Clay Henry is the publisher and executive editor of Hawgs Illustrated. He is a voter for the Heisman Trophy and has been inducted into the Arkansas Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame.
State of the Hogs: Arkansas defying baseball averages
Arkansas second baseman Carson Shaddy watches as the ball sails to the Georgia outfield Saturday, April 15, 2017, scoring two runs during the second inning at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — Most times, batting averages drop as teams roll through SEC play. The pitching improves and the bats cool.
That has not happened with No. 14 Arkansas, which leads the SEC in hitting with a .300 average in league games only. The Razorbacks were around .270 just a few weeks ago, but have found some hot bats since March.
Arkansas leads the SEC with a 11-4 record after sweeping its first and most recent conference series against Mississippi State and Georgia, respectively. The Razorbacks have also won SEC series against Missouri and Alabama, with their only blemish being a 2-1 series loss to LSU.
The Hogs host Memphis twice in midweek games this week - Tuesday at Baum Stadium and Wednesday at Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock. They travel to No. 12 Auburn this weekend. The Tigers are in a three-way tie for second place in the SEC.
“You don't usually get better as far as batting averages in SEC play,” said Carson Shaddy, one of the few who has hit about the same in league and non-league games. He's at .299 overall, .295 in SEC games.
There's a bunch who have done the opposite. Consider:
Eric Cole, .364 in SEC games, .257 overall.
Jax Biggers, .360 in SEC games, .333 overall.
Chad Spanberger, .354 in SEC games, .302 overall.
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn isn't totally surprised. He said the nonconference schedule featured solid pitching and some on the team are just slow starters. Spanberger would be the best example. The lefty power hitter is red-hot now.
“We tried to be patient with some guys we knew could hit like Chad and Eric,” Van Horn said. “When you have a past history, it's easier to do that. It's good to see some guys like that kick it in.
“But what we have is a mature group of hitters. It really helps you when some guys like Luke and Carson come back after pro offers. Both could have signed last summer. That's always a key to what you are doing on offense, do you have some older guys in the lineup. We do.”
Part of the development of Spanberger came this season after Van Horn moved him from a power slot in the middle of the lineup to the two hole, ahead of Luke Bonfield and Grant Koch.
“You see teams in the big leagues doing that with the two hole,” Van Horn said. “He may not look like a two-hole hitter, but you do that to get him in front of some good bats in the lineup.”
Shaddy said things began to click for Spanberger – and others – as they adopted more of an opposite-field approach to their hitting. It's something assistants Tony Vitello and Josh Elander have stressed in batting drills.
“Coach Vitello is incredible with the mind part of hitting,” Shaddy said. “Coach Elander has helped us a lot, too. He's ready when there is someone new coming out of the bullpen, telling us exactly what we are about to see. He's been through this.”
Elander was a star hitter at TCU in 2010-12, following Vitello to the Razorbacks this year after four years in the minor leagues and then earning his degree at TCU last season.
“We know he understands hitting,” Shaddy said. “We've seen him take batting practice. He hammers them far into the Hog Pen (the seats behind the left field wall). He can still crush it, amazing.”
Van Horn said those batting practice exhibitions have caught everyone's attention at times.
“If you've seen it, then you know he can hit,” Van Horn said. “He hits them in places that are just unbelievable.”
So does Spanberger. There have been some moon shots in batting practice, over the scoreboard in right despite hitting sessions with old, dead baseballs.
“Moon shots,” Van Horn said. “He's been hot. So has Luke Bonfield. We need them to stay hot. One reason we put Chad in the two hole was because of the way Luke was hitting.”
Bonfield's power numbers have been better of late, perhaps catching fire after a visit from Van Horn after the Hogs lost the opening game of the Louisiana Tech series on the last day of February.
“I thought Luke had been a little passive,” Van Horn said. “We knew he was a good hitter. He's got a good eye, but sometimes you have to be aggressive. You don't want to go after bad pitches, but maybe you have the count and you get the pitch you are looking for, but maybe not in the place you wanted it. You have to hit that pitch.
“So if you guess right and get the pitch, hammer it. You are hitting in the three hole for a reason. Go attack. Maybe that's not his style, but he's been doing it.”
The Hogs have been really good with two outs all season, hitting .289 with two outs for the season. Consider these two-out numbers:
Jake Arledge, .485.
Jared Gates, .429.
Eric Cole, .323.
Chad Spanberger, .317
Jax Biggers, .317.
“We've been good in that area,” Van Horn said. “We've done it really well of late, too.”
That's the maturity of the lineup.
“We're just good one through nine,” Van Horn said.
Shaddy said no one is surprised by the offensive success.
"We've just got good hitters and some who can hit you haven't seen," Shaddy said. "They just can't get in the lineup because the guy ahead of them is going well.”
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