FAYETTEVILLE — Jace Bohrofen is not a pitcher, but that didn’t stop him from discussing the arms on this year’s Arkansas baseball team during his exit meeting with Dave Van Horn a couple months ago.
Like everyone else who stopped by Fayetteville to watch the Razorbacks during fall ball, the junior outfielder was impressed by not only the talent of his teammates – whom he had to face every day at practice – but the sheer number of capable arms on the pitching staff.
D1Baseball has already claimed that Arkansas “might have college baseball’s best pitching staff” and the Razorbacks’ veteran coach isn’t shying away from the potential of his pitchers entering 2023.
“Well right now, it’s the best I’ve ever had,” Van Horn said. “Is that honest enough for you? That’s the way I feel about it. I mean, we’ve got depth. But what you see on paper, we’ve gotta get it done on the field.”
Ace Connor Noland is gone, as are key bullpen arms Evan Taylor, Zebulon Vermillion and Kole Ramage, but Arkansas returns nearly half of its innings from a staff that helped it reach the College World Series semifinals last season.
Not only are significant contributors like Hagen Smith, Will McEntire, Jaxon Wiggins, Zack Morris and Brady Tygart back, but the Razorbacks have also brought in a trio of transfers. They landed Koty Frank out of the transfer portal, plus signed Hunter Holland and Cody Adcock from the JUCO ranks. That doesn’t even factor in a few second-year pitchers primed to make a jump or incoming freshmen.
“I think our pitching is extremely, extremely deep,” second baseman Peyton Stovall said. “All those guys can start, but you can only start three guys on the weekend, so we’re going to have options to choose from.”
While it may be a stretch that all of them are capable of starting, Stovall’s sentiment rings true.
The Razorbacks, at least on paper, appear to have five or six bonafide SEC starters on their roster when they need only three to get through a weekend. That depth should not only help in the postseason, but also throughout the year by giving Arkansas some flexibility that it hasn’t had in a long time.
“If somebody needs a week off, somebody’s fading, give them a week off,” Van Horn said. “Just let them sit and watch and be ready for the next week. And we can do that. We’re not going to go crazy about it.”
Best of Arkansas Sports has already released its projected lineup for 2023 and now, with the season just a few weeks away, it’s time to do the same with the pitching staff…
Projected Opening Weekend Starters
- R-Jr. RHP Will McEntire
- So. LHP Hagen Smith
- Jr. RHP Jaxon Wiggins
Nothing is set in stone yet, but it sounds like the trio of Will McEntire, Hagen Smith and Jaxon Wiggins — in some order — will get the nod at the College Baseball Showdown to open the 2023 season.
When asked about those three specific pitchers, Dave Van Horn said he’d be “great with it” if they began the season as his weekend rotation.
It remains to be seen who will start on which day, but based on his performance in the fall, Wiggins might be the front runner as the Razorbacks begin preseason practices.
While the junior right-hander has always had the potential to be an SEC ace and there have been glimpses of dominance, he’s yet to put it all together for a full season. In fact, his career numbers — 6.17 ERA and 1.60 WHIP — aren’t good at all, as he’s struggled with command and finding a pitch to complement his fastball that can touch triple digits.
Granted, it was just practice, but that changed this fall. In the intrasquad scrimmages attended by the media, Wiggins was utterly dominant. He gave up just one earned run on five hits and two walks while striking out 22 in 12 innings, giving him a 0.75 ERA and 0.58 WHIP. Opponents hit just .111 against him and he averaged 16.5 strikeouts per nine innings.
“We didn’t do anything against him,” Van Horn said. “He had a great breaking ball, and you’re going, ‘Really?’ Yeah. He had a really good breaking ball. He had a good changeup. He’s already got a knack for working out of jams because he was in a lot of jams last year, and he got out of them. But now we’re kind of seeing that guy turn the corner, and I just think that from what we saw in the fall, unless something doesn’t go good the next three or four weeks, why shouldn’t he get the ball right out of the gate?”
Teammate Peyton Stovall pointed to those secondary pitches as the key to Wiggins’ success in the fall, as he really commanded his offspeed stuff, which made his fastball that much more effective.
“I remember facing him in that Fall Classic,” Stovall said. “He was the starter for the other team, and I just remember seeing him, and I think the first pitch he threw to me got on me quick. I’m kind of shaking my head like, ‘This dude, he looks different.’”
That fastball has the potential to blow people away, much like it did in his collegiate debut against TCU at the College Baseball Showdown two years ago, but without a consistent offspeed pitch, opponents were able to sit on it and hammer it — like when Tennessee hit a walk-off homer against him in 2021.
If he can continue pitching like he did this fall, when teammate Jace Bohrofen said he was “lights out,” then the 6-foot-6, 225-pound Wiggins could become a bonafide SEC ace and early-round MLB Draft pick this year.
“He’s got an unbelievable fastball, and he really took a step this fall, I thought — just really commanding the zone, throwing his offspeed for strikes, just keeping hitters off-balance,” Bohrofen said. “He was virtually unhittable.”
The pitcher many Arkansas baseball fans probably expect to be the Friday night guy in 2023 is Smith.
After all, he’s coming off a freshman campaign in which he was the No. 2 starter for most of the year and earned multiple Freshman All-America honors with a 7-2 record, 4.66 ERA and 90 strikeouts in 77 1/3 innings.
The left-hander did come out of the bullpen late in the year and notched a pair of saves in the postseason, but he’ll at least begin this season in the starting rotation. Van Horn talked about his potential as a closer last year and didn’t completely close the door on him coming out of the bullpen at some point this season, though.
“Last year when we pulled Smith out of the rotation, he was struggling a little bit and his bullpens showed that — with some of the technology he was fading a little bit,” Van Horn said. “But I truly believe that’s one reason we got to Omaha, because we rested him and got him right.”
It took half the season, plus a visit with Van Horn and pitching coach Matt Hobbs, but McEntire finally got an opportunity to pitch in a midweek game last year and never looked back.
Whether it was against UAPB on a Tuesday in April or against Auburn at the College World Series, the right-hander from Bryant was dominant last season. He finished the year with a 2.59 ERA and held opponents to a .198 batting average.
McEntire’s fastball sits 90-92 mph, which is well below most of the other arms on the staff, but he flat-out knows how to pitch and because of that, Van Horn said he sees him as a starter.
“He can throw it harder if he really wants to, but he also throws a good cutter and changeup,” Van Horn said. “Off the field, Will doesn’t say a whole lot, but on the mound he’s mean. And I like that. I would love to have Will as a starter, because that leaves a couple of those big arms in the bullpen.”
Van Horn has a lot of confidence in McEntire because he knows what he’ll get from him each time out: a lot of strikes, which will make the other team swing the bat and put the ball in play.
The variety of arms at his disposal means Van Horn could go with a couple different combinations on the weekend — right, left, right or sandwich the two “elite” arms around the softer-throwing McEntire — but regardless of what he decides, it sounds like he feels good about his rotation heading into 2023.
Key Returning Bullpen Arms
- Sr. LHP Zack Morris
- So. RHP Brady Tygart
No one on the Arkansas baseball roster — and perhaps no one in college baseball — has pitched in a tougher spot than Zack Morris in his last appearance of 2022.
Just two days after failing to get out of the first inning in a start against Ole Miss at the College World Series, the left-hander was called upon out of the bullpen with the season hanging in the balance.
With more than 25,000 fans watching at Charles Schwab Field in Omaha, Morris inherited a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the bottom of the ninth inning against the same Rebels who quickly chased him a couple days earlier. The Razorbacks were clinging to a 3-1 lead and needed three outs to force a winner-take-all game.
Morris delivered. He gave up a two-out RBI single, but retired the other three batters he faced to keep the season alive. Considering that gave him a 2.31 ERA in 35 innings, it very well could have been his final appearance in an Arkansas uniform. Instead, Morris passed on the MLB Draft and chose to become a rare senior with a track record of success.
“I think he’s going to be a little bit of everything for us,” Van Horn said. “He can be a guy that can start. He can be a guy that can come in in the fifth and finish the game. He can come in and get a hitter out. So a lot of maturity there. Just glad he decided to come back.”
The Razorbacks also return right-hander Brady Tygart from last year’s bullpen. A former top-100 recruit, he burst onto the scene as a freshman and eventually served as Arkansas’ closer for much of the year.
However, he faded down the stretch. After posting a 2.12 ERA with eight saves during the regular season, Tygart saw his ERA balloon to 3.82 in the postseason — capped by plunking the two batters he faced in his last outing, setting up Morris’ aforementioned heroics in Omaha.
Although Van Horn has talked openly about Tygart being a future starter, his role for this season is still “up in the air” as of right now. He missed some time during the fall, but is fully healthy as the Razorbacks begin preseason workouts and practices.
“I think he could be a starter,” Van Horn said. “He has incredible stuff. His velocity is up. His fastball’s good. Obviously he’s got a really good breaking ball. He’s got a couple of them now. He worked on a couple of things.”
Transfers Expected to Contribute
- Jr. RHP Cody Adcock (via JUCO – Ole Miss/Crowder C.C.)
- S-Sr. RHP Koty Frank (via transfer portal – Nebraska)
- Jr. LHP Hunter Hollan (via JUCO – San Jacinto J.C.)
Those returning pitchers provide an undeniably solid core for this year’s pitching staff, but Dave Van Horn was also active on the recruiting trail and brought in three older guys who are widely expected to have large roles in 2023.
Two of them — right-hander Cody Adcock and left-hander Hunter Hollan — come to Fayetteville from the JUCO ranks and have “done outstanding,” Van Horn said.
Adcock may be a name Arkansas baseball fans recognize because the Razorbacks recruited him out of Texarkana only for him to sign with Ole Miss instead. Then as a freshman with the Rebels, he actually started against Arkansas in the 2021 SEC Tournament, allowing just two earned runs in 4 1/3 innings.
He entered the portal after only one season at Ole Miss and ended up at Crowder C.C., where he quickly committed to his home state school.
Although he’s always had good stuff, Adcock has struggled to put it all together in college, posting a 6.41 ERA in 19 2/3 innings with the Rebels and a 6.58 ERA in 67 innings in junior college. Based on his performance in the fall, though, things have finally clicked in Fayetteville and Van Horn said he’s better than ever.
“He’s a lot better than we thought he was,” Van Horn said. “I mean, he was pretty good at Ole Miss as a freshman. He was pretty good at Crowder as a sophomore. And now he’s really good. Sometimes you get guys that are just hungry, and that’s what it takes.”
Adcock’s strength, according to his teammates, is his command.
“The thing that stands out to me when I face him is he spots up really well with his fastball,” Bohrofen said. “I mean, he’s throwing it right on the black. He’s not getting anything over the white. He’s going to be a tough pitcher to hit with mixing all of his pitches, throwing them in any count he wants.”
In a ranking by D1Baseball of the top 50 JUCO transfers across college baseball this year, Adcock checked in at No. 41. At the other end of the list is left-hander Hunter Hollan, who is No. 7.
As the ace at junior college powerhouse San Jacinto J.C., Hollan — a former TCU signee who was taken in the 15th round of the 2021 MLB Draft — had a 3.59 ERA and 96 strikeouts in 80 1/3 innings last season.
His fastball velocity is only in the mid- to low-90s, according to teammate Peyton Stovall, but he has a “funky delivery” to go along with being a lefty. That makes him particularly tough on left-handed hitters, Bohrofen said.
“For a left-handed batter, that’s just a tough at bat,” Bohrofen said. “Just the funkiness, how it comes out from the side, it looks like it’s coming behind you and then it ends up right down the middle and you freeze and you strike out. That just tells you how tough an at bat that’s going to be for other players who are going to have to face him.”
The third newcomer is Koty Frank, a right-hander who spent the last couple of years at Nebraska after beginning his career at the JUCO level.
A fifth-year player eligible only because of the extra year from the pandemic, he has made an impression on his teammates as being poised and relaxed, traits you’d expect from a veteran.
On the mound, Bohrofen said he plays to his strengths, which is sinking the ball and keeping it in the bottom of the zone, causing hitters to chase. Stovall was also complimentary of his command.
“I think he ended up throwing like 26 pitches to three different batters and he did not throw one pitch over the heart of the plate and still had two strikeouts out of the three or four batters he faced,” Stovall said. “He spots up unbelievably well. There’s nothing that he has thrown that’s over the plate, even in the fall.”
The Wildcards for Arkansas Baseball
- R-So. RHP Dylan Carter
- Fr. LHP Parker Coil
- So. RHP Jake Faherty
- Fr. LHP Sean Fitzpatrick
- R-So. LHP Nick Griffin
- So. RHP Austin Ledbetter
- Fr. RHP Gage Wood
Last season, the Razorbacks’ top nine pitchers accounted for 95.6% of their innings in SEC play. The eight guys previously mentioned will almost certainly be in that group.
That leaves room for only one pitcher — or maybe two — to emerge as a significant contributor when Arkansas moves into conference play. Who exactly that will be remains to be seen, as Dave Van Horn probably needs to see the possibilities in early non-conference games and midweek matchups.
Three of the seven pitchers we consider “wildcards” are true freshmen, with right-hander Gage Wood from Batesville being specifically mentioned by second baseman Peyton Stovall.
“Gage Wood sticks out to me,” Stovall said. “He pitched phenomenal yesterday. I think he faced four batters and struck out all four. He’s a freshman, super ultra-talented, has really good stuff.”
Parker Coil and Sean Fitzpatrick are both left-handers who have the potential of at least carving out roles as situational guys.
Perhaps the most likely contributor from this group is right-hander Austin Ledbetter, given he threw 12 2/3 innings as a true freshman last year and had a 2.84 ERA. That includes 2 2/3 scoreless innings across two appearances in Omaha. He seems like a perfect candidate to make a big jump in his second year with the team.
Left-hander Nick Griffin was a heralded recruit coming out of Monticello a few years ago, but Tommy John surgery sidelined him his first year and then he threw only 6 2/3 innings last season. Now another year removed from his injury, Griffin could show why Van Horn believed he’d be an SEC starter when he signed him.
Finally, right-handers Dylan Carter and Jake Faherty are entering their second seasons at Arkansas.
Carter spent a couple of seasons in junior college before transferring back home and redshirting last year. He had a pretty solid summer in the Northwoods League and will get a shot to contribute this year because he no longer has a redshirt available.
Faherty made only one appearance as a true freshman last season and faced three batters — walking one, plunking one and striking out the other. It was the full Faherty experience, who probably throws harder than Jaxon Wiggins, but is even more inconsistent. If he can figure that out, he could be a weapon out of the bullpen.
Other Pitchers for Arkansas Baseball
- Fr. RHP Ben Bybee
- Fr. RHP Cooper Dossett
- Fr. RHP Christian Foutch
- Fr. LHP Jordan Huskey
- Fr. RHP Josh Hyneman
It isn’t outside the realm of possibility for these guys to make an appearance or two, but there doesn’t seem to be a clear path to regular innings based on this fall. That could change over the next three weeks of preseason practices, though.
The good news is that all five of them are true freshmen, meaning they can redshirt and potentially use this season to get ready for 2024.
The most notable name on this list is probably Cooper Dossett, as he was a heralded prospect coming out of Springdale Har-Ber. Perfect Game ranked him No. 156 overall in the Class of 2022, making him the highest-ranked pitcher in Arkansas’ signing class to make it to campus. He didn’t pitch at all during the fall because of an injury and Dave Van Horn indicated a redshirt was very possible.
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