Fall Report: Arkansas

Fall Report

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Arkansas is still in the process of settling into its spectacular brand-new J.B. & Johnelle Hunt Family Baseball Development Center, a 49,000 square-foot palace situated beyond the right-field fence at Baum-Walker Stadium. In head coach Dave Van Horn’s spacious top-floor corner office overlooking the field, five trophies are lined up on the floor underneath a large wall-mounted television, and four or five more trophies sit casually on a coffee table to the right of Van Horn’s desk. On that table, two trophies stand taller than the rest: the 2021 SEC regular-season championship trophy, and the 2021 SEC tournament championship trophy.

Just down the hall in pitching coach Matt Hobbs’ office, a large autographed photo of 2021 Golden Spikes Award winner Kevin Kopps hangs prominently on the wall behind Hobbs’ desk.

The various pieces of memorabilia serve as reminders of the incredible season that unfolded for Arkansas last spring — one of the greatest regular seasons any team has had in the 21st century. The Hogs won all 14 of their regular-season weekends despite facing the strongest schedule in the country. They went 20-4 against teams that went on to host regionals, with 17 of those wins coming away from Baum-Walker. But the memorabilia also serves as a bittersweet reminder of what could have been. For all the 2021 Razorbacks accomplished, they fell short of the College World Series, getting toppled by an extremely good and extremely hot NC State team in super regionals.

“I think the way it ended and the sadness after such a great season, there are some guys running around here right now that, they’ve got a bitter taste in their mouth,” Van Horn said. “And I don’t have to bring it up. I can tell you this: I thought about maybe putting a picture of North Carolina State dog-piling on our field around here. And then I thought to myself, we’re past that. We’re better than that, we don’t need to be motivated like that.

“But we did show a video of our whole season, the very first meeting in that room, and it started from the tournament and Arlington where we won, and won, and won, and won, and the whole year — just showed highlights, and then it got to the regional and everybody was getting into it.

“And then when it got to the super regional, the guys got quiet because they knew what was going to happen. We win the first game and score all of those runs, because they put in all their second-stringers, and I think they were wondering how it was going to end. The way it ended was North Carolina state dog-piling on our field. And then it went black. It was pretty cool. And then we just turned the light on, and then I didn’t say nothin’. And then I just said, ‘Hey, welcome back. And to all you new guys, I appreciate you picking Arkansas.’ And we moved on. Didn’t even talk about it.”

In the college baseball world, fall is the time to turn the page, start fresh and move forward, regardless of whether the previous spring ended with a last-place finish, a heart-breaking defeat one win shy of Omaha, or a national title. In that respect, Arkansas is no different from any other program in college baseball. But what separates the Hogs from most other programs is that they have the talent to make a run at championships just about every year — and that’s particularly the case heading into 2022. This Arkansas club is simply loaded, and it will enter the season as one of the favorites to win it all next June. And sure, talking about national titles in October can feel a little silly — but sky-high expectations come with the territory at a place like Arkansas. And those expectations certainly feel warranted when it comes to these Hogs.

For starters, Arkansas brings back one of the very best middle-infield duos in the country in second baseman Robert Moore and shortstop Jalen Battles. Moore is the straw that stirs the drink, the energizer and the emotional leader, but also an All-America talent with exquisite instincts and actions at the keystone, a switch-hitter who hits for power (16 HR last year) and should improve upon last year’s .283 batting average. He drew 41 walks but also struck out 51 times last spring, and Van Horn said his approach this fall has been exceptional, and he’s hardly ever chased out of the zone.

Battles has been sidelined all fall after a cleanup surgery on his non-throwing shoulder, but he’s well established as one of the nation’s premier defensive shortstops, and he turned down significant overtures from pro clubs to spend another year in Fayetteville.

So did Brady Slavens, who led the team with a .284 average last spring to go along with 14 homers and 63 RBIs after transferring in from the JUCO ranks. The 6-foot-3, 195-pound Slavens has serious lefthanded juice and showed the ability to drive the ball with authority to all fields in back-to-back Fall World Series scrimmages I attended last Sunday and Monday. Getting him back for another year was a huge boost to the middle of the lineup, whether he plays first base or DH.

The fourth returning regular has a chance to be the biggest star of them all: sophomore Cayden Wallace, who hit .279/.369/.500 with 14 homers to earn Freshman All-America honors last spring, then followed it up with an even stronger summer with wood bats in the Cape Cod League (.290/.352/.468). Scouts are smitten with Wallace’s athleticism, physicality, power potential, and defensive value, and he could wind up as a top-10 overall pick as a draft-eligible sophomore if he performs up to his capabilities. He showed off a maturing offensive approach in Sunday’s scrimmage, going the other way on a slider for a double into the right-field corner and then drawing two walks. A right fielder last year, Wallace has played third base this fall, and he looks great at the position, showing off excellent range and plus arm strength. He made a particularly smooth and impressive play in Monday’s scrimmage, ranging far into the hole to his left and throwing a strike to first base on the run — a play that very few college third basemen make.

“Wallace is a big kid but he has some quickness to him, he can run, he’s got some range,” Van Horn said. “He’s a very tooled-up, athletic, good person. He’s a good person — he works. And he is the kind of guy you want on your team. He’s the kind of guy you want in your locker room.”

The Hogs knew they had some holes to fill around that returning core four, and they reinforced the roster through the transfer market as well as any team in the country. The top priority was replacing stalwart Casey Opitz behind the plate, and Arkansas scored big by landing Michael Turner from Kent State. A four-year starter for the Golden Flashes, Turner has a long track record of hitting for average and controlling the strike zone — he has more walks than strikeouts in his career. He has a compact line-drive swing from the left side, which he put on display with three liner singles to right and center field as well as a ringing double to right-center in the two scrimmages I caught. And just as importantly, he looks great as a receiver and blocker, and he showed off premium arm strength with a 1.83 pop time to throw out a base stealer.

Arkansas catcher Michael Turner barrels one up (Aaron Fitt)

“Turner has been an outstanding get for us. He’s a really tough out of the plate, now, and he’s a good receiver,” Van Horn said. “He’ll hit three- or four-hole for this team, I think, and we’ve got some good hitters — because he’s a tough out, and he’s hit everywhere he’s been. He’s been something else.”

Oklahoma transfer Jace Bohrofen and Wake Forest transfer Chris Lanzilli will really solidify an Arkansas outfield that lost star Christian Franklin. Bohrofen had a modest freshman year at Oklahoma (.252/.347/.408), but he was one of the breakout stars of the summer in the Cape League, hitting .313 with five homers and 14 extra-base hits in 99 at-bats to earn all-star honors. The Razorbacks had recruited him out of high school, and they quickly pounced when he entered the transfer portal — Van Horn called it “a no-brainer.” Physical and athletic at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, Bohrofen has a relaxed open stance from the left side and can drive the ball to all fields, with good feel for his barrel and power potential. He played center field when I was in Fayetteville, but he’s a fringe-average runner who fits best on a corner.

Lanzilli was one of the most accomplished players in the transfer portal this summer, a rare proven All-American (in 2019, when he hit .347/.409/.620 with 16 homers) with four years of everyday experience for the Deacs. The shortened 2020 season and abbreviated five-round draft hurt him, as he went unselected and then slumped to a .259/.325/.481 line this past spring, though he still hit 11 homers. His righthanded power has never been in doubt, and he has really impressed Van Horn this fall, hitting missiles with regularity. He was robbed of a home run by a stiff wind blowing in on Sunday, squaring up a rocket to dead-center that exited the bat at 110 mph, and he ripped a ground-rule double to left on Monday. Van Horn said Lanzilli has also more than held his own defensively in left field, and he could wind up starting there or at DH.

Fifth-year senior Braydon Webb also returns to the outfield mix, and his excellent speed and defensive instincts likely give him the inside track on the center-field job if he can hit enough to at least turn the lineup over from the bottom. 3YR FR Zack Gregory could also be a factor in the outfield, after logging 102 at-bats last spring. The lefthanded hitter has surprising pop in his compact 5-foot-10 frame, which he showed off last Monday by turning around a 96 mph Jaxon Wiggins fastball for a towering homer into the balcony outside Van Horn’s office beyond the right field fence (106 mph exit velocity). Freshman Kendall Diggs, a thick, strong and athletic 6-foot, 200-pound lefthanded hitter with a Lenny Harris look to him, also impressed with his ability to make hard contact; he has a hitterish presence in the box and a bright future. The Hogs want him to tone up his body a bit, but he’s athletic enough to hold his own in an outfield corner or see action at DH or first base. He’s a nice building block for the future who should see plenty of at-bats as a freshman too.

But the marquee freshman is infielder Peyton Stovall, one of the top recruits in college baseball this season. According to published reports, Stovall turned down offers in excess of $2 million dollars out of high school in Haughton, La., in order to honor his commitment to Arkansas — and he sure looked like a seven-figure talent in my visit to Fayetteville. With a quiet setup and a simple, quick and compact stroke from the left side, Stovall is a line-drive machine who ripped a pair of doubles down the right-field line Sunday and then homered to center field on a 95 mph Wiggins fastball on Monday. But he’s also uncannily disciplined for his age — Van Horn raved about his control of the strike zone, which could make him a perfect leadoff man, which is where he batted for the white squad in the two scrimmages I saw. He’s a comfortable defender at either second base or first, and his overall skill set reminded me of former Baylor star and current Los Angeles Dodgers All-Star Max Muncy, who has a similar build and defensive profile. On this team, with Moore entrenched at second, Stovall likely fits best at first base in year one.

Arkansas blue-chip freshman Peyton Stovall points to the dugout after ripping a double (Aaron Fitt)

Several other newcomers add to Arkansas’ excellent depth in the position player group. Freshman Max Soliz Jr. is a physical catcher/corner outfielder with power potential from the right side and promising receiving and throwing ability behind the plate, though he needs to improve his blocking. For now, he’ll provide some insurance at that position behind Turner and hard-nosed sophomore Dylan Leach, who has mounted a nice push for playing time. Houston transfer Lleyton Pinckney gives Arkansas a fourth catching option or a righty thumper at DH or off the bench. Freshmen Drake Varnado and Jude Putz are both capable defenders at shortstop who will back up Battles and compete to take over the starting job next year. So the Hogs are well stocked around the diamond, giving them some peace of mind in case injuries should strike the projected starters.

Power Arms Abound As usual

And now to address the elephant in the room: yes, Kevin Kopps had a season for the ages last spring, and yes, the Hogs will miss him dearly. Kopps and lefthander Patrick Wicklander (who signed as an eighth-round pick) were the two linchpins of last year’s staff, and their departures leave Arkansas bereft of proven stars on the mound.

But of course, a year ago neither Kopps nor Wicklander was a proven star either, and then they blossomed into stars in 2021. The Hogs have no shortage of talented pitchers who are entirely capable of similar star turns in 2022.

First of all, there’s righthander Peyton Pallette, who showed flashes of brilliance in an up-and-down campaign that was cut short by injury last spring. But Pallette avoided surgery and spent the summer and fall rehabbing, and he’s back on the mound now. I watched him throw a bullpen session last Monday, and his stuff was very good: 93-94 mph fastball and a tight breaking ball that spun around 3000 rpm. The last time I saw him in April at South Carolina, he sat 94-95 and spun his curveball up to 3440 rpm, which is insane, even in the majors. He’s simply a freak, a potential top 10 pick if he stays healthy and performs up to his potential.

Righthander Jaxon Wiggins also has big-time stuff, with a 93-96 fastball that bumped 97 a couple of times in my visit last week, along with a 78-80 power curveball that flashed plus, a cutter at 86-89 that can be an out pitch, and an 87-88 changeup that served as the putaway pitch on one strikeout. But he also gave up four runs — on Gregory’s three-run homer and Stovall’s solo shot, both on fastballs down the middle — and issued three walks in 2.2 innings, and he needs to prove he has the command to hold down a rotation job. Van Horn said his control has been better than that for most of the fall, and it’s reasonable to expect him to take a significant step forward as a sophomore, after he posted a 5.09 ERA and a 28-14 K-BB mark in 23 innings as a freshman.

4YR JR Connor Noland has the most starting experience on the staff, having made 19 starts as a true freshman in 2019 and three more in the shortened 2020 campaign. A former two-sport athlete for Arkansas, Noland had gained a lot of weight for football earlier in his career, but now that he’s focusing only on baseball he’s gotten his body into great pitching shape, and he capped his strong fall with four shutout innings in the fall world series opener last Saturday.

“He’s had a good fall and thrown a lot of strikes with a heavy fastball at 91-92,” Van Horn said. “His breaking ball’s always been good, he pitches off that fastball, and he can locate. He’s just been really good this fall. When he’s on, he’s gonna get you some ground balls, and some strikeouts.”

Arkansas freshman lefty Hagen Smith (Aaron Fitt)

The fourth top contender for a starting job is true freshman Hagen Smith, the other crown jewel of this year’s recruiting class along with Stovall. Hobbs and Van Horn couldn’t stop raving about Smith, and I saw why in Monday’s scrimmage, when he breezed through three scoreless innings. A loose, athletic low three-quarters lefthander with advanced feel for pitching, Smith carved up the zone at 91-93 mph with heavy sink, a sharp slider at 79-82 that he commands very well, and a very good 83-86 changeup with fade and sink that he’ll throw against lefties as well as righties. Though he’s only a freshman and he has yet to proven himself at the D-I level, Smith might have the best combination of stuff and pitchability on the entire staff, and he’s going to be a big star — sooner rather than later. And his high school track record in Texas is loud: he threw seven no-hitters in his career at Bullard High School.

“He’s his mature for his age, he’s physical for his age. He throws strikes, he’s quick to the plate,” Van Horn said. “He doesn’t say a whole lot. He’s not a big mouth. He just works. He’s strong. And he’s the youngest guy on my team. He’s what you’re looking for, that’s for sure.”

Fellow freshman Nick Moten is also capable of starting and likely has a bright future in the rotation at some point, but he might fit best on this year’s staff as a back-end piece with shutdown stuff. An athletic and strong 6-foot-1, 210-pound righty, Moten has a compact high three-quarters arm action that produced 92-95 mph gas in 1.2 scoreless innings last Monday, along with an 83-85 mph slider that flashed plus and a promising changeup at 86-89. Last Monday he struck out three and showed good composure by wriggling out of a second-and-third, no-outs jam unscathed to end the game and secure the win for his team. Van Horn said he’s even more electric in shorter stints — he sat right at 96 mph in a one-inning stint earlier in the fall, never dipping below that velocity.

Arkansas freshman righthander Nick Moten (Aaron Fitt)

Another freshman to keep an eye on is righty Jake Faherty, a lean and ultra-projectable 6-foot-3, 180-pounder with a whippy three-quarters arm action that produced 92-94 mph heat with good carry in Monday’s scrimmage, along with a tight slurve at 78-89 that spun in the 2600 rpm range. Wiry freshman Austin Ledbetter also has plenty of projection and should add velocity to a fastball that sat 89-90 last week. In two scoreless innings, he showed the makings of a four-pitch arsenal, and his best secondary pitch was a promising low-80s slider.  Strong-bodied freshman righty Brady Tygart was sidelined with a minor injury on my visit, but Van Horn said he’s had a couple outings this fall where he pounded 95 mph with a good breaking ball and feel for pitching.

Arkansas has no shortage of power-armed veterans and breakout candidates to fill out what should be a deep bullpen. Hulking righty Zebulon Vermillion is back for a fifth year, and he sat 91-93 with a quality slider and functional changeup last Monday. Physical, funky lefthander Zack Morris showed 92-96 mph heat from an over-the-top slot along with a solid 83-85 slider, a good 88-90 cutter that he uses liberally, and 78-79 curveball. Righty Mark Adamiak was 92-95 in his 2.1 inning appearance and flashed a swing-and-miss short power slider at 86-89 as well as a useful 88 mph changeup. When he stays in sync and repeats his delivery, he can be overpowering, as he showed by striking out five in the first two innings last Sunday before his command deserted him in the third.

Burly sidearm lefty Evan Taylor showed uncommon velocity for a low-slot southpaw, working at 92-93 with a putaway sweeping slider at 81-84 — and Van Horn said he’s popped 95 mph “a lot”. He will eat up lefthanded hitters out of the pen. Veteran righty Elijah Trest was 91-94 with a decent 80-82 slider and 86-89 changeup. Sophomore Gabriel Starks was 91-95 with explosive riding life from a high slot, an excellent changeup at 80-81 that he used as an out pitch against righties as well as lefties, and a good power slider at 84-88 with tight spin in the 2600s. 3YR SO righty Evan Gray was 91-93 from a funky over-the-top delivery with a hard diving splitter at 79-81 that is a real out pitch and an 83-84 slider that was decent at times.

Swingman Kole Ramage has loads of experience and can command the zone with an 89-90 fastball from a high slot, a deceptive fading and sinking changeup at 80-81 and a functional slider at 82-83. Six-foot-6 righty Heston Tole, a strike-throwing slider specialist with a 90-91 fastball, didn’t appear in those two scrimmages, but the Hogs are high on his pitchability and competitiveness as well. Lefty Nick Griffin is working his way back from injury, and the Razorbacks are very excited about his potential.

In sum, depth won’t be an issue for this staff. The Hogs just need to develop some trustworthy anchor pieces, and the coaching staff’s track record suggests that won’t be a problem. As the pitching gels, there could a few more bumps in the road for this club than there were in 2021, but this team’s upside is simply sky-high.

“This team has a lot of veterans, they know how to play. And if we get our pitching staff shored up, we’re gonna have a really good team,” Van Horn said. “And can’t wait. The guys will be ready to play, after the way we finished. They’ve got some unfinished business.”


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