Baseball, more than other, is a game of statistics. There’s ERA, RBI, LOB, etc. In Tennessee’s case, APR might be overshadowing all the others.
As the Vols open a weekend SEC series with Mississippi State tonight at Lindsey Nelson Stadium, UT fans are wondering when their team is ever going to win another SEC game.
At 13-20 overall and 1-11 in the SEC, Tennessee is on pace for its worst season since 1989, after which coach Mark Connor was replaced by Rod Delmonico.
But athletic director Mike Hamilton is firmly behind second-year coach Todd Raleigh because he knows the Vols are not playing with a full deck.
That’s where the APR — the Academic Progress Rate — comes in.
Several years ago the NCAA introduced the APR as an academic guideline to boost graduation rates. All programs must meet a standard or suffer penalties.
Last May the first penalties were announced, based on academic results compiled over the previous four years. The breaking point for penalties on the NCAA’s scale was a score of 925. Tennessee four-year baseball score from 2004-2007 was 879, according to NCAA data.
In all sports nationwide, 218 programs were penalized. Tennessee and California-Riverside were the only baseball programs hit with the maximum penalty: a 10 percent reduction in scholarships for the 2008-09 year.
UT men’s basketball was also docked. Coach Bruce Pearl’s team played with 12 scholarships last season instead of 13.
Baseball teams are allowed 11.7 scholarships, so a 10 percent reduction left the Vols with 10.53 scholarships to divide among a roster of 35.
Since a baseball scholarship can be split among as many as four players (25 percent is the minimum share allowed), the penalty could be said to cost UT four players.
“We had to get a grip on this,’’ said Raleigh, who was hired from Western Carolina to replace Delmonico in 2007.
“We’ve been dealing with that literally since I got here. I don’t see it really being a big issue in the future once we get out of this.’’
But it is a big issue now, when wins are hard to find. The Vols (13-20, 1-11 SEC) have a nine-game SEC losing streak and have recently lost mid-week games to Appalachian State and ETSU.
Raleigh said he rarely if ever fields a lineup of his eight position players that adds up to two scholarships.
Considering that outfielder Kentrail Davis is on nearly a full scholarship, that doesn’t leave much for the other seven.
“I don’t know if there’s a game this year we’ve had more than two out there,’’ Raleigh said.
“That’s not an excuse. … We’ve had some things happen to us and we need to deal with them better. A little more depth would be better, but we don’t have it.’’
The penalty is based on data compiled during Delmonico’s last four years. And, Hamilton said, it was a consideration in his decision to let go a coach who had taken the Vols to the College World Series three times.
“We were in a position where if we didn’t turn that train around, we were headed for penalties in more than just baseball,’’ Hamilton said.
“The next step in the progression is that some other sports can be penalized as well.’’
But Hamilton also says Delmonico was in a tough position when the APR was introduced because baseball is a particularly transient sport and thus vulnerable to lower graduation rates.
“In Rod’s defense,’’ Hamilton said, “the reality is that depending on where you were, baseball’s APR could become problematic quickly.’’
The Vols surpassed the 925 mark in Raleigh’s first season and are on track to do so again if the spring semester ends well. There is legitimate hope this will be the last year of the penalty.
If so, Raleigh looks forward to focusing on baseball and recruiting.
“For now, I feel like I walk on eggshells every day because of the academic thing,’’ he said. “You worry about every decision you make.’’
And when you’re not winning, every decision is scrutinized more closely by a disgruntled fan base. Who’s batting lead-off today? What’s up with the pitching rotation?
“I think we’re close right now,’’ Raleigh said. “People say, ‘Oh, you’re far away, the record’s not good,’ but we don’t really think we’re far away at all.
“I like the culture of the program. I like where our kids are going with it.’’