Arkansas Enters 2018 With High Expectations

Dave Van Horn returned to work Jan. 2 following his holiday break expecting Baum Stadium to be mostly empty. Classes wouldn’t resume at Arkansas for two more weeks, but when the longtime Razorbacks coach looked in the locker room, he found about half the team was already back in Fayetteville, hanging out and preparing for the spring.

The Razorbacks’ early return caught Van Horn off guard but is indicative of their mindset entering 2018. Arkansas is eager to get to work in 2018 in part because it is a team with unfinished business to settle. It starts with righthander Blaine Knight and catcher Grant Koch, who are two of the team’s biggest stars, but who are also still proving themselves as pro prospects.

The Razorbacks clubhouse is filled with players like them – future pros, possibly even productive big leaguers, but few true blue-chip prospects. It is a program where development and a strong, quiet work ethic are points of pride. Of the 13 former Arkansas players on big league rosters in 2017, only two were first-round picks. Even Andrew Benintendi, the highest drafted Razorback in 30 years at seventh overall in 2015, was little known before his breakout Player of the Year campaign that spring.

Van Horn believes a few things help his players outperform their draft position. One is that the skills the Arkansas coaching staff emphasize – plate discipline, strike throwing, playing clean baseball – translate well to pro ball, as does the work ethic the players develop in college.

“They’ve learned how to fight their way through the minor leagues,” Van Horn said. “They know how to prove it year in and year out. The biggest compliment I get, and we talk about it all the time, is scouts come through here and even cross checkers and GMs have told us, our players, they’re prepared for the minor leagues.”

Those same traits will serve Arkansas well this year. The Razorbacks enter this spring as the favorites in the Southeastern Conference West Division and ranked No. 4 in the Preseason Top 25, their highest preseason ranking since they entered 2013 ranked No. 3. But the Razorbacks know they have a lot to prove. After reaching the 2015 College World Series with Benintendi leading the way, Arkansas collapsed in 2016, the freshman season for this year’s junior class. It went 26-29 and missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001. It was the worst season of Van Horn’s 14-year tenure at his alma mater.

Arkansas came storming back in 2017. It went 45-19 and hosted a regional for the first time since 2010. Arkansas’ season came to a tough end in that regional, however, as it lost a pair of one-run games to Missouri State. It wasn’t the end the Razorbacks wanted, and while they showed 2016 was just a hiccup for the program, it left them hungry for more.

“The biggest part about last year was eliminating that freshman year that we had,” Koch said. “How it ended last year, that’s even more motivation going into this year. I think we put ourselves in good position coming into this year.”

Blaine Knight was one of last spring’s biggest breakout draft prospects. After going 2-1, 2.98 in a swingman role as a freshman, he won the job of Opening Day starter and quickly proved himself as a Friday starter. He generated plenty of buzz as a draft-eligible sophomore as his strong start carried into SEC play.

By the time Arkansas’ season ended with its loss to Missouri State in the regional final, Van Horn figured Knight’s college career was also over. He was 8-4, 3.28 with 96 strikeouts and 20 walks in 90.2 innings, ranked No. 87 on the BA500 and figured to be picked in the top three rounds.

Arkansas held its season-ending meetings June 7, a week before the draft began. As he does every year, Van Horn first addressed the whole team before dismissing the seniors and players who expected to head to pro ball. Knight, Van Horn noted, remained seated as the coach spoke to the returners about 2018. Knight then told Van Horn in his exit interview that he wouldn’t budge on the signing bonus he wanted and that if no team would meet his number, he wanted to return to school.

True to his word, Knight held to his number. Multiple teams checked in with him early in the draft, but none offered a large enough bonus to sway the righthander. Throughout the draft, he remained in contact with pitching coach Wes Johnson, who became increasingly optimistic about his return as the draft continued.

“I remember calling coach (Van Horn) and telling him I think we’re going to get him back,” Johnson said. “Coach was like, ‘What?’ Blaine’s just that way. He’s so competitive. Ultra-competitive. I think he was a little upset. He was like, I’m going to come back and show them that I’m worth it.”

While Knight has his flaws as a prospect – he has a slender build at a listed 6-foot3, 165 pounds, and often lacked a consistent third pitch last spring – many teams were surprised to see him continue to go unpicked. Eventually, the Rangers selected Knight in the 29th round, but by then he had decided he wouldn’t sign. Nevertheless, Van Horn continued to sweat up until the signing deadline in July. Shortly before the deadline, he called Knight, who was fishing while on vacation with his family. Only after Knight again told him he was coming back to school did Van Horn allow himself to relax.

“He said, ‘Coach, don’t worry about anything, I’m coming back,’” Van Horn said. “And that’s when I truly believed we were going to get him.”

Knight said going through the draft was a “great experience” and he knows what to expect this year when he does it again.

“My decision to come back was talking with my parents, my family, talking with the coaches, looking at this year, how this year should pan out,” Knight said. “There was some stuff in the draft that didn’t go my way. Once that happened, it wasn’t a hard decision to come back.”

Knight didn’t pitch over the summer and instead focused on getting stronger and increasing his stamina. He has a slender build and he threw more than six innings in just four of his 16 starts last year. That was a big improvement on his freshman year, however, when he said he could only maintain his best stuff for a couple innings before he lost velocity. There were times last year that Knight held his stuff into the seventh or eighth inning, which he hopes to make the norm this spring.

“This year, I look forward to it being about the same or better than it was last year,” he said. “I plan on holding my velocity in the mid 90s until the ninth inning. I think that’s what it takes to be successful starting pitcher in college and the next level, you’ve got to be able to hold your velocity and your stuff.”

Knight’s best secondary pitch is a hard breaking ball that he calls a cutter to remind himself to stay behind the ball, but moves like a slider. The combination of Knight’s fastball and slider and his above-average control has often been enough for him as an amateur, but he also throws a curveball and is at his best when he can also consistently work in his changeup.

Developing his changeup was Knight’s primary focus when he was on the mound this fall. Johnson made him throw about 60 percent changeups in his outings to get him more comfortable with the pitch.

“For us, the changeup was huge,” Johnson said. “If you look at his best outings last year, in the best three outings he was landing the changeup 60 percent of the time. The outings that weren’t his best, that thing was almost nonexistent.”

Knight was voted a Preseason All-American by major league scouting directors and he is just the start of Arkansas’ deep staff. Redshirt sophomore righthander Isaiah Campbell has premier stuff and is ready to get back in action this spring after missing last year due to bone spurs in his right elbow. Listed at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, he has ideal physicality and the powerful fastball to match. It sits in the mid 90s now, topping out at 97 mph, and Johnson believes Campbell will eventually throw 100 mph.

Campbell is unlikely to hit triple digits this spring, however. Johnson is known for helping pitchers add velocity, but he spent this fall working with Campbell on his changeup and curveball and the finer points of pitching.

“For us, we need this guy to go seven (innings),” Johnson said. “So for us the way you’ll see that is we’re going to have to have those two pitches be there the majority of the time. For me, his next jump is the fastball and the breaking ball, not only keeping that stuff but the command of that stuff.”

Beyond the duo of Knight and Campbell at the front of the rotation, Arkansas is excited about the potential of righthander Jake Reindl and lefthanders Matt Cronin, Evan Lee and Kacey Murphy. Freshmen righthanders Bonnin, Caleb Bolden, Jackson Rutledge and Zebulon Vermillion have impressive potential and only lengthen the staff further.

“I think it’s going to be really, really deep and I think our rotation is really, really solid,” Koch said. “Overall, it’s really deep and I think we have a lot of ways to win games from a pitching standpoint.”

But Arkansas is not a one-dimensional team. The Razorbacks last year ranked 27th in the country in ERA (3.61), 27th in runs (422) and 38th in fielding percentage (.977), making them one of just two SEC schools to rank in the top 40 nationally in all three categories (Louisiana State was the other). And nearly all of Arkansas’ lineup is returning this year.

The Razorbacks are especially strong up the middle. Dominic Fletcher returns in center field after hitting .291/.356/.495 with 12 home runs in an All-Freshman season. Shortstop Jax Biggers batted .338/.423/.498 to lead Arkansas in hitting last year as a sophomore and will again pair with fifth-year senior second baseman Carson Shaddy to form the double-play combination.

At the heart of it all will again be Koch. Slowed during his freshman season by an arm injury he suffered in high school, he broke out as a sophomore and hit .264/.358/.498 with 13 home runs and threw out 60 percent of would-be base stealers.

That performance earned him a spot on the Collegiate National Team, where he continued his strong performance. He led Team USA in batting with a line of .372/.500/.535.

Koch said it was an educational summer, as he learned from his teammates and coaches, as well as by observing Team USA’s international opponents and their varying styles of play.

“It was constant learning for me and it went by super fast,” Koch said. “It was one of the coolest things I’ve done baseball-wise so far.”

Koch stands out most for his offensive production, but he provides more than a powerful bat in the middle of the lineup to the Razorbacks. He is a team captain and has developed such a strong report with Arkansas’ pitchers and Johnson that he is responsible for calling his own game.

Johnson doesn’t routinely have catchers call their own games, but Koch is one of a handful during his career to whom he has given the responsibility.

“Grant and I watch a lot of video together, we watch and study hitters,” Johnson said. “Grant and I talk a lot between innings. We’re talking about how we’re going to attack hitters and what adjustments going to make.”

Despite Koch’s performance over the past year, scouts still have questions about his athleticism and how it will translate to playing behind the plate and facing premier pitchers every night. He and the rest of the Razorbacks’ hitters will have a chance to prove themselves this spring, but after a few years in Fayetteville, they be ready to fight their way through the minor leagues, no matter where they are drafted.

“A lot of the guys over the years have had to battle their way through,” Van Horn said. “They learn a lot about the grind of baseball here. The SEC gets you prepared to get through the minor leagues.”

The journey to Omaha from Fayetteville is longer than the 421 miles that separate Baum Stadium from TD Ameritrade Park. Arkansas has to replace first baseman Chad Spanberger, who hit 20 home runs a year ago, and righthander Trevor Stephan, who anchored the rotation along with Knight. Campbell and McKinney must prove they can handle significant roles after their surgeries. The schedule looks unrelenting at times and the SEC is as strong as ever, with some longtime observers believing the conference is as deep as it has been in years.

The Razorbacks are built for this, however. Senior Luke Bonfield will move to first to cover for Spanberger and freshman outfielder Heston Kjerstad looks to be ready to step right into the lineup, with other exciting young hitters ready to contribute. Arkansas’ depth on the mound is gives Johnson and Van Horn a plethora of options in any situation. The Razorbacks are one of the most complete teams in the country, capable of fighting through the rugged SEC West Division and successfully navigating a schedule seemingly designed to make them the No. 1 national seed.

The Razorbacks know what they are capable of and understand that the program’s sights are always trained on the CWS. This year may come with more hype, but the expectations are the same as ever and the Razorbacks know what they need to do to live up to them.

“Our goal is to go to Omaha and not only go to Omaha, but win it,” Koch said. “What comes with that, is you’ve got to do it every single day. You can’t take a day off. You’ve got to earn it. Nothing is given to you in this league. Success for us is earning it every single day. If we do that, I think it’ll fall into place and everything will work out the way it’s supposed to.”

If the Razorbacks reach their potential, they will have a chance to make history. The last five national champions all claimed the first title in their program’s history. Arkansas, for all its storied tradition under Van Horn and Norm DeBriyn, for all the big leaguers it has produced and for the exalted place Baum Stadium holds in the game, has never won a national title.

These Razorbacks, led by Knight and Koch, and guided by Van Horn’s steady hand, are eager to prove themselves and to write their own legacy in the program’s celebrated history. The road to Omaha is an arduous one, but it is one they are ready to take.

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