After missing NCAA Tournament again, UK baseball might need a change
The NCAA field of 64 teams was announced on Monday and Kentucky (32-25) was nowhere to be found. It is the second straight season the Wildcats have failed to make the cut and the sixth time in eight years under head coach Gary Henderson that Kentucky has not made the postseason.
The 2016 season followed an unfavorable trend under Henderson. Kentucky was 22-9 on April 10 after beating Alabama to win its fourth straight SEC series of the season. Not only was Kentucky a lock for the postseason at that point, it was also in the top 25 and the idea of hosting a regional wasn’t far-fetched.
But after April 10 the Wildcats lost 16 of their next 26 games and weren’t even listed as one of the last teams under consideration for making the NCAA Tournament. The disastrous finish now puts Henderson’s record after April 1 at 106-137 overall and 75-103 in SEC play.
It was another disappointing end to a season where Kentucky was supposed to be a tournament team. The Wildcats began the year with one of the most talented weekend rotations in the SEC. Dustin Beggs and Kyle Cody both turned down offers from the MLB to return to school, and the two combined to go 15-4 on the season.
But Zack Brown, who entered the season as the 30th best draft prospect according to Baseball America, went 2-11. Part of the high loss total was because of little run support—Kentucky scored three runs or less in seven of his SEC starts—but he did allow five or more earned runs in six of his 10 conference starts.
The Wildcats were 1-9 in games Brown pitched, but went 14-6 in games where Beggs and Cody pitched. That put Kentucky’s conference record at 15-15. 15 wins in the conference would typically be enough to get an SEC team in the tournament, but bad losses in nonconference action damaged Kentucky’s RPI. The Wildcats lost to Northern Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky in midweek games which hurt Kentucky’s RPI.
To make matters worse, Kentucky lost series to the two worst teams in the conference. Auburn and Arkansas both took two out of the three games from Kentucky. If Kentucky had won either of those two series, or simply not lost to Northern Kentucky and EKU, it would have been much more likely to make the field of 64.
But Friday night struggles, bad midweek losses and a moderate offense was ultimately Kentucky’s downfall. Evan White and Zach Reks were the only two regular starters who batted over .300 in SEC play. JaVon Shelby, an All SEC second baseman in 2015, hit just .188 in conference play. Gunnar McNeill had a great start to the season, but had a stretch in April where he went hitless for eight straight games and then another stretch in late April to early May where he went 10 straight games without a hit. He only had 8 hits in his last 84 at bats (.095). Freshman Kole Cottam started 13 games in SEC play and was the next closest thing to consistent offense behind White and Reks. Cottam finished his freshman season batting .314 in SEC play.
Kentucky finished the season with a team batting average of .270 and SEC average of .250.
Should Henderson stay or go?
In eight seasons under Henderson, Kentucky has had one historically good season. In 2012 the Wildcats finished with a 45-18 record. The 45 wins is a school record, barely nudging out two seasons where John Cohen led the school to 44 wins.
Cohen took over a rocky Kentucky program 2004. The Wildcats were 41-68 overall the two seasons prior to Cohen’s arrival, but he quickly turned that around. In his third season, Kentucky won its first—and only—SEC regular season championship. They won a school record 44 games in 2006. The Wildcats lost in the regional final that year and then dropped down to 34 wins in 2007, but bounced back to win 44 games and reach another regional in 2008. Cohen left Kentucky to coach Mississippi State, but his 122-55 record over his final three seasons had Kentucky in the best position it’s ever been in baseball.
Henderson’s first three seasons halted all of that momentum. Kentucky finished Henderson’s third season with a 25-30 record, but winning 45 games in his fourth year earned a five-year extension. It’s questionable to give a coach a five-year extension based off of one good season when the other three were average, but it happened.
But since 2012, Kentucky has only made it back to the NCAA Tournament once. The Wildcats have lost 25 games in each of the past four seasons and missed the postseason in three of those years. Simply put, the program has leveled out under Henderson.
If Kentucky couldn’t make the NCAA Tournament with the roster this season, it’s doubtful it will next season. All of the weekend rotation and Shelby are likely to sign MLB deals. Reks could even be drafted, leaving White and Cottam, who was used part-time, as the only players on the team who hit over .300 in SEC play.
Zach Logue (3-2, 2.68 ERA) probably did well enough this season to earn a role in the weekend rotation next year, but the other two spots will be occupied by relievers (Justin Lewis, Sean Hjelle, Zach Pop, etc.) or freshmen who are not yet on campus. Regardless of who makes the rotation, Logue will be the only player who has ever started against an SEC team.
The silver lining is Kentucky does currently have the No. 9 ranked recruiting class in the country by Perfect Game, but the MLB Draft will certainly take some of those players away. Playing time will be available to the freshmen who do choose to enroll, but expecting major contributions from any freshman is always dicey.
According to Jon Hale of the Louisville Courier-Journal, Henderson has two years left on his contract. He was given a four-year extension after the team reached the postseason in 2014.
The fact Henderson has two years left on his deal might mean a change is unlikely. However, after two postseason appearances in eight years and another down year likely waiting next season, Mitch Barnhart will soon have to decide if he will continue to accept average baseball or move in a new direction.