Tennessee baseball's Liam Spence is the toughest out in the SEC. Here's how he does it.
Liam Spence stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs.
The Tennessee baseball shortstop took a breaking ball low and away for ball one against Florida pitcher Hunter Barco, then watched a fastball catch the outside corner. He took two more balls and another strike for a full count before Barco missed down and away.
Spence trotted to first, bringing home a run without taking the bat off his shoulder.
"It does not matter how you get on base as long as you find a way to get there,” Spence said.
The Vols senior gets on base more than anyone else in the SEC — and he gets on base more often than he gets out. He leads the SEC with a .530 on-base percentage, supplementing his conference-best .389 batting average with an SEC-leading 42 walks.
“He is just gritty,” volunteer assistant coach Ross Kivett said. “When Liam gets up, it is different than anybody else. When he gets up, you almost expect him to get on. The numbers don’t lie. It is basically flip a coin. It is 50-50 he is going to get on.”
A comforting feeling
UT coach Tony Vitello felt great about the early evaluation of Spence as the Vols recruited him out Central Arizona College.
The Australian was a solid defender, came from a winning junior-college program, and has a brother, Josh, who pitched for the Padres for parts of two seasons.
“The hitting element was not even secondary. It was much further down the line,” said Vitello, whose No. 4 Vols (37-11, 17-7 SEC) host No. 1 Arkansas (36-9, 17-7) starting Friday at Lindsey Nelson Stadium for a three-game series.
But as Tennessee’s coaches kept studying Spence, they were increasingly excited by the way Spence handled the bat. They saw a balanced stance, repeatable swing and an uncanny ability to get on base.
“He is going up there to compete,” Vitello said. “He is not going to waste an at-bat. He also is not going to claim an at-bat is the biggest at-bat of his life. … It is a comforting feeling when he is at the plate.”
How Liam Spence approaches each at-bat
Spence’s approach starts with a central mindset: He loves getting on base and wants to end an at-bat with something successful. He hates getting out — and hates striking out even more.
“It is the worst thing in baseball I feel like,” Spence said. “I just want to put the ball in play and good things happen.”
Good things for Spence range from moving a runner over to a double to an RBI groundout. But his approach also has made him the toughest out statistically in the SEC.
Spence has gotten on base in every game for Tennessee this season. He has reached base at least twice in 37 games and has 22 multi-hit games.
He has more games (six) with multiple walks since the start of April than games without a walk (three).
“My role is just to get on base,” Spence said. “It has been that on every team I have played on. I take pride in it and have honed in on that aspect of the game.”
Spence centers on the mental aspects of baseball, but balances them with the physical. He has a routine of hitting breaking balls off a pitching machine, fouling off deliberately unhittable pitches in the cage, and velocity work with a coach throwing fastballs from a close distance.
He never feels uncomfortable in the batter’s box thanks to that work, which shows especially when he gets to two strikes.
“He is just so comfortable being uncomfortable that it is almost second nature when he gets to two strikes,” Kivett said. “He is able to manipulate the barrel enough to put it where they ain’t. He doesn’t stretch the zone a lot. He is not afraid to get hit.
“He is just kind of a dirtbag in there.”
Why Liam Spence’s swing makes him successful
Spence was stuck in his lone multi-game stretch without a hit in late April when Kivett reminded Spence of a simple truth about his swing.
“He has a really flat bat and flat bats don’t usually slump,” Kivett said. “He is only worried about trying to get to the middle of the baseball with the part of the bat you are supposed to.”
Spence’s swing is predicated on contact and hard-hit line drives — the way he wants it. He doesn’t get caught looking at launch angle or ball flight. He taught himself to hit the ball the other way and tries to avoid hitting the ball in the air. He willingly accepts that he won’t hit as many home runs — he has two this season.
“The reward of getting on base is much more sweet than the couple home runs I might hit,” Spence said. “To me, I pride myself on having a flat swing. If you have a flat swing, that means a lot of the time if you are on time with the pitch, good things will happen.”
Vitello has watched Spence continue to fine tune his swing, making good on the attributes the Vols saw in scouting Spence. There’s nothing funky in his stance and there are “a lot of checks and balances” to Spence’s swing that keep him in rhythm, Vitello said.
“Nothing is out of whack,” Vitello said. “I think the fact he has worked so hard to have the repeatable and flat swing, he is going to the plate with a higher percentage of success.”
The stats back that up for Spence, who is putting together an All-SEC season and making a case for SEC Player of the Year behind an on-base percentage that ranks among the best in UT history.
“Let’s try and get that higher,” Spence said.
Mike Wilson covers University of Tennessee athletics. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByMikeWilson. If you enjoy Mike’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.