Maybe the NBA and NHL playoffs aren’t your thing. If you’re a Tennessee sports fan, chances are both of your favorite teams are unfortunately out of the running for either title. Well, we have just the sport for you to pick up: College baseball!
The Tennessee baseball team (BaseVols if you would) are in the midst of an electrifying year, with eyes on a much bigger prize in the postseason. Let’s be honest, if you follow the Tennessee Volunteers in any capacity, you already know that the baseball team is one of the best on campus right now.
But for many (like myself) you might not have followed the team up until...about halfway through the year. Some of you are coming on board right as the postseason is set to start up. That’s all good, everyone is welcome on the bandwagon.
For those newcomers, here’s a handy postseason primer on what you should expect from the Volunteers as they begin their NCAA tournament run. But first, some general background.
Numbers and names
45-16 (20-10 SEC); No. 3 national seed in NCAA tournament; SEC Eastern Division Champions.
3B Jake Rucker (First Team All-SEC): 81 hits, 50 RBI, .508 slugging percentage
SS Liam Spence (First Team All-SEC, SEC All-Defensive Team): 76 hits, 60 runs, .353 batting average
OF Evan Russell: 13 home runs, 41 RBI, .534 slugging percentage
P Blade Tidwell (SEC All-Freshman Team): 3.47 ERA, 8-3 win-loss record
P Chad Dallas: 4.07 ERA, 101 strikeouts, 10-1 win-loss record
Why is this a big deal?
Tennessee baseball isn’t exactly a paragon of success.
Much like the football team, the program’s best era was the 1990s and early 2000s, when the Volunteers made six NCAA tournament appearances in nine seasons, spanning from 1993 to 2001. That included two College World Series showings. From 1993 to 1995, Tennessee claimed three straight SEC Championships (one of which was just the conference tournament championship).
Beyond that? It’s been tough sledding. Despite nearly 120 years of playing baseball, the Volunteers have made just 11 postseason appearances. By the nature of making his second NCAA tournament, head coach Tony Vitello has already firmly planted himself as the baseball team’s second greatest coach of all time. It seems like an exaggeration—but it’s true.
That lack of historical success means the current team is a stunning break from tradition. At 45-16 and a No. 4 ranking, this squad looks prime for a run to the College World Series. You can’t get too far ahead of yourself, but it’s the truth. Tennessee baseball simply doesn’t field these types of teams too often. For many fans, the 2021 baseball team is the best they have ever seen.
What are they good at?
Frankly, this team does a lot well. Filter most major categories on the NCAA’s team stats’ page and the Volunteers will likely rank right up there. While the long ball is the most coveted statistic of all — and Tennessee, 11th in the NCAA with 82, does this well — there’s another stat category which might not be as loved, but can be awfully important: Walks.
To score runs — and to score a lot of them — you need runners on base. Tennessee has shown itself to be a savvy ballclub at working counts and drawing walks to set up big innings. That’s part of the reason Evan Russell has opportunities to hit massive, clutch time grand slams.
Tennessee has drawn 311 walks this season, good for fifth in the NCAA. They also rank second in the SEC in that category, with only Arkansas besting them, a team that’s drawn 321. When watching the Volunteers throughout the tournament, expect to see runners on base.
What are they...not so good at?
It’s not easy to select something which a top five team does poorly, but I’ll give it a shot. You could give the nod to the bullpen’s issues in striking out batters at key times, but it’s difficult to find statistical data divvied up in that way at this level of baseball. So, I have to go with the next best option: Run scoring.
First of all, Tennessee isn’t bad at scoring runs, necessarily; for example, their 431 runs is good for seventh in baseball and second in the SEC, even ahead of Arkansas. But on a per game basis, Tennessee struggles. Tennessee has played quite a few more games than the teams around them have. Wright State, Tennessee’s first opponent, leads all of baseball in scoring (488) in 15 fewer games than the Volunteers.
Tennessee’s played 61 games this season. Their runs per game total works out to 7.1 runs per game, which is fine at this level, but it’s 36th in the NCAA. The team can score runs — as much is evident by tracking their totals — but they aren’t quite on par with some of the best scoring teams in baseball on a per game basis. Nonetheless, the Volunteers will be a difficult matchup for anybody in the tournament.
What should we expect?
Tennessee didn’t get the easiest draw, unfortunately. Their first opponent of the Knoxville Regional is the aforementioned Wright State, who have one of the more threatening strengths in college baseball. The other two teams include Duke, who is on a late season hot streak, and Liberty, who went 39-14. There’s no “easy” draws in the tournament, but there are certainly some draws that make you sweat. Tennessee got one of the latter.
Side note for those confused about the format: The NCAA Tournament consists of 64 teams. The opening weekend will see 16 four-team, double-elimination regionals. 16 winners will emerge from those, where they will then be paired up for eight “best of three” series. The remaining eight will make up the College World Series field.
Still, the Volunteers have a deep enough squad that they should be favored against all those teams. The next round up would be the Super Regionals, where the Volunteers (assuming they advance) would face one of Oregon, Central Connecticut State, LSU, or Gonzaga. That’s arguably a much weaker group than what Tennessee will face in the Regional, so again, Tennessee would be favored against any of those teams.
The College World Series is where Tennessee’s season likely comes to an end. The Volunteers are one of the best teams in the nation—but we saw in games against Arkansas and Vanderbilt that they’re missing that extra piece to put them over the top. That’s not to say they can’t reach that next level. It’s just pointing out that Tennessee hasn’t shown it yet. They’ll give every team a fight, but in the final round, it likely won’t be enough to put them over the top.
A fair warning to those who enter: Baseball can be a very fluky sport. There’s no amount of moneyball tactics and ratings systems that can accurately capture the impact of an exceptional play/player. The guy who has been a weak spot of the lineup all year? He could go out there and crank a 3-run shot in the bottom of the 8th. The pitcher who has been dealing strikeouts the entire season? He could have a meltdown in the 3rd inning and leave the team in a 5-run hole. That’s just how the sport works, and it’s impossible to tell you when it will happen.
Just enjoy the ride and hope that Tennessee can live up to their billing.