Arkansas Baseball: Five Questions to Answer Entering 2021
Arkansas is one of the most consistent power programs in the country. It has made six College World Series trips under Dave Van Horn, and in 2020, it was looking for its third consecutive CWS appearance after making the trek to Omaha in 2018 and 2019.
While we’ll never know how the 2020 season would have played out, despite some early hiccups like a five-game losing streak as February turned to March, Arkansas undoubtedly had the talent to make a third straight CWS appearance a reality.
These are five pressing questions about the Razorbacks as they try to keep momentum going into 2021.
Will the offense be less power-oriented in 2021?
According to the results of fall practice, though, the Razorbacks may not need to change anything about their philosophy.
“We had more home runs this fall than we did the last two falls,” Van Horn said. “We have athletic kids who can still leave the yard. They’re strong. So I still think the home run is going to be a big part of our offense.”
Fall practice is a small sample size on its own and some numbers might be meaningful while others are fool’s gold, but just looking at the roster, it’s clear that the potential does exist for this to be a team that does a lot of damage offensively. Maybe it’s asking too much for the lineup to produce a 20-homer player, but there’s little reason to doubt that it can be a lineup featuring a number of players who challenge to reach double figures.
Third-year sophomore outfielder Christian Franklin has the talent to be one of the most dynamic players in the sport and the power to put up a double-digit home run total. Fourth-year junior DH Matt Goodheart, one of the best pure hitters in the SEC, has also flashed power from time to time.
Second-year freshman Robert Moore has strength in his relatively slight frame, helping him hit a pair of homers last spring and in the Razorbacks’ fall World Series just a couple of weeks ago. Fourth-year junior outfielder Braydon Webb had just one home run last season, but he hit for power in junior college and hit two home runs during the fall World Series as well.
Several newcomers also figure to be part of the solution from a power standpoint. Junior college transfer third baseman Brady Slavens, who began his career at Wichita State, hit 14 home runs for Johnson County (Kan.) in 22 games last season. Shortstop Jalen Battles, a transfer from McLennan (Texas), projects to hit for some power as he continues to mature. Freshman Cayden Wallace, who played right field during the fall World Series, was one of the best hitters in the 2020 prep class and he slugged two home runs during the series.
More than anything else, perhaps, it’s important to note that Arkansas didn’t just discover how to hit for power when Kjerstad and Martin arrived on campus. Razorbacks teams hit for power before that pair arrived and the 2021 team will more than likely hit for power effectively as well. It just remains to be seen which hitters emerge to do the heavy lifting.
What will the rotation look like in 2021?
That’s a very open question and the staff is likely looking at a lot of different permutations for the weekend rotation.
Third-year sophomore righthander Connor Noland and third-year sophomore lefthander Patrick Wicklander went into the fall as incumbents, as both have started a significant number of games over the last two seasons. Experience does give them an inherent advantage, but at the same time, there are reasons one can’t just assume they’ll end up fronting the Arkansas rotation.
Wicklander started strong against Eastern Illinois and Gonzaga last season, but really struggled against Texas and South Alabama to round out the campaign and finished with a 6.32 ERA. Noland pitched extremely well last season to the tune of a 2.00 ERA, suggesting perhaps he was ready to be an ace, but he’s struggled through the fall and gave up 10 runs on 14 hits in five innings across two starts in the fall World Series. The performance was enough to concern Van Horn.
“Yeah, we’re concerned about it,” Van Horn said. “Our hitters have seen him a lot. Velocity was down a little bit. (With) the breaking ball, some good, some not so good, and they took advantage of everything. His last outing, he really struggled. He gave up a lot of hits in a couple of innings, and that was that. He knows what he needs to work on and we know where we need to get him. There’s a lot of competition here to get on the mound, and we feel good about our pitching.”
To that point, Van Horn spoke glowingly about the depth of arms on hand this fall. He and pitching coach Matt Hobbs have options that go well beyond the pitchers who have been in these roles before.
Fourth-year junior righthander Zebulon Vermillion was untouchable as a reliever last season, but this fall, he’s been working on getting stretched out to make a go of starting games. If he shows that he can do it, he has the stuff, including a mid-90s fastball, to be a frontline starting pitcher.
Fourth-year junior righthander Kole Ramage, fourth-year sophomore righthander Caleb Bolden and third-year sophomore lefthander Caden Monke will all be in the mix as well after showing well in the fall World Series.
Also not to be overlooked in the competition is fifth-year senior lefthander Lael Lockhart, a graduate transfer from Houston. His experience starting on Friday nights in a good conference can only help.
All of that is to say nothing of any newcomers who may emerge, of course. In the recent past, Arkansas has had little trouble finding a big-time arm or two at the front of the rotation, but it has often fallen one or two pitchers short in terms of depth. Going into 2021, there’s very little concern about quality depth, but competition will continue into the preseason to find which pitcher or pitchers are capable of starting on the weekends.
Who will man the middle infield positions?
It’s no real surprise, but coming out of the fall, Battles and Moore have the inside track on being the opening day middle infielders for the Razorbacks.
Moore played second base last season in deference to Martin, but has the skills to handle shortstop. Had the draft been a normal length rather than just five rounds, in fact, Battles may have been drafted and Moore could have ended up going into 2021 as the team’s shortstop.
Instead, Battles will man shortstop and Moore will stick at second for the time being, which gives Arkansas an extremely talented double-play combination that Van Horn is excited about.
“As far as Robert, at second or short, just playing up the middle, very, very athletic, very aggressive, quick hands. Like I said, he can transfer the ball from glove to hand on its way as good as any second baseman I’ve ever coached,” Van Horn said. “Then Jalen Battles, kind of the same type of guy, little different style, a little more longer-bodied kid, long arms, quick feet, really good arm. Jalen’s one of those guys (who) won’t show you his arm unless he has to.”
Both players played nearly error-free baseball throughout the fall, inspiring confidence that they can be an extremely solid middle infield duo. Combined with the offensive potential, which is high for both players, there’s a lot to be excited about with this pairing for the Razorbacks.
College Baseball Takeaways: Texas, Stanford Win Thrilling Openers
In an atmosphere befitting a series of that magnitude, the Longhorns claimed game 1 with a tight, 5-4 victory.
Who is a breakout candidate to watch in the lineup?
Fifth-year senior Cullen Smith is the name to watch here. After hitting .304/.427/.473 as a junior for East Tennessee State in 2019, Smith decided he wanted to take a crack at playing in the SEC and transferred to Arkansas, where he sat out the 2020 season.
So far, he’s proven himself at this level. He led the team in batting average and on-base percentage during the fall and shined in the fall World Series, going 7-for-20 over six games. He played first base during the series, but he also provides some flexibility, given his experience playing second and third base for ETSU.
“He did pretty well last fall for us, knowing he wasn’t going to be eligible in the spring,” Van Horn said. “He really worked hard in the weight room (with) Coach (Blaine) Kinsley, our strength coach, and led our team in a bunch of statistics this fall. Number one in batting average, on-base percentage. (He) hit for some power, he hit for average obviously, and he played everywhere.”
It’s hard to see what Smith has done to impress already and not think of the comparison to Trevor Ezell, who transferred from Southeast Missouri State in time for the 2019 season. Like Smith, Ezell hit a ton at his previous stop, but there were understandable questions about how he would handle facing better pitching.
Ezell went on to hit .329/.435/.561 in 2019 in his one season at Arkansas and played first base for the Hogs after, like Smith, primarily playing other positions on the infield before arriving in Fayetteville.
If Smith turns out to be that type of contributor for Arkansas in 2021, Van Horn and his staff will be beyond thrilled.
Who helped themselves in the fall?
Smith has to be on this list after further proving that he is ready for SEC competition. Van Horn also singled out the freshman Wallace for the way he came in and immediately began attacking every opportunity he had to make a statement, when so many other freshmen are content to take their time and ease into the program. Van Horn says they’ll find a way to get him into the lineup, whether it’s at third base, first base or right field.
Van Horn also liked what he saw from Lockhart, and mentioned after the fall World Series that he would have a lot of trust in Lockhart taking the ball and being able to give the team five innings each time out. And even though he had a slow start to the fall, Wicklander stepped up in his last couple of starts of the fall and left a good final impression.
A more off-the-radar answer is third-year sophomore lefthander Evan Taylor, who has a 9.00 ERA in just seven innings of work over two seasons. His stuff has taken a jump to where his fastball is now working into the mid 90s with a good breaking ball to complement that offering, and Van Horn described him as having earned a role moving forward.
When you consider that Arkansas knows what it’s going to get from the likes of Franklin, Goodheart and fourth-year junior catcher Casey Opitz in the lineup and they return a ton of experienced pitchers, the fact that many of the fall standouts are role players or newcomers bodes well for the depth of the Razorbacks’ roster come 2021.