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.
Arkansas infield play up to lofty '22 standard
Arkansas' Peyton Stovall (10) celebrates after John Bolton (9) completes a double play by tagging Tennessee's Kavares Tears at second base during a game Saturday, April 15, 2023, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas’ infielders set the program’s gold standard defensively in 2022.
But not even last year’s talented infield that included high-round draft picks Robert Moore, Jalen Battles and Cayden Wallace fielded as consistently or turned double plays as often as this year’s group has since SEC play began.
The third-ranked Razorbacks enter their series against No. 7 South Carolina this week leading the SEC in double plays turned (24) and second in fielding (.984) in 24 conference games.
Arkansas' primary starting infielders — first baseman Brady Slavens, second baseman Peyton Stovall, third baseman Caleb Cali and shortstop John Bolton — have a combined .983 fielding percentage in SEC play.
The Razorbacks fielded .978 and turned 24 double plays in 30 SEC games last year. The primary infielders — Stovall at first base, Moore at second base, Wallace at third base and Battles at shortstop — had a combined .970 fielding percentage in SEC games.
Wallace, Battles and Moore routinely wowed with their athleticism and range, which might have resulted in some errors. They were often able to get to balls most other fielders simply could not.
“I think last year's infield was probably one of the best ones that has ever happened on the dirt at the college level,” said Stovall, the only primary starting infielder both years. “You had a guy at third base who was extremely talented and he could play anywhere on the field with Wallace. And then you had a guy like Jalen who was really athletically gifted. And then of course Robert had one of the best gloves I’ve ever seen.
“This year I feel like if it's routine, we're going to make it and then you're going to make your flashy plays here and there.”
Using SEC-only stats as a baseline to compare the starting infielders — Cali did not win the starting job at third base until SEC play began in March — the Razorbacks’ defensive play has not fallen off statistically.
Middle infielders Moore (.992) and Battles (.945) had a combined fielding percentage of .969 in SEC play last season. Moore, who was the Division I Gold Glove Award winner, was part of 22 double plays and Battles was part of 17.
With six games remaining, Stovall (.981) and shortstop John Bolton (.963) have a combined SEC fielding percentage of .973. Stovall has been part of 16 double plays and Bolton 15.
Slavens has a perfect fielding percentage at first base, where Stovall was .994 while playing a new position last year.
Cali has a .965 fielding percentage at third. Wallace fielded .920 there in SEC games.
“These guys have worked hard on it,” Arkansas pitching coach Matt Hobbs said. “I think we all as coaches were looking at it like, ‘This is going to be an issue,’ because of what we had lost, not realizing what we had.
“It looks different than last year’s team, but the defensive metrics aren’t a ton different.”
Hobbs indicated that a difference in pitching has allowed this year’s infield to showcase its double-play ability. With fewer high-strikeout pitchers, more balls are in play.
In 67 games last season, Arkansas had 539 balls on the ground for an average of 8.04 per game, Hobbs said. There have been 486 through 48 games this year for an average of 10.13 per game.
“So there's just more balls in play and more opportunities for them to turn more double plays,” Hobbs said.
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Bolton mishandled some double-play balls early in the year but has become more sure handed as the season progressed.
“If I’m not playing with 100% confidence, I’m obviously not at my best,” Bolton said. “This past weekend [at Mississippi State] I was having fun, I was playing with confidence and any ball that was coming, I was totally confident I was going to get the out. I think [earlier in the year] I kind of got in my head a little bit, just feeling the pressure.”
The infield has been solid for several weeks, and noticeably stronger after Cali became the every-day third baseman. Cali, who Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said has increased his range “a step or so” as a starter, has teamed with Bolton to create a strong left side.
“I’ve seen it in practice where we played awfully well,” Van Horn said of the infield. “I’m just glad they’re making plays in the game because that’s when it counts.”
Hobbs credited team depth with good infield play. While Slavens, Stovall, Bolton and Cali have played the majority of the SEC games at their positions, others have contributed, too.
Stovall has not played since April 29 due to a shoulder injury. Peyton Holt filled in for him at Mississippi State last weekend and did not commit an error. He also contributed to a double play.
“You can insert a Peyton Holt when Stovall is not playing and you don’t lose a ton defensively,” Hobbs said. “And I think Stovall being a really good second baseman has been a big part of this. He’s an excellent second baseman.
“[Stovall] has really good range and he gets to a lot of balls. John Bolton has just kind of solidified that shortstop position all year, for the most part. He’s been very steady over there at short."
Hobbs said all of the infielders are consistent.
“Like we hit the ball to John Bolton and it gets in his glove you're out at first base," Hobbs said. "Same thing with Peyton and same thing with Caleb. Then Brady is like a vacuum cleaner.”
Stovall said he learned lessons observing Moore and Battles in the middle infield last season that he and Bolton have been able to apply.
“That unspoken chemistry that Robert and Jalen had, I kind of learned from that,” Stovall said. “I think me and John, we have the same thing going.”
Bolton and Stovall both pointed toward the final out of the March 17-19 series against Auburn as a play that displayed that chemistry.
As Stovall charged a ground ball to his right on the other side of the second base, Bolton crossed in front of him and raced toward the bag. Stovall flipped the ball to Bolton for a force out that ended a 5-0 victory.
Bolton's instincts were to run to second when he realized Stovall would have a tough throw to first base.
“We just kind of looked at each other and started laughing,” Bolton said. “We didn’t have to say anything [during the play]; it just happened.”
Chemistry has grown between other positions on the infield. Third base was a rotating door until Cali started his first SEC game March 24 at LSU. He has started every SEC game there since.
“He’s been playing with confidence lately, and when that guy is playing with confidence, he's as good as anybody,” Bolton said. “Having him step up lately has definitely been huge.”
The players credit the work by director of video and scouting Zach Barr as a contributor to the good infield play. Barr’s reports inform the coaches’ decisions on defensive alignment.
In the final game against Alabama, Cali barely had to move on multiple balls that were pulled toward third base. Stovall robbed multiple Ole Miss left-handed hitters the following week when he was shifted toward shallow right field.
“In that Texas A&M series there were a couple of hitters that were pull-happy righties and I thought I was in the [right place],” Bolton said. “And then I looked in the dugout and Coach Van Horn and Zach Barr are telling me to move even more. I’m like, ‘OK,’ and the ball was hit right at me. They definitely know their stuff and they definitely put us in a good position.”
Hobbs indicated the Razorbacks would not be on a six-game SEC winning streak without the parts working together to form solid defensive play.
"We might win the [Mississippi State] series, but we certainly don't sweep it unless Peyton Holt, John Bolton, Caleb Cali and Brady Slavens play that kind of infield defense," Hobbs said. "If you were just looking at the series and compare us to Mississippi State around the diamond, we just made more plays. That doesn't mean our players are better or their players are bad — we just made more defensive plays.
"It makes you feel really good to be able to say that we're playing that kind of defense. That's a huge lift for the team to be able to play defense like that."
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