With the 2021 season firmly in the rearview mirror, it’s time to look ahead to 2022 for the Arkansas baseball program.
The Super Regional loss to North Carolina State represented an early, jarring end to what just 48 hours earlier became the program’s first 50-win season in three decades. There’s no use rehashing the lurking deficiencies that Kevin Kopps alone might have masked for months.
Kopps, anointed as the first relief pitcher to ever win the Dick Howser Trophy, is off a solid start in his professional career in the Padres organization — even if some naysayers didn’t think he was even worth a Top 100 pick.
Yet, for as nasty as the sting of falling far short of a first national title is, Arkansas won’t be in any sort of decline. Dave Van Horn’s stubbornness might have elicited some naysayers as the Hogs’ championship aspirations perished, but it almost always wins on the recruiting trail.
The bounty gained on that trail in recent years means the Arkansas baseball team will be a Top 10 preseason team yet again in 2022.
Arkansas Baseball Bats Will Still Be Charged
Arkansas spent most of 2021 leading the wide world in homers. Sadly, that go-for-broke approach faltered at the worst time in the Super Regionals when Christian Franklin, Brady Slavens and Matt Goodheart scuffled.
Despite the nation-leading home run total, the Arkansas baseball lineup also ended up having no regular hitting higher than .284. That’s not unusual for a Van Horn team, but ultimately only Charlie Welch (.388 in 67 AB) consistently produced down the stretch.
The Hogs return Slavens and Robert Moore, the right side of an infield that combined to produce 30 home runs. There’s no question that their collective pop will be a centerpiece of Dave Van Horn’s lineup come springtime.
Jalen Battles‘ 43 RBIs and 18 combined extra-base hits largely offset his sub-.800 OPS. The rising junior shortstop has terrific range and arm strength, and natural middle infielder instincts.
All that infield experience could be amplified further if Cayden Wallace mans third base. Wallace predominantly covered ground in right field and played error-free ball, along with swatting 14 homers, but he started seven games at third as well.
The foursome of Slavens, Moore, Battles, and Wallace is plenty stout. Moore and Wallace are Nos. 8 and 12, respectively, on that aforementioned Top 50 draft prospects compilation.
The newcomer anticipated to deliver the biggest offensive help is Louisiana product Peyton Stovall.
A slew of Hog commitments bypassed college for pro dollars, including Texarkana product Braylon Bishop. When he fell to the 14th round, many anticipated Bishop would end up in Fayetteville after all, but he inked with Pittsburgh.
Stovall rated similarly to Bishop as a powerful middle infielder. Blessed with first-round skills and production (he hit over .500 with 14 homers as a senior), Stovall nonetheless didn’t find himself among the names called on Day 1.
That mild snub now benefits Arkansas for at least a couple of seasons.
Stovall joins Conway native Cameron Leach, a speedy outfielder with developing power, and angular shortstop Drake Varnado among the freshmen.
Razorback Portal Pickups and Power Pitchers
This highly-rated incoming class won’t have as much pressure thanks to the Hogs’ net gains in the transfer realm.
One big addition arrived at the end of July when Wake Forest outfielder Chris Lanzilli opted to finish his solid career in Fayetteville. Though he slumped for the Deacons a bit in 2021, Lanzilli clubbed 42 homers over three productive years.
Lanzilli joined another well-regarded outfielder, Jace Bohrofen, who was one of Oklahoma’s biggest recruiting prizes just a year ago. Bohrofen showed out in the rigorous Cape Cod League this summer with five homers, eight stolen bases, and a healthy .879 OPS.
With Casey Opitz’s stellar tenure over, the catching spot could remain unsettled. An improving Dylan Leach returns, and incoming transfers Michael Turner (Kent State) and Leyton Pinckney (Houston) both bring more power to the position.
On the mound, Arkansas won’t find any kind of suitable replacement for Kevin Kopps. The starting rotation, though, could be far more settled.
Jaxon Wiggins’ promising first year earned him a nod on a national all-star squad. Peyton Pallette was even better, checking in at No. 5 on the Baseball America Top 50 list. Both righties boast an incredible array of pitches, and plenty of heat and movement.
The mound signees that made it to campus include Brady Tygart, Vincent Trapani and lefty Hagen Smith, the jewel arm of the class after tossing five no-hitters and allowing just one run and six hits in 55 innings this spring.
It didn’t hurt that Zeb Vermillion and Connor Noland went undrafted, but even accounting for potential future defections, Van Horn has at least eight new arms onboard.
Arkansas Baseball Staff Stability Matters
Van Horn’s sustained excellence, as it does with the best head coaches, leads to assistants occasionally finding work elsewhere. Pitching coach Matt Hobbs and lead assistant Nate Thompson now qualify as veterans, though, with seven combined seasons under Van Horn at Arkansas.
Certainly, staffing changes happen and the best coaches attract attention from other suitors. Tony Vitello’s emergence as Tennessee’s leader is the most recent and prominent example of the Van Horn Coaching Tree bearing fruit.
Arkansas enters fall ball with no significant changes at the top, and with considerable, tested, and talented people in the fold. And that, as much as anything else, portends well for Arkansas baseball in 2021-22.
Feature image via Baumology (Rhett Hutchins)