Behind Emerson Hancock’s fierce 2019 season, behind Tony Locey’s intimidating poise on the mound, behind Cole Wilcox’s breakout freshman season, sits one man. He stands quite tall, well over six feet, but don’t let his intimidating appearance fool you.
In two short seasons, this soft-spoken Eastern Michigan and Saint Mary’s College graduate has transformed the Bulldogs’ pitching staff from an inconsistent group to one of the nation’s most formidable.
Georgia pitching coach Sean Kenny joined head coach Scott Stricklin’s staff in 2017 and, upon watching the team, wanted to see more strikes thrown and be more consistent top-to-bottom. Last season, Kenny said, that consistency went away late once the staff got worn down, and the Bulldogs had to use younger, more inexperienced pitchers to cope.
That obviously has not been an issue this season, though Kenny says his staff can still play better.
“It’s much better,” Kenny said, in his slightly-northern accent. “It’s still not as good as I think everybody would like it to be, but it certainly has improved.”
Kenny and Stricklin were not total strangers before the former’s arrival to Athens. The two have called themselves friends for a long time, and were teammates on a summer-league baseball team in Fairbanks, Alaska, in 1992.
“We spent two months in Fairbanks fighting mosquitos and trying to play baseball,” Stricklin said. “That’s how we became very good friends, and we stayed close after that. ... We became very good friends in the summer of 1992.”
Kenny went on to coach at both Pepperdine and San Diego. Stricklin said he’d visit Kenny during the offseasons while he coached at those schools, as the two regularly faced each other while Stricklin served as head coach at Kent State.
Both Kenny and Stricklin thought they’d eventually end up on the same coaching staff — with Stricklin the head coach, Kenny said with a laugh — and a variety of factors fell into place for Kenny to make the move to Georgia. He’d always wanted to coach in the SEC, and working with Stricklin was an added bonus.
“Just like every job, probably everywhere, it’s who you know,” Kenny said.
Fast-forward from summer 1992 to June 2017. Kenny had just been named the pitching coach at Georgia, and arrived to a team that just finished 25-32 and went one-and-done in the SEC Tournament.
Each of Georgia’s starting pitchers in 2017 (Andrew Gist, Chase Adkins, Kevin Smith) had earned run averages of 3.80 or higher. As a whole, the staff gave up over five runs per game, and gave up 45 home runs.
Consistency was a major issue.
“Youth and inexperience has a lot to do with this, but they weren’t throwing strikes,” Kenny said. “Being a year older probably fixed most of that, but that was the focus. Be confident in throwing it over the plate.”
Nearly two years since Kenny’s hiring, it looks as if he’s pieced the puzzle together. Having a talented top-to-bottom staff like Georgia has makes the job “so much easier,” Kenny said, but two years of Kenny’s coaching, plus experienced starters and talented freshmen, has the Bulldogs poised for a deep postseason run.
Kenny’s coaching has his players raving.
Locey and Wilcox both called him a “player’s coach.” Wilcox said Kenny’s door is open any time they wish to speak with him, and credits much of his development this season to the advice Kenny gave him on pre-pitch preparation (the few seconds before a pitcher throws a pitch toward home plate).
Kenny is not an in-your face type of coach, according to Locey, Wilcox and Stricklin.
“He relates to you very well,” Wilcox said. “He’s easy to talk to. ... he’s super laid-back and he’s really easy to play for. If you’re struggling with something and want some honest feedback, he’ll give it to you.”
Stricklin said one of the first things Kenny did last year was earn his players’ trust.
Following the success staff enjoyed last year, Stricklin said, the players grew to trust him, and realized that “this guy knows what he’s talking about.” The result, then, has been improvement across the board.
Compare the numbers from 2016 to now: As of May 18, the Bulldogs pitching staff is giving up around three runs per game (two better than it did in 2016). Hancock’s ERA sits at 1.31.
The rotation of Hancock, Locey and Tim Elliott, who will pitch in Georgia’s SEC Tournament opener, is a combined 24-6 (Wilcox, who started last weekend against Alabama, is 3-1.)
“I think their fastball command is better, I think their off-speed stuff is better, I think their mental game is better,” Stricklin said. “I don’t think there’s one thing that stands out more than anything. ... All these guys bought into (Kenny’s coaching) and it’s been fun watching these guys grow.”