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In Defense of David Perno

Last Thursday, The Realist left a critical comment regarding David Perno’s stewardship of the Georgia baseball program. Because this lengthy comment (which he described as an "essay") raised a number of points and was well thought through, I believed it deserved a more detailed response at this moment, when interest in Bulldog baseball is high and a discussion of the positive aspects of the Red and Black program will help to take our minds off of the sad news that left all of Bulldog Nation heavy-hearted today.

I have always been a big fan of The Realist, dating back to the days when he was running his own weblog in the Dawgosphere, and I am not unsympathetic to his position. A little over a year ago, I asked, publicly and at length, whether David Perno was getting the job done with the Diamond Dogs and my conclusion was cautiously pessimistic. However, while I may not go as far as Paul Westerdawg in proclaiming Coach Perno "one of the most successful active coaches in the Southeastern Conference" with an "untouchable" record, I agree with Paul that "the program is clearly moving in the right direction."

The Realist undeniably made some valid arguments regarding strategy and game management. In particular, I cannot quarrel with his criticism of the decision to continue pitching to Steve Detwiler on Wednesday night, because I raised the same criticism at the time. However, that decision affected only the final margin, not the ultimate outcome.

Already the grateful residents of Fresno have erected a monument to Steve Detwiler’s thumb.

Our assessments begin to differ, however, concerning the course of the campaign as a whole. The Realist writes:

In fact, this year’s team greatly underachieved during the season. The mid-week games were an exercise in futility, with HOME losses to Kennesaw State, Winthrop, Georgia Tech, and a 9-8 win versus East Tennessee State. The team lost 5 of 6 from the final series of the regular season through the SEC tournament and into the first game of the regional. They were nine outs away from being 0-4 in the post-season and being a major disappointment.

First of all, I believe that opening sentence represents a considerable overstatement. In the course of "greatly underachiev[ing] during the season," the Diamond Dogs won the conference championship with the best regular-season S.E.C. record in school history and arrived in Omaha sporting a 20-11 record against opponents ranked in the top 25. Would that all Georgia baseball teams could underachieve in such a manner.

The Red and Black’s midweek struggles, while frustrating, were easily explicable. Because league play is what matters most, teams rightly set up their pitching rotations in order to get their best starters on the mound during weekend series, so the top hurlers do not see action on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

(As an aside, I would note that, while The Realist makes a valid observation that, "[w]hen a player is absolutely ice cold, with no apparent signs of breaking his funk," a coach should "try moving him around in the lineup," David Perno and his staff deserve some credit for the development of such pitchers as Nick Montgomery, who went from making intermittent relief appearances to becoming a serviceable starter.)

A complete-game shutout victory over Georgia Tech in the playoffs? That’s the best performance by a Montgomery since El Alamein.

Furthermore, no athlete can be emotionally "up" for every game, particularly in baseball, the sport of the long season, so it is understandable why, say, Winthrop is more focused for a game against Georgia than Georgia is for a game against Winthrop. Finally, the condensed schedule produced by this year’s uniform start date forced the Classic City Canines to play the same number of games in a shorter span, wedging 30 games into a six-week stretch. Anyone would be worn out by such a grind.

That fatigue was part of the problem in the Diamond Dogs’ late-season fade. Another, even larger part of the difficulty was the fact that Georgia lost numerous contributors to injury. Michael Demperio tore his right A.C.L. on May 4 and was lost for the remainder of the season. Trevor Holder lost playing time with a sore shoulder. Rich Poythress’s hand injury temporarily kept him out of the lineup after May 17 and Matt Cerione suffered the mild concussion that prevented him from taking the field. Coaching is not to blame for the fact that so many Classic City Canines found themselves among the walking wounded late in the year.

Despite that adversity, Georgia turned it around with better hitting and improved bullpen play that saw the Red and Black relievers back in midseason form. Although their meltdowns were memorable, they also were infrequent, especially in comparison to last year’s penchant for surrendering leads. The Realist continues:

The unbelievably fortunate national seed made NC State come to Athens instead of the other way around, which would have likely ended with a much different outcome. Instead, they win two at home and proceed to Omaha where two late-inning rallies propel them into the driver’s seat while tourney favorites like Miami and Florida State eliminate each other. They get to beat unseeded Stanford twice to proceed to the tournament final, where they draw the lowest seeded team to ever play for a national title in any sport in NCAA history. All this good fortune sets Georgia up to win the national freakin’ title, and they blow it. It could not have possibly been set up any more favorably for Georgia than the way it was set up this year, and they blew it.

Was the national seed an example of good fortune or something Georgia earned? None of the seven national seeds ahead of the Diamond Dogs made it to the College World Series finals, after all. Why would a super regional in Raleigh "have likely ended with a much different outcome"? During the season, the Red and Black won three-game series over Arkansas in Fayetteville, L.S.U. in Baton Rouge, and Vanderbilt in Nashville, as well as winning at Clemson and at Florida State. Why would taking two in North Carolina necessarily have been out of reach?

Also, I question whether it really "could not have possibly been set up any more favorably for Georgia," considering that the College World Series saw the Red and Black opening play in Omaha against a Miami (Florida) squad that not only boasted the No. 1 national seed but had a compelling argument going into the C.W.S. for being the best squad in Hurricane baseball history, which is saying something. Had North Carolina reached its third College World Series finals in as many years, Georgia would have been the team being portrayed as the Cinderella story of the season.

At the heart of the matter, however, lies this critique by The Realist:

Let’s take a little peek into what has really been going on. Perno has gone to the SEC tournament four times in seven years (3 DNQ’s in 7 years? Is that good?). His record there is 4-8 with three of those wins coming in 2006 alone. He has been outscored 83-51 in those twelve contests. Georgia scored 16 in two of those wins in 2006. Omitting those offensive outbursts, Georgia scored 19 runs in the other ten SEC tournament games. Think about that a second. 1.9 runs per game over ten games against pitchers and teams that you have some familiarity with because they are conference teams. So, when the Georgia bats went stone cold last night, don’t color me surprised. I wasn’t. I’ve come to expect that of Perno squads during crunch time.

I believe a double standard is being applied to Coach Perno here. When Georgia lost the last game of the College World Series finals, it was because we should "expect that of Perno squads during crunch time," but, when the Diamond Dogs stave off elimination with a comeback win over Louisville, the result is "unbelievable." Well, I guess it would be if you had come to expect failure at crunch time and the Red and Black demonstrably succeeded at crunch time against the Cardinal.

Note how this success is portrayed, however. The Classic City Canines "were nine outs away from being 0-4 in the post-season and being a major disappointment," but, "[i]nstead, Georgia gets"---observe the verb: gets, as though it had been handed to the Bulldogs rather than earned by them---"a huge 7th inning rally against Louisville."

I do not believe an accurate portrayal of the Diamond Dogs’ season can divide the results into disappointments at crunch time on the one hand and undeserved good fortune on the other. We cannot blame David Perno for going 0-2 in Hoover (where the Western Division was dominant) if we will not credit him with starting 2-0 in Omaha. We cannot claim that "the Georgia bats [go] stone cold" because we have "come to expect that of Perno squads during crunch time" without first recognizing that, although the Classic City Canines "were nine outs away from being 0-4 in the post-season," they didn’t go 0-4 precisely because the bats came to life when it counted. Besides, if the Bulldogs were nine outs away from going winless, they also were mere inches---the difference between Steve Detwiler’s first home run and a flyout; the difference between a double-play ball and Danny Muno’s fourth error---from winning it all.

Still the ultimate question remains: "Is that good?" For one thing, the failure to make the S.E.C. tournament every year is a bit of a red herring; the 2005 Diamond Dogs missed out on a trip to Hoover by a half-game in a year in which the gap separating seventh and eleventh place in the league was half a game. Besides, there are years---2008 being one of them, in the case of Arkansas---in which making the S.E.C. tournament field can prove tougher than making the N.C.A.A. tournament field.

The winningest baseball coach in Georgia history was Steve Webber, for whom David Perno played as a student-athlete. Coach Webber went 500-403-1 from 1981 to 1996. It is important to remember that the standards to which football coaches are held do not apply; baseball is the most humbling of all sports, being the one in which a player who fails to get a hit in 60 per cent of his at-bats earns a reputation for being an outstanding hitter. The greatest basketball player of all time washed out in the minor leagues; arguably, the best defensive back in N.F.L. history was only the fourth-best Atlanta Braves center fielder of the 1990s. Baseball is hard.

Among other things.

Coach Webber won more games than any baseball coach in Georgia history and finished his 16-year career in Athens with a .554 winning percentage. After seven seasons on the job, Coach Perno is 251-184-1, which puts him more than halfway to matching his mentor for total victories after fewer than half as many seasons as Coach Webber and gives him a winning percentage (.577) nearly 25 points better.

In 2002, with one of the youngest pitching staffs in school history, David Perno became the first Georgia baseball coach to lead the Bulldogs to the N.C.A.A. tournament in his rookie year at the helm and set school marks for most total wins (32) and most S.E.C. wins (15) by a first-year coach. After claiming conference, regional, and super-regional championships en route to Omaha in 2004, Coach Perno won S.E.C. and national coach of the year honors.

Coach Perno’s 2006 team posted the second-highest win total in school history with 47 victories and made the best run in Hoover by a Georgia squad since 1989 along the way to a 122-71 three-year record.

The Diamond Dogs have won six S.E.C. championships; two have come under Coach Perno. The Red and Black have made eight N.C.A.A. tournament appearances; four have been on Coach Perno’s watch. The Classic City Canines have made six College World Series appearances; three have occurred during Coach Perno’s tenure. (David Perno was a player and an assistant coach, respectively, on two of the other three Georgia squads that made it to Omaha.)

In five of the six seasons in which the Diamond Dogs reached Rosenblatt Stadium, David Perno was directly involved. I’m going to go out on a limb and call that success.

Coach Perno’s seven seasons on the job have produced four regional appearances, three regional titles, and three finishes in the top seven nationally. Coach Perno’s squads have posted one losing season, have never lost a super regional, and have won 45 or more games three times in the last five years. "Is that good?" If it isn’t, then Georgia baseball arguably has never had a good coach.

When we in Bulldog Nation speak of Mark Richt, we note his teams’ No. 3 national finish in 2002 and No. 2 national finish in 2007 as positive indicators of future success and deem an eventual national championship virtually inevitable. Why, then, do we not speak as confidently of Coach Perno, who led the Diamond Dogs to a No. 3 national finish at the 2004 College World Series and a No. 2 national finish at the 2008 College World Series? (Coach Perno, it should be noted, has the same number of Southeastern Conference championships as Coach Richt in the same number of seasons.)

Admittedly, that comparison is a bit of hyperbole for the sake of argument. As I pointed out previously, baseball and football are different enough games that comparisons between them are difficult. Moreover, Coach Richt has not exhibited the maddening tendency of alternating good years with disappointing ones. This is a weakness of Coach Perno’s which needs to be addressed, as The Realist is right that he has imperfections requiring attention.

Nevertheless, Coach Perno gave me cause for confidence in 2008. Yes, he still needs to make better in-game decisions, just as Coach Richt needed for a good while to make better clock management decisions, but Coach Perno’s tenure with his alma mater has been, by any measure, among the most successful periods in Georgia baseball history. Paul Westerdawg is right; this is the time for talking about paying Coach Perno what he is worth, pumping money into baseball facilities upgrades, and giving Coach Perno what he needs to keep the good times rolling, not the time to be questioning whether he has been as successful a coach as the numbers say he has been.

Go ‘Dawgs!