct difference in the styles of play from the Southeastern Conference and programs hugging the Pacific.

The West Coast style is about bunting, running and putting pressure on the defense — sometimes with reckless abandon.

Serrano made the mistake of thinking that style of play could win in the SEC.

In the four years running the "small ball" offense, the Volunteers averaged just 22 home runs while recording an average of 42 outs on the bases via caught attempting to steal a base or being picked off. In another telling stat, Tennessee averaged 51 sac bunts per season from 2012-15. 

A decision was made to move away from the failed style of "small ball" with the hiring of assistant Larry Simcox on June 7, 2015, and added responsibility given to recruiting coordinator Aric Thomas, who was hired the previous summer.

The change in staff wasn't just in name but in different styles. 

The number of runners being thrown out attempting to steal bases are down 22 percent while the sac bunts have been cut more than in half. This season's home-run total (28) is already 23 percent improved over those teams that had significant MLB prospects hitting in the middle of their order in Christin Stewart and Nick Senzel.

So the question remains: Are the changes working?

Winners of seven of their last nine, Tennessee sits at 26-19 and an RPI of 37 with just seven games remaining in the regular season. A reasonable finish of winning just four of the remaining seven contests would give the Vols their best overall record in over an decade. The RPI is the highest at this point of the season in a decade as well.

Strides have yet to be made in league play in the totality of a season but looking at the past five SEC series shows the Vols have performed at a respectable 6-7 clip. They have been tough-luck losers with all but one of those losses being by one or two runs.

Those making the decisions with the future of Serrano would be wise to look closer at the current roster and what the future looks like.

The SEC is the measuring stick and it is only fair to compare Tennessee's roster to other SEC rosters.

This team ranks second-most in the SEC with 152 starts made by true freshmen hitters only behind Georgia. The Dawgs rank dead last in the SEC in hitting while the youthful Vols are eighth. The future of the Tennessee offense lies in the hands of freshmen Pete Derkay (.291), Andre Lipcius (.290), Justin Ammons (.258) and Luc Lipcius (.306).

Just how much does a mature lineup mean in the SEC? Look no further than to Lexington for that answer. The Wildcats boast the leading offense in the SEC but have only two starts all season made by true freshmen.

Serrano has done an excellent job turning his pitching staff around this spring as the Vols have held SEC opponents to four runs or fewer in nine of the last 10 games.

The freshman class brings hope for the future on the bump of continuing this recent success. Tennessee's true freshmen have pitched 150 1/3 innings, which ranks third most in the SEC.

Andrew Schultz statistically leads the way with a 1.88 ERA followed by Garrett Stallings at 2.85.

Inserting Stallings into the the weekend rotation six weeks ago has allowed this pitching staff to take off. Stallings hasn't allowed more than two earned runs in any start while posting a 2.57 ERA in his six league starts.

The recruitment of Zach Linginfelter out of Sevier County (Tenn.) High School was a positive sign for the future of the Vols both on the field and recruiting in-state players. Once the Vols survived the MLB Draft, the development could begin. The flame-throwing right-hander hasn't disappointed with a fastball in the mid-to-upper 90s, striking out well over a batter per inning. He has become the go-to stopper out of the bullpen.

The recruitment of Linginfelter is in stark contrast to the first few recruiting classes under Serrano. It shows that Thomas and Simcox are a better fit for running the show on the recruiting trail. Vanderbilt has and will continue to be a thorn in Tennessee's side recruiting in-state players but much too often high profile talent left the state, heading to other programs at the onset of Serrano's tenure.  

Making a change with the coaching staff in Knoxville would be the wrong choice with a successful stable of young players gaining experience that is sure to pay dividends in the near future. 

Making a change now would set the program back even further with another change of styles and what would surely be roster turnover.

A new coaching staff would certainly go through a significant learning curve that comes with the unique recruiting hurdles facing this program that must be learned to navigate.

This team is playing its best baseball as the experience mounts for so many youngsters. With all due respect to those with similar opinions to John Adams, a change has already been made for Tennessee baseball — and that change was enough.

Photo by Danny Parker

Photo by Danny Parker

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