FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas hitting coach Nate Thompson was sitting at the dinner table on his birthday last month when his phone rang.
On the other end of the line was Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn.
“I was like, ‘Oh no. He’s calling me at this time of night. This isn’t good,’” Thompson said.
Two days earlier the Razorbacks’ pitching coach, Matt Hobbs, had been in New York to interview for the New York Yankees’ vacancy as pitching coach.
Thompson and Van Horn had been through this before. A year earlier, a couple of weeks after Thompson’s birthday, then-pitching coach Wes Johnson left the Razorbacks to make the unprecedented jump to the Minnesota Twins’ dugout. Johnson helped turn the Twins into a division winner in Year 1, and the Yankees were scouring the college ranks to see if they could unearth another diamond in the rough.
Johnson’s departure led to the hiring of Hobbs at Arkansas less than three months before the beginning of the season. Despite losing several pitchers from its national runner-up team the year before, the Razorbacks made it back to the College World Series pitching better by some measures, including opposing batting average (.225) and strikeouts per nine innings (9.5).
“I give Coach Hobbs a ton of credit, and Coach Van Horn, because that’s not an easy thing that they did last year,” Thompson said. “Matt’s personality is really easy, and he’s an enjoyable guy. He just stepped right in and picked it up where it was. It was in a good position, but it takes a really good coach and a guy who can connect with the players, and he did a really good job at that. You could tell the players really enjoyed him and liked to be around him, and liked working with him and knew how much he was helping them get better. It translated for our arms and their development last year because we had a lot of guys step up and have great years.”
Fortunately for Thompson, his latest birthday didn’t end with bad news. Van Horn was calling him to say Hobbs had pulled out of the Yankees’ search and was coming back to Arkansas.
“Made my night,” Thompson said. “Big birthday present for me.”
There was no guarantee that Hobbs would have been hired by the Yankees — the club also interviewed other college pitching coaches before settling on Cleveland Indians pitching coordinator Matt Blake — but by pulling out of the interview process so early, and declining an interview request by the San Francisco Giants a month later, he demonstrated his commitment to Arkansas.
“I don’t think the prestige is sitting in a big league dugout or being a coordinator or anything like that,” Hobbs said. “I like coaching, and I really like coaching at Arkansas.
“The more I looked at it, the more I thought I have the most perfect possible situation from the competitive standpoint in the SEC, being able to have access to recruit really good players, have this great fan base that supports our team, and then to be able to coach the way I like coaching — being able to have freedom. Coach Van Horn lets me get in there and work. Not to say that doesn’t happen in professional baseball...but I like to be able to work and be able to coach, and I get to do that at this level.
“And being at Arkansas I get to do that with incredibly talented players, and get the opportunity to help them on and off the field as people, too. I just really think the college level is what I like to do. Coaching at Arkansas is such a unique opportunity in anyone’s career that you never want to — the grass isn’t always greener.”
The Yankees weren’t the first professional franchise to inquire about Hobbs for a potential job. He had been previously approached for the role of minor league pitching coordinator by other clubs.
But with Johnson’s success in Minnesota — the Twins lowered their ERA from 22nd to ninth in MLB — there was a rush to speak with college coaches at the conclusion of the MLB season this fall. The Yankees and Giants both reportedly targeted Michigan pitching coach Chris Fretter in addition to Hobbs, and the Giants inquired about East Carolina’s Jason Dietrich and Arizona State’s Jason Kelly, according to Kendall Rogers of D1Baseball.com.
“I give the people in professional baseball a lot of credit because they’re looking for talent anywhere they can find it,” Hobbs said. “They look around and say, ‘Wow, a lot of the development at the lower level in college can be attributed largely to the fact that these people have some time and they get to train their pitchers the way they like to train them.’ I feel like that as more people who do their homework on really innovative, talented young pitching coaches, I think even more guys will get opportunities. At the mid-major, junior college, high school level, there are some good coaches out there, and I think that now that people are starting to know that it really doesn’t matter where the information is coming from as long as it’s quality information — that you can get a good coach anywhere.
“Whether it’s Major League Baseball or Minor League Baseball or college baseball, players care that you care about them and they care about your content. It goes to the things people care about: Can you help me and do you care about me?”
Hobbs’ decision to remain at Arkansas didn’t come with a new contract. A scheduled salary increase will pay him $230,000 this year, more than several Division I head coaches.
Thompson said Arkansas’ financial commitment to its assistant coaches makes it easier not to jump at any opportunity that comes along.
“The financial piece is a part of it, certainly, but also the quality of the places that we’re working and also the people that we’re working for,” Thompson said. “I said this when I got here and even more now after the experience of being here, but being a part of Dave Van Horn’s staff and being able to work with him is awesome. He lets us do our jobs. We all get together and talk about things, and get things done. It’s a fun atmosphere to be around. The program is incredible.
“The other piece is sometimes there aren’t a lot of other jobs that are appealing, that make you say, ‘I’m willing to give up what I have here in order to go pursue that.’”