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: Thin can win on the mound
Arkansas pitcher Kevin Kopps throws during a scrimmage against Oklahoma on Friday, Sept. 20, 2019, in Fayetteville.
Bigger isn’t always better. Thin can win.
Ask Kevin Kopps, or look around at the amazing pitching staff at Arkansas as college baseball begins what could be its most exciting season with depth and talent everywhere.
Weight room champions sometimes gain velocity on the pitching mound, but not always.
Blaine Knight didn’t need bulk to put zeroes on the scoreboard for the Razorbacks in 2018 when he set the school record with a 14-0 record.
Kopps missed the 2018 season with Tommy John surgery. He didn’t just rebuild his throwing arm during that rehabilitation. He gained size and strength almost everywhere. Always broad-shouldered, Kopps became thicker.
The Sugar Land, Texas, product was good in 2019, making a team-high 30 mound appearances. But something happened to his devastating cut fastball in the fall of 2019 and it was still off in the covid-shortened 2020 season.
“He was elevating pitches,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “He was getting hit. We saw it last year both in the fall and before the season was stopped.”
Kopps had a career ERA of 3.57 in his first 52 games, but it ballooned to 8.18 in seven appearances last spring. He was on the way to the bench as the Hogs prepared for the start of SEC play, but the plug was pulled on the season.
That’s a tough spot for a team captain, but it might have been a simple problem. He’d added too much strength.
“He’s made some adjustments,” Van Horn said, “but a part of it has just been him losing some bulk. He looks great right now. He was really good in the fall and so far in his bullpens as we’ve started back in January.”
Kopps came to school in 2015 at 6-0, 195 pounds. He was up to 205 last year. He’s just a shade under 200 now.
Pitching coach Matt Hobbs just beams with excitement for Kopps.
“I think in three months, you are going to be writing a special story about Kevin,” Hobbs said. “He was good for us in 2019. That cutter was a difference maker with movement.
“Guys were seeing fastball and there were a lot of swing and misses. It was an amazing pitch.”
It wasn’t there last year, in the fall or once the season began.
“It was off by six or seven inches, the vertical movement,” Hobbs said. “Give Kevin credit, because he got in the weeds and improved that pitch.
“We saw a different guy in the fall. He performed great against our hitters.”
Of course, the Hogs had the data to know exactly what that cutter is doing now or what it wasn’t doing all of the previous year.
“What was happening to that pitch, it had vertical lift, and it was staying in the middle of the plate,” Hobbs said. “And, when it did have downward movement, it was below the strike zone. That pitch wasn’t good in ‘20, not the same pitch.
“The fastball was flat and the cutter was not the same.
“He went to work and figured it out. He invested time and reinvented himself.”
No one is surprised Kopps figured it out because he’s a workaholic. He’s a three-time captain.
“Kevin is a big-time leader for us,” Van Horn said. “Everyone on our team looks up to him. He takes care of his business. They all see how hard he works. It’s always been that way.”
Always covers a large sample size. Kopps is in his sixth season with the Hogs. And because of the covid rollback of eligibility from last season, he’s still only a junior.
“Yeah, I don’t really know what to call Kevin,” Hobbs said. “Think about this: he’s had three pitching coaches and he’s been here since the fall of 2015. Every one of his pitching coaches talks well of him. How could you not?
“I pull for all my guys, but it’s exciting to see what Kevin has done as far as the time he’s spent, the work he’s done and now to see him pitch like I’ve seen the last few months.
“We came back after the holidays and he was even better. The bullpen I saw his first time out was just lights out.
“What I see is electric stuff. It’s movement in the strike zone. It’s command. It’s going to be stuff that you must swing at. The issue with his movement last year was it was too far down in the zone to get swings. And, then he’d throw a bad one that they were going to hit. I call it in the middle of the cement mixer.
“This is a cool story. He did it against our guys. Now he’s got to do it again against the teams we play in live games. That’s different, but I think you are going to be writing fun stuff about him when this is over.”
The role for Kopps has yet to be determined. It could be that he’s in middle relief like in the past. His reputation is that he’s a solid inning eater. But it could be different.
“I don’t know but he might be our closer,” Hobbs said. “He’s looked that good.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who could close, so maybe he is a setup guy, or in middle relief. I just know he’s a different guy than what we saw last year and it’s so exciting.
“He’s got that unbelievable experience. He’s pitched in Omaha. He’s been through everything. He’s what you want in a captain.”
That’s not to say Hobbs will need Kopps to make 30 appearances like 2019. The Hogs have one of their deepest and most talented pitching staffs.
“This team is better in that respect (depth and talent) than anything I’ve seen the last decade in Power 5 baseball,” Hobbs said. “We still have to figure out where the pieces fit — weekend starters, closers, setup and the other challenges.
“We may have 10 or 12 guys capable of starting on the weekend. We may have five or six able to close. We have multiple guys capable of being great setup guys.
“It’s going to be a fun challenge. It sure looks like we have a lot of guys who are going to have success.
“It might evolve. We have some younger guys who may really take off when they get an opportunity.”
Asked for the possibilities to start, Hobbs chuckled, then reeled off 11 names: Caleb Bolden, Connor Noland, Patrick Wicklander, Lael Lockhart, Zebulon Vermillion, Peyton Pallette, Caden Monke, Kole Ramage, Blake Adams, Jaxon Wiggins and Nate Wohlgemuth.
There’s a nice left-right mix that will provide options, too. It might be the best left-handed pitching roster in school history.
“We might end up with a lefty closer, or a couple of them,” Hobbs said.
That brings the obvious question: is there a Matt Cronin in the bunch?
“That’s the question we ask ourselves every day,” Hobbs said, reminding that the Hogs were trying to figure that out last year when covid stopped the season.
“When we watched these guys, we say, ‘Is he like Cronin?’ Matt spoiled us. It’s really not fair to compare a freshman to Matt. It’s an impossible comparison, but we see some things we really like in a bunch of them, electric arms.”
In Cronin, the Hogs had the best lefty closer in college baseball the previous two seasons.
They had only three saves in the 16 games played last season, one each by Zebulon Vermillion, Peyton Pallette and Caden Monke. All three return and could close this season.
But all three could figure in the weekend rotation. That’s along with as many as 10 others.
Wicklander and Noland were weekend starters in 2019 and last year, and look good in January bullpens. The Hogs add Houston transfer Lockhart who was a Friday night starter the last two seasons.
“We started making calls when we saw Lael in the (transfer) portal last summer,” Hobbs said. “We talked to people who faced him and it was really good feedback.
“I actually watched him pitch part of one game. I’ve got a buddy coaching at Stanford and when I tuned into a game it was against Houston with Lael on the mound.
“I remembered his cutter. When I asked around, the thing I kept hearing was that he was really tough. The scouting report: really good talent, but equally good toughness.”
In the fall, Lockhart was tested in multiple roles.
“We think he’s a Swiss Army knife,” Hobbs said. “He can do about anything. We started him, brought him to close and in the middle of innings. Nothing bothers him.
“He’s 89 to 92 with a four-pitch mix. There are guys who throw harder on our staff, but he competes and he’s got really good stuff.”
A lefty with that kind of arsenal is golden in college baseball. But the Hogs have plenty of others with more velocity from the left side.
Wicklander has added velocity. He started the fall slowly, but was electric at the end.
“He was up to 95 at the end of the fall and looked good in his first bullpen (in January),” Hobbs said. “So he’s throwing harder and has the same functions. He’s got three to four pitches and has a chance to be elite.”
Monke is a lefty wild card, capable of about any role. At 6-3, 170, he doesn’t look formidable, but has a sneaky delivery.
In six appearances out of the bullpen last year, opponents were hitting just .118 against Monke.
“I think he was becoming one of the best bullpen weapons in the conference last year when we stopped,” Hobbs said. “I think he could be a starter now or one of the better bullpen guys.
“He was up to 94 last fall and his secondary stuff was up, too. He’s slender. He’s never going to be a guy who looks physical, but he’s a powerful athlete. What he’s got is the ability to sequence his delivery and move the baseball. He’s a lot more powerful than he looks.”
Zack Morris and Evan Taylor are other lefties with impressive ability.
Morris pitched five times last year as a true freshman.
“He was on the way to becoming a good bullpen piece and came great in the fall,” Hobbs said. “Taylor has really emerged from the middle of the fall until now. He touches 94. He came back from the break great.”
Taylor (6-4, 255), Morris (6-3, 220) and Lockhart (6-3, 220) are not thin. Neither are righthanders Elijah Trest (6-3, 220), Wiggins (6-6, 220) Noland (6-2, 220) and Vermillion (6-4, 230).
“People look at guys like Monke and Pallette and think they are too skinny,” Hobbs said. “Not all great ones look like Isaiah Campbell. We do have guys like Wiggins — 100 % what they are supposed to look like — but that’s not required to pitch great.”
One of the most fascinating options on the right side is Pallette, another slender flamethrower in the Knight mold. At 6-1, 175, Pallette has exploded in the last 12 months with velocity and ability to throw strikes. He was good as a true freshman last year when he pitched four times.
“We have that lasting memory of our last game, when Pallette got the last six outs of what turned out to be our season,” Hobbs said. “We’ve got a lot of guys who throw hard, but he’s at the top end (of velocity).
“I was talking to Coach Van Horn the other day about Peyton. He’s come a long way in a short time from that freshman that was at 89 and 90 in his first bullpen last year. I remember telling him, ‘Well, that’s good. He’ll be pretty good in three to four years.’ It’s happened quick.
“You never know what’s going to happen. You see some guys come in and they get a little better and even some get worse. Then, now and then, some figure it all out. They get better in all areas and make a jump.
“Nothing Peyton changed was drastic. He fine-tuned delivery, strengthened his core and got a little better in timing, got his curve better and just everything with his data got better.”
Pallette was the rage of the summer California Collegiate League.
“I have a friend who coaches the Santa Barbara team,” Hobbs said. “He called me and said, ‘You are not going to believe it, but your guy is touching 97.’ I didn’t believe it. Then, I started hearing from scouts and they all had him at 97 on their (radar) gun every time he pitched.
“We came back in the fall and he bounces up on the mound with all that energy and not one pitch was under 95. He hit 98. And, that’s in the fall. You know it’s going to go up in the spring when adrenaline kicks in.
“What you see is significantly better than last year with Peyton. He’s on a roll and it will leverage his chances to become a starter or a closer.”
It’s just another case that thin can win in college baseball, especially at Arkansas where there is a lot to get the adrenaline flowing for the pitching coach.
This story originally appeared in the 2021 Hawgs Illustrated baseball preview
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