Matt Jones is the online sports director for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A double graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and Biletnikoff Award.
Heralded freshman takes the reins in center field
Arkansas outfielder Dominic Fletcher runs toward first base during a scrimmage Monday, Oct. 17, 2016, in Fayetteville. Fletcher, a freshman, is projected to be the Razorbacks' opening-day starter in center field.
FAYETTEVILLE Arkansas hitting coach Tony Vitello was hesitant in the fall to acknowledge the similarities between the Razorbacks' projected starter in center field and the player who manned the position two years ago.
Who could blame him? Andrew Benintendi, after all, was a once-in-a-generation talent - the consensus national player of the year in 2015 and a first-round draft pick of the Red Sox. Dominic Fletcher has yet to play a college game.
There is no need to set up unrealistic expectations.
With that said, there are similarities that become evident pretty quick. Like Benintendi, Fletcher likely will be an opening-day starter as a freshman. And like Benintendi, Fletcher was highly-recruited and came to Arkansas despite being a top draft prospect.
Both are similar in stature, swing from the left side of the plate, have power and are good defenders. Coaches were anxious to get both on campus.
"He and Andrew are two different players, so I don't want to start that comparison, but like Andrew, he's compact and strong," Vitello said. "He's strong where a baseball player needs to be strong, in his hands and his forearms."
Fletcher (5-9, 175 pounds) was the projected starter in center field almost from the time he stepped foot in Fayetteville. He dazzled defensively in the fall and showed power at the plate when he was able to make a connection. He hit six or seven home runs in fall scrimmages, Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said.
"I could hit him anywhere in the order," Van Horn said. "I feel good about our lineup. I think he can hit and I have him hitting eighth and ninth.
"He can really throw and play defense and he’s a good hitter, too...Physically, he's very strong for a 19-year-old."
While Benintendi was a gifted hitter, the defense is what got Fletcher noticed most in the fall. Fletcher's speed isn't at the level of some of his predecessors at the position, but Vitello said Fletcher has unique skills for his age in terms of being able to read the ball off the bat.
Perfect Game rated him the 10th-best high school outfielder in the country as a senior last year and Baseball America rated him the 209th-best draft-eligible player. He went undrafted because of a high asking price to skip college.
"I've worked really hard on getting reads because I'm not one of the fastest guys out there," said Fletcher, who noted he worked with a private outfield coach in high school. "I just took a lot of reps in high school and got really good at reading the ball off the bat. That's helped me a lot....I knew I was going to have to take reads well if I was going to play in center field."
"He's a freshman, so you don't know how the ups and downs of the season are going to go for him," Vitello said. "But it's nice to have that glove out there. That will help him tremendously."
Fletcher, a Cypress, Calif., native, comes from a good baseball blood line. His older brother, David, was a sixth-round draft pick in 2015 and has quickly progressed through the Angels' minor-league system.
David Fletcher was a standout shortstop on Loyola Marymount's team that upset the Razorbacks twice two years ago at Baum Stadium. Dominic Fletcher already had committed to Arkansas by that time.
"I couldn't come because I was in my high school season, but my dad came down here and he loved it, and saw how great it was," Fletcher said.
Fletcher was spotted by Arkansas coaches during the Area Code Games in Long Beach, Calif., the summer after his sophomore season in 2014. His coach was given Van Horn's contact information and asked to pass it along.
"I knew I wanted to go to an SEC school," Fletcher said, "and I thought this was the best fit for me."
Fletcher may turn out to be equally as good a fit for Arkansas.
"He's given us that missing piece we had last year in center field," Vitello said. "We lost Andrew Benintendi a year early, so we were left with guys trying to learn that position last year. Dom is just a natural out there."
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