State of the Hogs: Newcomers could be key to baseball greatness

By: Clay Henry
Published: Friday, January 17, 2020
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn directs his players Friday, Sept. 6, 2019, during practice at Baum-Walker Stadium in Fayetteville.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn directs his players Friday, Sept. 6, 2019, during practice at Baum-Walker Stadium in Fayetteville.

The arrival each winter of the Arkansas-Kentucky basketball game means different things to different people.

It could be that you just are into the frenzied atmosphere of Bud Walton Arena. It will be in all of its glory Saturday afternoon. That’s enough for most.

But there are other aspects, like the hype of Sam Pittman’s biggest recruiting weekend. The next quarterback might be in the stands along with more than a dozen other football targets. It’s a great setting to land some commitments in Pittman’s first class.

But my mind always swings to baseball this time of year. While others are covering basketball and football recruiting, my focus is the annual baseball preview for Hawgs Illustrated. It’s a deep dive into Dave Van Horn’s fantastic program. Over 10,000 words have been written for a preview of what might be a third straight College World Series trip.

Ever since Heston Kjerstad and Casey Martin made it to campus, the national experts have circled the 2020 season as the one when everything might fall in place for Van Horn. With those two now juniors and possible first-round draft picks next summer, those are my thoughts, too.

But if you look deeply at what Van Horn and his fantastic staff has added to the team this season, it’s easy to predict great things. Some say the next two classes – both thought to be even better – will make the following few years just as good.

To put it bluntly, the Hogs are loaded now and it appears they are reloading for the future, too. In looking at some of the highly touted newcomers for the 2020 team, it’s easy to understand that Van Horn is just as much an elite recruiter as he is a fundamentally-sound coach.

The 2020 newcomers are ultra talented. A look at three with a great chance to crack the starting lineup reveals just how the program has jumped in the way it’s perceived nationally. The best players in the country want to play in Baum-Walker Stadium.

Consider these three potential starters and how they arrived at Arkansas, all with a thought that they will be developed for the major leagues with a great chance to play in Omaha:

• Braydon Webb – Fourth-year junior transfer from McKinney, Texas, via Grayson (Texas) Community College, so talented he could play almost any position on the field. He played shortstop at Grayson, but proved he can track flies in the outfield. He’s a likely starter in left field.

• Robert Moore – 17-year-old middle infielder from Leawood, Kan., son of Dayton Moore, the general manager for the Kansas City Royals. He’s a mid-term arrival, passing up his senior season of high school. He’s a plus defender and switch hits. He’ll get a shot at the starting position at second base.

• Cole Austin – Redshirt senior transfer from Kennesaw, Ga., polished glove man at third base. He has Division I experience at West Virginia and Arizona State. He could play third or first base for the Hogs.

Van Horn is usually slow to praise newcomers, but not with Webb, a first team All-America pick at Grayson. He hit .450 with 14 homers, 66 RBI and was successful in 18 of 20 stolen base attempts.

"He’s a real athletic, quick twitch guy,” Van Horn said. “He has a bunch of bat speed. He can play all three outfield positions and second base.

“He's strong and could also hit leadoff. He's 200 pounds, a big version of Casey Martin. It's his fourth year in college since he was hurt one year and was three years in JC."

Hitting coach Nate Thompson said, “Webb has a chance to be pretty special. He has great tools. He can run and hit with power. He was incredible as a redshirt sophomore at Grayson.”

The nation’s top teams targeted Webb. He picked the Hogs over Auburn, Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Miami.

It’s clear why he picked the Hogs: he wanted to play on one of the most talented teams in college baseball.

“I’m a very competitive person and wanted to challenge myself,” Webb said. “I wanted to be with one of the best teams and that’s what they proved they are the last couple of years.”

Webb said he wasn’t disappointed when he arrived on campus in the fall. Van Horn talks a lot about the winning culture and work ethic in his program.

“That’s what I saw, the culture, the standard of excellence,” Webb said. “You put on that Arkansas jersey, you know what it represents.

“The culture that is here, everyone wants each other to succeed. If you are a better teammate, it’s going to help you out in the future. It’s a willingness to accept your role and support that is out there that goes a long ways.

“It’s definitely a lot more of a selfless than selfish attitude around here. We are willing to see each other do good.”

That’s the same kind of stuff others see, including the top executives in major league baseball. When an elite level GM sends you his son, it shows what they think of Van Horn and his program. The Kansas City brass is often in Baum-Walker Stadium to check out the top SEC prospects.

Van Horn made it clear that Moore was a top target when he zoomed to Kansas City on his first recruiting road trip after losing to Oregon State in the College World Series. Moore committed on July 17, just days after Van Horn visited.

“I think that made an impression,” Van Horn said. “The family noticed that I came there first.”

The idea that Moore would enroll at midterm was in the works for sometime, but not finalized until December. Moore also considered TCU and Texas.

“We’d been talking to Robert about coming early for about 18 months,” Van Horn said. “There was talk of him coming in September. Then, we had a great meeting in the home in early December that made him feel more comfortable.

“One of the things we talked about was that playing in the SEC was about like Double-A baseball (in pro ball). It was going to be better competition than you get as a rookie in A ball. He’d still just be 20 as a junior. That excited the family.”

Moore told Matt Jones of WholeHogSports.com how the crowds at Baum Walker impacted his decision.

“It’s a football-like atmosphere at the games, and other than the major leagues you don’t really get that anywhere else,” Moore said. “That’s a big drawing point. From the development side, Coach Thompson and Coach Van Horn have a long history of developing players and making them better. It’s very, very rare — if ever — has a player showed up at Arkansas and not walked out better. That was a big selling point.”

Thompson emphasized that Moore’s baseball background is off the charts.

“Robert’s kind of like the ultimate baseball guy,” Thompson said. “He’s really advanced for his age, incredibly bright baseball mind. He’s been around Major League Baseball his entire life pretty much. He’s a really good competitor. I think he knows his game.”

Austin’s background is the most diverse as far as college baseball. He’s played in the Big 12 and the Pac-12. He’s a great defender with movement at third base that reminds of Bobby Wernes. He sparkled with plays to his right toward the line in the fall scrimmage against Oklahoma.

The key is that Austin is healthy. He struggled with a back injury at Arizona State, playing only 10 games last year.

“He’s versatile and can do a lot of things on the infield,” Thompson said. “He’s proven that he’s a really solid defender.

“He’s ready to have a good year. He’s got a good swing and is going to fill in nicely. He’s a grad transfer, is experienced and is smart. He’s like Jacob Nesbit, can play both corner infield spots.”

It’s exciting stuff. But with Van Horn’s recruiting, that’s always the case. It’s easy to count on the hype coming true.

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