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: Fall ball goes well for Arkansas
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn gestures Friday, Sept. 18, 2020, to a friend in the stands during practice at Baum-Walker Stadium in Fayetteville.
Because of a shortened pro draft, impressive depth abounds throughout college baseball. Rosters are big with lots of experienced talent.
There might not be many places depth is any better than Arkansas. The few who were able to watch the Razorbacks' fall practices were amazed at the competition and depth with what appears to be another fine team under construction by coach Dave Van Horn.
“Their fall world series was like two teams that could win an (NCAA) regional,” said one veteran college baseball observer.
Van Horn didn’t comment on that assertion during a half-hour Zoom media session Wednesday, but he did mention the fierce way his players battled in scrimmages.
“The fall was very competitive,” Van Horn said. “We had two pretty good teams competing hard.”
It was logical that players were excited to be on the field after their season was cut short after 16 games in March by covid-19. There were a few players who played some summer ball, but not for long. Many of the regular summer leagues canceled their season.
“I never sensed that any of our returnees wanted to get off the field,” Van Horn said. “Sometimes the older guys need a break. They are tired after a long spring season and a long summer.
“I never sensed that this time after we played a short season in the spring and some didn’t play this summer. Our guys were gung ho. That made fall better.”
Van Horn said a deep pitching staff made for competitive scrimmages, but hitters still managed to hit home runs at a high rate compared to the last two teams that hit for power. The last three teams had home run power throughout the lineup and posted these numbers:
• 2018 (48-21 record) 98 HRs
• 2019 (46-20) 88 HRs
• 2020 (11-5) 21 HRs
“Heston Kjerstad hit a bunch of home runs and so did Casey Martin,” Van Horn said of the departed sluggers, "but we hit more home runs this fall than the last two falls.
“What I like is that we are also athletic. We can leave the yard up and down the lineup, but we have speed. We can hit more doubles and we can go from first to second and second to home.
“We have guys who can hit 10 to 15 home runs and that starts to add up.”
The Hogs came through the fall without a lot of serious injuries, but freshman left-handed pitcher Nick Griffin underwent Tommy John surgery to repair his pitching elbow last week. The Monticello product will miss the season.
“He never threw a pitch here," Van Horn said. "He came in early this summer and his arm wasn’t great.”
Right-handed pitcher Tyler Cacciatori, a 6-6 freshman from Sheridan, battled some arm issues but did not have surgery.
“He’ll just rest,” Van Horn said. “He didn’t need surgery.”
Catcher Dylan Leach impressed with his throwing during the fall, a time when players are encouraged to experiment with their base stealing.
“He tweaked his arm a little, but the MRI looks pretty good,” Van Horn said. “He’ll just rest it.
“He skipped his senior year and came to school. He had a really good fall and threw a bunch of guys out.”
Van Horn sounded like a decision has been made concerning the middle of the infield with junior-college transfer Jalen Battles emerging the fall as the likely starter at shortstop and Robert Moore locking up second base for the second straight season.
“It’s 100%, that’s our middle infield,” Van Horn said. “Both are really good shortstops, but no one is better at turning the double play at second in the country (than Moore). For the sake of the team, Robert is going to play second and Jalen will play shortstop.
“I think the way Robert turns the double play puts us over the top.”
Moore has defensive ability in all areas.
“He’s very athletic and has quick hands,” Van Horn said. “His transfer is as good as any I’ve coached.”
Van Horn said neither made many errors in the fall.
“I don’t think Battles had any until the fall series,” he said. “I don’t remember Moore having any until he made two in the series.”
Van Horn said Battles has played his position for a long time. Battles transferred from McLennan (Texas) Community College, the same school Van Horn left to come to Arkansas as a player in the early 1980s.
"He has a really good arm, but he won’t show it unless he has to," Van Horn said. "He has arm strength and he’s accurate.”
Battles came on strong over the second half of the fall season, taking advantage of some hitting drills taught by hitting coach Nate Thompson.
Pitching depth is incredible. The Hogs boost a roster with 22 hurlers, split evenly between right and left throwers.
“We have a lot of good arms,” Van Horn said. “We don’t have time to go through all of them.”
Van Horn said pitching coach Matt Hobbs has done a great job on the recruiting trail and in development.
“He’s an outstanding coach,” Van Horn said. “What’s different is that he has a few more arms (to work with) now. We’ve recruited a few more pitchers and some guys have developed. We have been lucky, too, because they’ve stayed healthy and that doesn’t always happen.”
Velocity has improved throughout the staff. Van Horn pointed to sophomore left hander Evan Taylor as an example.
“He’s at 92 to 95 mph and from the left side,” Van Horn said. “He’s developed a good breaking ball.”
Two veteran returnees had up-an-down falls. Connor Noland and Patrick Wicklander — weekend starters since their freshman year — finished on different notes. Noland was on a down turn, but Wicklander was on the upswing.
“Wicklander was not great early, but the last couple he was really good with improved velocity,” Van Horn said. “He’s tough when he’s around the plate.”
Noland’s off days probably out numbered his good days, but there were some of both.
“We were concerned, but hitters have seen him a lot,” Van Horn said. “His velocity was down. He knows what he has to work on.
“But we feel good about our pitching.”
Houston transfer Lael Lockhart (6-3, 225 pounds) impressed. The lefty will likely get a spot in the bullpen.
“He’s steady eddy,” Van Horn said. “I’ve got no problem giving him the ball from the fifth inning on.”
Among the position players, Cullen Smith also turned heads. He can play the corner infield positions or the outfield. Smith transferred from East Tennessee State and transferred in 2020.
“He was all-conference at a mid major,” Van Horn said. “He knew he would have to sit out a year, but he wanted to play at an SEC school. He did pretty well here last fall and worked hard in the weight room.
“Cullen led us in a lot of offensive categories in the fall. He hits for average with high on-base percentage and has some power.”
Van Horn was asked about freshmen Cayden Wallace and Jaxson Wiggins. Wallace is an infielder from Greenbrier, and Wiggins a pitcher from Roland, Okla., just outside Fort Smith.
“Wiggins is blessed with a lot of talent,” Van Horn said of the 6-6 right-handed pitcher. “He’s got an incredible arm and doesn’t get up tight.
“If he stays healthy, he can be as good as he wants to be. We think he can be a conference starter as a freshman. He can do like Nick Schmidt did for us (in 2005), be that guy. Nick Schmidt was that for us for three years.”
Wallace can play first, third or the outfield.
“He’s very talented from the right side,” Van Horn said. “He has a tremendous arm. We worked him at three spots and we will find a way to get him in the lineup. I wish all freshmen had the same approach. Some get here and they think, ‘I’m a freshman and I’ll wait my turn.’ He wants to play now.”
Van Horn said junior Matt Goodheart is still working his way back from shoulder surgery following the 2019 season.
“His arm is definitely better,” Van Horn said. “We put him at (designated hitter) for both teams and let him hit. He can field and catch and he’s confident he’s going to be able to throw. But he’s not there yet. It’s week to week.”
Van Horn was asked about the new Hunt Family Performance Center under construction beyond the fence in right field. He can’t wait until recruits get the tours he’s had of late. Covid-19 restrictions prevent any on-field visits.
“We can’t recruit at all,” Van Horn said.
But he knows the new $27 million building will be a game changer in recruiting.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “That’s what we say when we’ve gone on tours and I think that will be (a recruit’s) reaction. It’s very well thought out.
“I know that our team is going to get better in there. It’s very workable. There are a few things to benefit fans, but it’s 80% to 85% for player development.
“I think it will help sway kids. We have had some recruits go on a visit to a school in warm weather and commit while they are there and cancel visits. We think this facility will have that impact. No one has a developmental (facilities) like what we have here.”
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