It's Baseball Time in Tennessee: Vols vs. Kentucky Series Preview (May 12-14)
Recently: Tennessee had a disappointing trip to Athens, dropping 2 of 3 games against the Dawgs. You can blame the horrific calls from Saturday's umpire for that loss (and believe me, I have), but there's a couple other trends that can be pointed to as reasons for Tennessee's losses to Georgia.
First, there's an over-reliance on the long ball. Tennessee hits more homeruns than any team in the SEC, and that's fine at home because LNS is a batter-friendly ballpark. This was an unfair criticism made of the 2022 Vols squad, but it was only unfair because they were also hitting homers (and winning) on the road. This team really isn't producing runs away from home where the parks might play a little deeper. It's also a concern for the postseason--you know that Hoover and Omaha are deeper parks and if you're not hosting it becomes a crapshoot for what kind of stadium you play in for the regional/super-regional.
Additionally, the old bugaboo of runners stranded reared its ugly head again last weekend. Tennessee left 32 men on base during the UGA series. It's been a theme this season, especially in losses, that UT gets runners on but cannot get them home. Fortunately both of these problems have been bigger issues on the road than at home, and this week's series is in Knoxville.
Overall the trend is still positive, Tennessee is 7-2 in its last three series and 8-2 in the last 10 overall after beating Austin Peay in a midweek game Tuesday. Kentucky comes to town at just 5-5 in their last 10 and 4-5 in their last three SEC series. But three of those four wins were huge ones, with the Cats sweeping South Carolina just last weekend.
Previously on Vols vs. Cats: Tennessee is 180-154 all-time against UK and 103-72 when playing in Knoxville. UT has won 7 of the last 10 but did take a rare series loss in 2022 at Lexington. The Vols then got some measure of revenge by beating Kentucky in the SEC tournament semifinals.
What to Watch: Kentucky first baseman Hunter Gilliam is on a 22-game hitting streak, so that's something to look for.
More importantly, though, is that Kentucky has a different approach to baseball than any other team in the SEC. The Cats steal more bases than any other team (77 steals on 101 attempts) and it's not particularly close (A&M is 75 of 88, and it drops off pretty quicky after that). Kentucky also sacrifice bunts more than any other SEC team, and this one is really not close at all. UK has 48 sac bunts this season--the next closest team (Vandy) has 18. In fact 25% of all sacrifice bunts in the SEC this season have been Kentucky. Meanwhile, Tennessee is the worst in the league at allowing stolen bases, letting opponents steal at an 88% rate. In other words, Kentucky is going to be an annoying club to play against. I've been dreading this series to some extent all season. Here's the KAT STATSTM:
[Schools haven't named starters yet.]
None of Kentucky's base stealers lead the SEC, and none are really close to Vanderbilt CF Enrique Bradfield's 31 swiped bases. But UK has three players in the top 10--Gray (17), Pitre (16), and Felker (16)--as an example of how the Cats approach the game.
(I'd also like to point out that while I usually list what hand each player bats/throws with, Kentucky does not provide that info on the roster posted on their website. UK does provide each player's Twitter and Instagram handle though. Maybe next season, rather than height and weight they can list each player's Starbucks order.)
As of today, D1baseball.com projects Kentucky as the #8 overall seed hosting a regional in Lexington. Tennessee is the projected 2 seed in #12 Coastal Carolina's region. Warrennolan.com has Kentucky with the #1 RPI while UT is #24. Predicted RPI is UK finishing at #2 and Tennessee moving all the way up to #6, and that's with a predicted sweep of Kentucky this weekend and a 1-2 showing against South Carolina next week.
I am less optimistic about Tennessee's chances for a sweep--I'm hoping the Vols can just get the series win. It's honestly just not a great matchup for Tennessee. Allowing stolen bases is a weakness for Tennessee and one of Kentucky's strengths. UT has not been a great fielding team, yet they will have to rely on great fielding against Kentucky's bunts. Tennessee relies on home runs to score, and Kentucky's pitching staff has allowed the fewest homers in the SEC this season.
It will be a battle of styles this weekend in Knoxville--we've just got to hope Tennessee's long ball barrage beats Kentucky's small ball offense.