Matt Jones is the editor of the Hawgs Sports Network. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Heisman Trophy. He has a bachelor's and master's degree in journalism from the University of Arkansas.
Razorbacks landed big fish in LHP Molina
Texas Tech pitcher Mason Molina during an NCAA baseball game against Michigan on Saturday, March 4, 2023, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke).
FAYETTEVILLE — The weekend rotation for Arkansas’ baseball team in 2024 might include two left-handers who have the potential to be Day 1 selections in the MLB Draft.
The Razorbacks were already set to return unanimous All-American Hagen Smith for his junior season. Then Texas Tech lefty Mason Molina joined the squad.
FutureStarsSeries.com ranks Smith the 12th-best prospect for next year’s draft. Molina is ranked 90th, but stands a good chance to improve his stock if he is successful for a season against SEC hitters.
Molina, 6-2 and 225 pounds, was one of the top pitchers on the transfer market this summer following a sophomore campaign when he recorded a 6-2 record with a 3.67 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in 83 1/3 innings. He struck out 108, walked 35 and held opponents to a .208 batting average against him.
Molina allowed 1 hit and struck out 10 in 6 innings during his final outing for the Red Raiders, a 3-2 victory over Connecticut on the first day of the NCAA regional at Gainesville, Fla., in June. It was one of four double-digit strikeout performances for the native of Southern California who has a low-90s fastball, low-80s slider and changeup, and curveball in the mid-70s.
“Adding Mason Molina like we did, I mean that’s a huge pickup no matter how you slice it,” Arkansas pitching coach Matt Hobbs said. “This is a guy that’s been an all-conference pitcher in the Big 12, who’s got tons of experience and been a starter pretty much his whole career.”
Molina said it was a difficult decision to leave Texas Tech, a perennial contender at the national level under long-time coach Tim Tadlock. The Red Raiders were one of three teams to offer him out of high school, along with UC Irvine and Oregon State.
He earned freshman all-conference honors in 2022 when he posted a 3.90 ERA and 71 strikeouts in 57 2/3 innings. He earned second-team All-Big 12 honors as a sophomore.
“All of those guys there, I love them to death,” Molina said of his Texas Tech teammates. “A couple of those guys are going to be in my wedding someday.
“Leaving those guys isn’t easy. The coaching staff, you build a relationship with them. Change is hard for everybody. It was a big decision, but at the end of the day I had to make it for myself, and I’m glad I did.”
His desire was to pitch in the SEC. He strongly considered three programs — Arkansas, Texas A&M and Georgia — and heard from many more.
“I think me having the kind of year I did last year kind of put me on the radar, in general, for everybody,” Molina said. “When I entered the portal, my phone was ringing for an hour-and-a-half straight, nonstop with about 60 different calls.”
Molina visited Fayetteville on July 17-18 and said he was quickly sold on the Razorbacks.
“On my visit here, everyone gives their pitch and during the middle of the meeting with Hobbs he calls up [strength and conditioning coach Hunter Bell] to show him something,” Molina said. “They basically came up with an initial plan in five seconds, and that didn’t happen anywhere else.
“It was cool that you call them up and two seconds later they were already working on a plan together. So that kind of showed me a peek in the door, and then getting here and being here, it’s been nonstop, all three of us kind of working together to try to get us to the place that we want to be.”
The Arkansas coaching staff’s attention detail and the integration of strength and pitch training has stood out to Molina.
“Everything is kind of connected and it’s all about transfer,” he said. “If what we’re doing in the weight room isn’t making it out on the field, there’s no point in doing it. That was what really impressed me is how well all of them work together, and that was just something that I didn’t feel like I had before.”
Molina was also impressed with Hobbs’ pitching development center inside Arkansas’ $27 million operations building, the Hunt Center. He said he previously had some technology-based learning, but not on the same scale.
“I’m a very visual person, so seeing the numbers and seeing stuff I can actively look at and be like, ‘OK, this is what I did and this is what I needed to do,’ that’s always been helpful,” said Molina, who added, “I think that was something I needed…to make the jumps that I wanted to make for next year.”
Hobbs can envision jumps in velocity and innings pitched, either of which could elevate his draft profile.
“Mason has ridiculously good stuff,” Hobbs said. “He’s got kind of a special fastball that he can throw at the top of the strike zone and get tons of swings and misses on. He’s got a really good feel for two breaking balls. His changeup is a pitch that is well above average. I think there’s more ceiling to him, too.
“I think he could pick up a couple miles an hour with a few things he does moving down the mound. Ultimately he’s got an unbelievable pitch max. He goes deep into games. He threw 83 innings last year and I think there’s more meat on the bone. I don’t think it’s crazy to think he could be a 100-inning type of pitcher.”
More from WholeHogSports: Pac-12 upheaval helps freshman to Arkansas
Molina had some connections to the Razorbacks’ program before transferring. Former Texas Tech catcher Hudson White also transferred to Arkansas this offseason, and Smith was Molina’s teammate while they pitched for the USA Collegiate National Team this summer in North Carolina.
“The entire experience at USA was really cool because I got to ask a bunch of those guys from all the different schools about what their programs were like,” Molina said. “I was on the fence about the portal for a little bit. Getting to talk to those guys and seeing what it was like at the other places kind of opened my eyes up to what I was missing out on a little bit. That was kind of what ended up swaying me to enter the portal.”
Landing a high-profile Division I starter like Molina had eluded Arkansas in previous years. The Razorbacks recruited the past two SEC pitchers of the year, Chase Dollander of Tennessee and Paul Skenes of LSU, before they transferred elsewhere in the league.
Molina was one of the most decorated pitcher transfers this year, along with the likes of right-handers Chase Burns (Tennessee to Wake Forest) and Luke Holman (Alabama to LSU).
“Anytime you have somebody you think can start for you, it’s really satisfying,” Hobbs said of landing a high-profile pitcher.
The Razorbacks begin fall practice next month, which will go a long way toward determining the starting rotation next year. Molina said he didn’t ask for any assurances.
“I told them, I said, ‘I don’t want anything guaranteed. If it ends up being a [starting] spot, it ends up being a spot. I just want to go where I’m needed and where you guys want me,’” Molina said.
Given his track record, that will likely be near the front of the line.
Have a comment on this story? Join the discussion or start a new one on the Forums.