Analysis: How Pallette injury affects Razorbacks in '22

By: Matt Jones Matt Jones's Twitter account
Published: Thursday, January 20, 2022
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn is shown during practice Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021, in Fayetteville.
( Charlie Kaijo)
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn is shown during practice Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021, in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE — When Arkansas pitching coach Matt Hobbs arrived at Arkansas in the fall of 2018, he inherited a pitching staff void of several top contributors from the season before. 

The Razorbacks’ 2019 team had to replace 63% of the innings pitched from the previous year. Notably, Arkansas was without 2018 ace starter Blaine Knight, No. 2 starter Kacey Murphy and multiple middle-inning relievers who keyed a run to the finals of the College World Series. 

Closer Matt Cronin and starter Isaiah Campbell were the top returners, and Campbell had been wildly inconsistent the year before.

The 2019 Razorbacks turned out OK. They were SEC West co-champions and went back to the College World Series. 

By almost every metric, Campbell was better than Knight the year before, and relievers Jacob Kostyshock and Cody Scroggins emerged as reliable set-up men in front of Cronin. Starters Connor Noland and Patrick Wicklander were All-SEC freshmen that year.

The belief then around the Arkansas program — as it is now — was that there were more talented arms than ever on the roster. What the roster lacked was game experience. 

So in some ways, the Razorbacks’ pitching staff for 2022 had similarities to that 2019 team even before the season-ending injury to Peyton Pallette, who will undergo Tommy John surgery after an offseason of trying to rehab an elbow injury. Pallette was Arkansas’ No. 2 starter for most of last year whose absence was felt throughout the postseason as the Razorbacks stretched their bullpen in games against Nebraska and North Carolina State. 

The Razorbacks might have gone to the College World Series with a healthy Pallette a year ago. He only averaged a little more than four innings per start in 2021, but those were innings that had to be replenished from the bullpen after his injury. 

Now the Razorbacks are without him again when he figured to be a more integral piece to the team. It is sure to change after the surgery, but Baseball America rates him the No. 1 college pitcher available in this year’s draft. 

We’ll never know whether he would have pitched to the level of those expectations, but they illustrate the potential lost for this year’s Razorbacks. 

With Pallette out, Arkansas must replace 71% of its pitching from the 2021 team that won SEC regular-season and tournament championships. Notable departures include last year’s No. 1 starter Wicklander and ace closer Kevin Kopps, the consensus 2021 national player of the year. 

Pallette was expected to take the No. 1 job this season, but there was going to be competition for starting spots. Noland, who has battled injuries the past two seasons, looked much improved in the fall and is likely to be a weekend starter again in his fourth college season. 

“What we’re seeing right now, I think, is the best version of Connor — the command he displayed as a freshman and that covid year (2020), and then better stuff,” Hobbs said during the fall.

Others who might factor into the weekend mix include sophomore right handers Jaxon Wiggins and Heston Tole, who were among the team’s most-used pitchers by the end of last season, as well as freshmen Nick Moten and Hagen Smith. Moten, a hard-throwing right hander, might also find a role as a closer. 

Smith’s eye-popping numbers as a high school senior included 7 no-hitters, a 0.19 ERA and 168 strikeouts in 73 innings. By all indications the left hander acclimated well to college hitting while on the mound in the fall. 

“I think the most important thing is he’s just made of the right things,” Hobbs said in the fall. “He’s a tough kid who had to learn to work his way back from an injury and then had to establish himself again as a prospect on the national stage. That’s not easy to do when you’re coming back from Tommy John.” 

As was the case last postseason, Pallette’s absence might be felt most this year in the bullpen. Injuries like his cause a trickle-down effect. Relievers become starters, and bullpen pitchers farther down the pecking order are asked for more innings. 

The Pallette injury becomes a bigger deal if there are additional injuries to front-line pitchers.

For now, the preseason timing of Pallette’s injury seems better than when he was injured last May. The early-season nonconference games are a proving ground for those light on experience.

Starting pitching, while almost certain to rotate and evolve throughout the season, will likely be fine for the Razorbacks in 2022. The key to Arkansas meeting lofty preseason expectations is likely to hinge on how well Arkansas pitchers perform in the final nine outs.

Late-inning pitching makes and breaks seasons. 

Potential relievers Gabe Starks, Zack Morris, Mark Adamiak and Will McEntire are all coming off strong showings in various summer leagues. Zebulon Vermillion, whose 40 1/3 innings last season are the most among the team’s returners, is a veteran wildcard who has had periods of success as a starter and reliever. 

Seldom-used left hander Evan Taylor has made gains since last spring and hard-throwing Elijah Trest, a right hander, turned down a draft offer in order to better reach his potential.  

Other pitchers will also contribute to this year’s team. 

Will a pitcher blossom this year? The key to the Razorbacks’ last three postseason teams was the remarkable improvement by Knight, Campbell and Kopps, whose banner seasons wouldn’t have been predicted the year before. 

What Pallette’s injury doesn’t change is the perceived strength of this year’s Razorbacks, the lineup. What it lacks in experienced pitching, Arkansas has in position veterans like Robert Moore, Brady Slavens, Jalen Battles, Cayden Wallace, Braydon Webb and Zack Gregory. 

Webb, who had a prolonged slump in 2021, was arguably the toughest out during fall practices when he showed his most power as a Razorback. He might be the team’s best defensive outfielder and is likely to be positioned in center. 

On top of that, Arkansas has added three loud bats from the transfer portal in catcher Michael Turner (Kent State), outfielder Jace Bohrofen (Oklahoma) and utility man Chris Lanzilli (Wake Forest). Peyton Stovall and Drake Varnado are part of a deep group of freshman position players who figure to be the core of the team in 2023 and beyond. 

The Razorbacks’ freshman class was ranked fourth by Baseball America when evaluated after last year’s draft. 

Stovall is the most likely freshman to get extensive playing time this season, perhaps as a lead-off hitter. His power and plate discipline are advanced. 

“When you sit down and you try to write a lineup with all the positions and a DH, there are going to be a couple, three good players who aren’t going to get in that lineup every day,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said during the fall. “For me, personally, it’s hard, but at the same time it’s the problem that you want.” 

Van Horn indicated this year’s team could score more than last year’s team that averaged nearly eight runs per game. Arkansas’ 2022 lineup has power, but can also bunt and run the bases. 

The Razorbacks might slug their way to some wins even if their pitchers have a letdown. 

“I really believe with this team we’re going to score runs,” Van Horn said in the fall. “Last year we played a bunch of one- and two-run games. I’m sure we’ll play our share this year because everybody else will be good as well, but I do feel like we’ll have some opportunities to get some leads.” 

If Stovall sticks at first base, where he worked out for the first time in the fall, it likely means Slavens will start in right field. Wallace, a right fielder as a freshman last year, will move to his natural position at third. 

Moore and Battles are one of the nation’s best middle-infield tandems, and Turner is solid behind the plate. 

The Razorbacks have question marks, but so do other teams. It’s the nature of college baseball. 

Arkansas has assembled one of the deepest rosters in 20 years under Van Horn, and that’s saying something. It is a roster that should have the capability to withstand the loss of a great player. 


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