Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Underperforming is Wearing Thin

In the previous 69 posts about the UT Arlington sports teams, I have never called for a coach's resignation or suggested that a coach is no longer competent to lead the program. And I never will. It is not my style. I don't believe in that kind of thing. A coach is only a part of a program's success or failure. Mike Krzyzewski couldn't win at a SWAC school, no matter how genius he was in getting Duke the title this year or any other year. Resources (including money), fan support, tradition, facilities, name recognition, etc. all go into the mix. A great coach can be part of a program's turnaround, but that coach can't do it without the other things too.

That said, I will offer critiques or shortcomings that I see. I'll back it up with facts and stats that I see as well as repeated instances of questionable decisions. Right now, that coach is Darin Thomas. Part of this may be frustrations, but why are some Maverick fans getting frustrated? Let's take a look.

Coach Thomas took over as head coach after being the associate head coach in 2008. Prior to this year, he had coached four winning seasons and three losing ones. The peak year was 36-25 in 2012 on the way to a Southland Conference Tournament Championship and an NCAA tournament appearance. They won a share of the 2013 WAC regular season crown the following year with a 31-27 record.

The 2013 squad and the 2014 team had a lot in common. 13-16 non-conference record in 2013 and a 14-15 mark in 2014. By the way, UTA is at 9-10 this year. The hair-pulling part is the fact that there are at least five losses that shouldn't have been. Take care of business and UTA has a shot of receiving an at-large to the dance the last two years, certainly last year. Losses to Washington St (99), Baylor ((x2)(114)), Houston Baptist (154), Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (207) and 2 of 3 to Louisiana-Monroe (219) ensure that the Mavericks have to win the Sun Belt tournament to advance this year.

I mentioned in the previous post that part of the reason for the disappointment is that the expectations changed. The Southland was a one-bid league most years. They advanced more than one team about a quarter of the time. The Sun Belt historically is not a one-bid league. But in order to get at-large selections, teams have to win non-conference games. UTA at least has won big games against ranked teams this year. Those "quality wins" are a big piece of an at-large bid. The other large part is RPI, which means winning against the teams they "should." Right now, UTA has too many losses against what should be inferior teams. They sport a 114 RPI, which means if they handled up on who they should have handled up on, they'd be in the top 50.

The basic question is this: If there are 300 DI baseball teams and you have three wins against the top 25, how is the RPI so low and how does the record not look better? The team is 14-17 this year. They are 3-3 against the top 25. That means against everyone else they are 11-14 against unranked opponents.That's just unfathomable to me.

The other factor with Coach Thomas that drives me nuts (and I fully admit is less measurable, more subjective and more stereotypical) is there are a lot of questionable decisions. As third base coach, there have been many times where I felt conservative base-running cost the Mavs runs, if not games. He seems to get too caught up in what happened at a prior point in the game instead of focusing on the known information at that particular time.

For example, against UT-Austin at Globe Life Park earlier this season, R.J. Williams came to bat with the bases loaded. He hit a fly ball that fell at the warning track. Brady Cox was on second and for some reason, Thomas held him. Williams, thinking what any rational player would and think, thought he had a double and was running to second, realized there was a runner on that base and had to race back to first, beating the throw. Earlier in the game, the Longhorn rightfielder made a running catch and made a double play by catching a Mav runner off the bag. That is the only thing that I can think of that prompted Thomas to hold him.

That doesn't excuse the mistake. Even if you are worried about the centerfielder making the play, as soon as the ball drops, you send the runners. A runner from second could easily score. There should have been a minimum of two runs scored there. Coached right, three cross. That's just the most prominent example, but it seems like there is something at a much too frequent basis.

Pitching is no different. There have been countless times where he makes a pitching change and I say there goes the lead and sure enough. Case in point, the most recent example was against Louisiana-Monroe in the final game on Saturday. With UTA clinging to a 5-4 lead, Thomas takes out Joel Kuhnel and brings in Kyle Laberge. Kuhnel had pitched five innings and gave up four runs, though two earned. Yanking him wasn't what bothered me, putting in true freshman Laberge, who was 1-3 with a mid-5 ERA at that point, did. UTA needed a win to claim the road series, was fighting a three wins in ten games slump and he puts in an untested young reliever. Sure enough, ULM scores three and wins the game and series. There were other pitchers available to pitch, but Thomas went with Laberge instead.

In a game I'll never forget, UTA was playing Baylor in the NCAA tournament in 2012. UTA fights to a 5-4 lead and then is 5-5 heading into the seventh. Thomas takes out the pitcher at the time after he gives up the go-ahead run and brings in senior Collin Reynolds, who showed good stuff but had a high ERA that season. Again, I thought there goes the game. Reynolds promptly gives up four runs and blows the game open. Thomas would go with two other pitchers after Reynolds and they didn't give up an earned run, proving there were better options to relieve.

There are many, many more examples, but these stick out to me. I'll also counter that baseball is unique in that when you make the good call, it is less noticeable than the bad ones. A runner scores, it is because the play was flowing. He's thrown out or stranded at third, then the coach takes the heat. Pitching change is the same way. Yank someone too early or bring in the wrong pitcher, bad call coach. Make a change or leave him in and no runs score, the coach may get some credit at best, but likely the player gets the spotlight.

Regardless, at this point, I expect more for the program and have been disappointed in the total on-field results the past three seasons (most poignantly the non-conference results), which ironically have all been winning years. I think that, more than anything, has shown that the program expectations have grown since Thomas took over the helm solo. You hope the program hasn't outgrown the coach.

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