Who is Matt Hobbs? Former coach, teammate, player describe Diamond Hogs' new assistant

By: Matt Jones
Published: Thursday, November 29, 2018
Matt Hobbs was pitching coach at Wake Forest from 2015-18 and has been hired as the Arkansas pitching coach for the 2019 season.
Photo by Brian Westerholt, Four Seam Images
Matt Hobbs was pitching coach at Wake Forest from 2015-18 and has been hired as the Arkansas pitching coach for the 2019 season.

— Griffin Roberts feels like he owes a lot of his success to Matt Hobbs.

Roberts, a former walk-on pitcher at Wake Forest, was selected in the first round of the MLB Draft earlier this year, 43rd overall by the St. Louis Cardinals. He is the highest-drafted pitcher Hobbs has had in 12 seasons as a Division-I pitching coach and possibly the best example of Hobbs' coaching philosophies paying dividends.

“He just kind of showed me the light at the end of the tunnel,” Roberts said. “Right when I got here freshman year I couldn’t throw strikes and I didn’t throw hard. It was that continued support and continued motivation that, ‘You are something special, you just have to tap into that potential.’ He always saw the potential I had and was willing to stay late for practice with me if I wanted to get a little extra time.

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"I was kind of like bottom of the totem pole when I got here. He was more than a coach to me. He was a guy I turned to for advice off the field and a guy I turned to for advice on the field. He was always there for me."

It doesn't take long to understand that Hobbs, 38, is a name that is well known in baseball circles. Like Wes Johnson, his predecessor as pitching coach at Arkansas, Hobbs is thought to be among the leaders in using technology and the study of biomechanics to teach pitching.

If there is a tool that can potentially help pitchers, Hobbs makes it readily available to his players, whether it is a weighted baseball or machines like TrackMan or Rapsodo.

TrackMan originally was used to provide the trajectory of a golf ball, but in the past several years has become a popular baseball tool that helps provide a three-dimensional view of a pitcher's delivery, and provides data on velocity at a given point during a pitch. Rapsodo, a high-speed camera that sits on a tripod about 6 feet behind home plate, complements TrackMan by recording spin rates for pitchers, and is useful in getting data on a pitch once it arrives to the plate.

Hobbs loves both machines and uses them in his daily teaching.

“I’m not going to say he’s the most forward-thinking person in the business, but when you look around the industry his name pops up a lot in that forward-thinking model,” Roberts said. “He likes looking at the numbers and letting the numbers do the talking for us. You just come to Wake and look at the facilities he’s been instrumental in building. We have TrackMan on the field, but we also have it in our bullpen. We do bullpens with TrackMan so we have instant feedback, and he’s all about using the data to talk to the pitchers and tell us what’s going on. He doesn’t need it, but if it’s at your disposal it’s definitely something he’s interested in using.”

At Wake Forest, Hobbs had developed what he called a "hardcore biomechanics lab" for his pitchers. The setup included 24 cameras - 20 in an indoor facility and four in the outdoor bullpen - an indoor and outdoor TrackMan machine, a Rapsodo machine and a full-time biomechanist to help analyze data.

The cameras gave "3-D kinematics of everybody’s delivery," Hobbs said, "so it’s incredibly special."

The lab was completed earlier this year. Roberts did not have a chance to use it while a player at Wake Forest, but was able to test on it earlier this fall.

“You go in there and get tagged up with these little markers and it corresponds with a computer system,” Roberts said. “That’s something he really dived into the last couple of months after it was fully operational. You kind of had every single pitcher, before they shut down for their eight to 10 weeks of rest for the year, they got on the cameras and got a baseline knowledge before they stopped, so when they get back going they have a knowledge of where they need to get to."

Hobbs is hopeful he can duplicate the setup at Arkansas, where a new $25 million baseball facility was recently approved and should be open by the spring of 2021. The facility will include training areas and Hobbs can be influential in the design of pitching areas.

"We’re going to try to do some things that are pretty revolutionary in the new facility, I know," Hobbs said, "and in the time being bring the current facility up to speed with some cameras and new ball-tracking systems.

"We were kind of on the ground floor with it (at Wake Forest). By the time I left we had captured about six times and you’re basically figuring out what is going on inside someone’s body, so it’s more than you could ever get from video or TrackMan or anything along those lines. It’s another tool. It’s not the end all, be all of coaching, certainly, but it’s something out there these days. These are tools we help to coach players and help them reach their full potential and stay healthy.

"It adds more tools to the toolbox of coaching. It lets you figure out things you didn’t know existed before. I think every pitcher has something inherent that is special about them and it lets you dig into that and bring that out of that player."

Johnson used analytics to help coach the Razorbacks to successful seasons in 2017 and 2018. Several Arkansas pitchers saw sharp increases to the velocities of their pitches as a result of working with Johnson, and the team set records for strikeouts in a season.

Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said the focus on analytics is changing the college game and making professional teams take note of college coaches. Johnson was hired by the Minnesota Twins earlier this month, becoming the first college coach to go directly to a Major League Baseball dugout in 38 years.

“I think one thing I like about some of the things we’re talking about on the pitching end is that we’re going to help some kids stay healthy,” Van Horn said. “You’re going to be able to figure out some things early, change some deliveries.”

When it became obvious that Johnson might leave for MLB, Van Horn began networking to find his replacement. Van Horn asked Johnson who he would recommend, and he responded with a handful of names, including Hobbs.

Van Horn also made calls to Tennessee coach Tony Vitello and former Missouri coach Tim Jamieson. Vitello worked for Van Horn for four seasons at Arkansas, and Van Horn and Jamieson coached against each other in both the Big 12 and Southeastern Conference, and with each other on the USA Collegiate National Team.

"Matt was who I recommended immediately when Coach Van Horn called, and he said that's who he was calling about anyway," Vitello said.

"This is the honest truth: I told Matt I think it's the best assistant coaching job in the country," Jamieson said. "Arkansas' fanbase, facilities, recruiting abilities, Coach Van Horn - I just think it's as good as there is. Coach Van Horn is a great guy to work for."

Both Vitello and Jamieson are qualified to give background on Hobbs, who was a teammate of Vitello's at Missouri in the early 2000s. Their coach was Jamieson, and Jamieson later hired both men as assistant coaches for the Tigers.

Vitello left Missouri following the 2010 season and Hobbs began there as pitching coach the next season.

It was an era at Missouri that included several players who later went on to become successful as a coach or in the pros. For instance, Vitello and Hobbs played with Jayce Tingler, now the bench coach for the Texas Rangers.

"Matt had some pretty strong leaders around him," Jamieson said.

Hobbs was a left-handed pitcher for Jamieson from 1999-2002. He grew into a weekend starter at Mizzou and finished his career with a 13-9 record in 57 appearances and 17 starts. He twice set the Big 12 record by striking out seven consecutive batters in a single game.

He grew up bouncing around several different cities in multiple states, but spent the majority of his upbringing near Los Angeles in Alta Loma, Calif., where he graduated high school.

"He was solid as an athlete, solid as a person," said Jamieson, who retired in 2016 after 28 seasons coaching at Missouri, including 22 as a head coach. "Those attributes became a lot more clear when he was coaching for me. The things that kind of describe him the best are that he is incredibly driven and has a growth mindset - he's always wanting to be on the edge in terms of information that is out there, and wants to continually learn. That's huge. It was that way as a player, and now as a coach that's very important.

"He's very intelligent, so he has the ability to take that information and apply it to developing pitchers. Some people can be intelligent and know the game and not be able to communicate it, but he's a good teacher. In terms of development of players, he can take information and apply it and communicate it so that the players can grasp it and understand it. He can take what he has and simplify it."

Jamieson said Hobbs is also a solid recruiter.

"Having to be on the road, having to be in communication with the players and having to evaluate, it's just a grind," Jamieson said. "It's gotten worse and worse over time because of the mass number of events you have to cover, but Matt is always there, always present. There is a work ethic there that is respected by the people in our profession. He has a very strong reputation. People can talk the talk and people can walk the walk, but I think it's a combination of both and he's earned that respect."

At Wake Forest, Hobbs said his recruiting was predominantly done on the East and West Coasts, but he said he has experience in Arkansas recruiting hotbeds - Dallas, Houston, Kansas City and St. Louis - by virtue of his time at Missouri.

“I recruited all those areas pretty heavily,” Hobbs said. “We would do a pretty good job in Texas. Being at Wake Forest gives me experience on the (East Coast). I’m originally from California, so I’ve pretty much recruited the entire country and have ties everywhere. I realize how well Arkansas does in the Midwest and that’s an area obviously that’s going to continue to be incredibly important, to hammer those areas they are doing incredibly well in.”

Hobbs' recruiting and developmental skills were attractive to Vitello when he was hired as the Tennessee coach following Arkansas' loss in the NCAA regional round in 2017. Around the same time Hobbs was coming off a banner season and NCAA super regional with the Demon Deacons, who had a 3.81 team ERA and .240 opponent batting average in postseason play. Wake Forest upset Florida in the second game of the super regional that year, but the Gators won 3-0 in Game 3 to advance to the College World Series. Florida went on to win the national championship.

Hobbs was on his short list to become pitching coach at Tennessee, but Vitello felt he needed an assistant coach with a background as a head coach, so he hired former Oklahoma State coach Frank Anderson instead.

"Otherwise Matt might be wearing orange right now," Jamieson said.

Vitello has worked with Johnson and Hobbs, and has a unique perspective on the change in the Arkansas bullpen. He said the men have different personalities, but have similar backgrounds.

"If you kind of backtrack to what they did when they finished their playing careers in college, they kind of started their coaching careers from the very bottom," Vitello said. "They were both guys that really created their own future through learning and through work ethic.

"I think there is a list of similarities. They are similar in that they are both energetic and get along with kids as well as you can imagine, and I think both are very, very thorough.

"I think you’ve got two great personalities there, and Wes has an approach that is unique unto himself. Likewise, Matt is a strong personality and he’s really built himself into being one of the best coaches in the country, which is rather obvious with him getting that position at Arkansas….I think the guys that are going to be able to be coached by both of them are going to be blessed by being able to have two great approaches.”

Jamieson said Hobbs' approach, like Johnson's, is appealing to recruits, in particular those who feel they have a chance to improve their draft stock by coming to college.

"Coach Van Horn is a pretty smart guy and he understands what Wes and what Matt can provide to that recruit is that they are on the cutting edge in terms of development," Jamieson said. "That's what the players coming out of high school and junior college want right now. It gives them a leg up in terms of selling the program to these really high-end pitchers."

Hobbs has coached seven pitchers - Rob Zastryzny, Guido Knudson, Matt Stites, Dylan Axelrod, Jeff Stevens, Chuckie Fick and Tanner Scheppers - who went on to make MLB rosters. Roberts might be another to make the list in the future.

"Wherever I go with baseball he will always be my pitching coach," Roberts said. "Whenever I need advice, that will be the guy I turn to, whether he’s coaching at Arkansas or a professional baseball team I’m playing against."

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