Hogs’ Catching Coach Explains Inside Joke for His “Walking Dead”

Bobby Wernes, Arkansas baseball
photo credit: Baumology

FAYETTEVILLE — If you want to get Dave Van Horn off on a tangent, just ask the veteran Arkansas baseball coach for his feelings on the timing of the MLB Draft.

Once a June event that conflicted with the NCAA Tournament, it is now part of Major League Baseball’s All-Star weekend festivities in mid-July.

It may seem like a good idea on the surface, but the change just added to the challenge of constructing a college baseball roster because by the time the signing deadline passes, the fall semester is only a couple weeks away.

Van Horn has ranted on this topic multiple times since it was moved back in 2021, but the earlier draft actually benefited the Razorbacks this past offseason.

“Sometimes we go get a guy thinking, ‘This guy’s going to sign pro,’” Van Horn said. “If he gets drafted and doesn’t sign or doesn’t get drafted because he wants too much money…then we get him, but we didn’t know that because they don’t tell us everything because they’re all playing poker with the MLB.

“But we gotta go get our guys and sometimes that’s how you end up with four catchers.”

Not only did Arkansas return both of its catchers from last season – starter Parker Rowland and backup Hudson Polk – but it also landed a transfer in Hudson White and brought in a heralded freshman in Ryder Helfrick.

It’s a good problem to have, especially at a position that puts so much wear and tear on the body, but it does mean it wasn’t easy for the coaching staff to fill out a depth chart leading up to the season. One of those coaches is Bobby Wernes, who was promoted to full-time assistant this summer after previously serving as the volunteer assistant and works primarily with the catchers.

“This is the deepest catching room we’ve had in my four years, by a long shot,” Wernes told Best of Arkansas Sports last month. “If you do great from a recruiting development standpoint, you have two that you feel good about. Most years, maybe it’s one and a half – you feel great about one and the other guy’s more of a coin flip. This year, for a variety of reasons, we feel good about four guys catching on Friday night, which is really unheard of.”

Much like a quarterback room in football, it’s hard to acquire that much talent at a spot where only one person can play at a time and there’s no regular substituting. The backup may start here and there, but that’s about it, barring injuries.

However, even with two new players in the mix, Wernes said there hasn’t been any dissension amongst the catchers this preseason.

“I think that this is just a very special group of guys,” Wernes said. “Normal people thrown into that position, there can be some hostility, that can be really tough to make that group mesh, but that hasn’t been the case at all with these guys. They really do push each other, pull for each other.”

Because of the unique nature of the position, and its importance, we thought it’d be a good idea to take a closer look at each of those four catchers with some insight from Wernes…

Arkansas Baseball Catchers

The Transfer: Hudson White

Catcher was one of the most obvious points of emphasis in the transfer portal for Arkansas baseball this offseason and Hudson White was one of the best available players at that position. In fact, the former Texas Tech standout has since been tabbed as the second-most impactful transfer catcher by D1Baseball.

It was seemingly a perfect match, but it wasn’t always a foregone conclusion that the Razorbacks would land White.

Bobby Wernes said he and fellow assistant Nate Thompson led the charge in his recruitment, as the pair drove down to Texas to meet with him in person. After a “stressful” car ride down, they met White at a BJ’s Restaurant in a Dallas suburb and talked for about 1.5-2 hours, during which they sealed the deal. That led to a much more fun car ride back to Fayetteville.

“It was during Super Regionals, so we’ve got games going on and maybe there’s some schools that we’re competing against that are playing,” Wernes said. “I’m like, ‘Man, I hope he’s not watching those TVs too much. We’re going to be there next year, let’s focus here.’”

Something that helped Arkansas reel him in was the fact that it has a pretty good reputation for developing catchers. Grant Koch and Casey Opitz were excellent defensive catchers for the Razorbacks from 2016-21, but Koch came before Wernes was on staff and Opitz was – by Wernes’ own admission – already pretty good.

Since then, Wernes has helped turn Michael Turner and Parker Rowland into very good defensive catchers despite limited experience. Turner is pretty comparable to White because he played all over and didn’t catch all the time at Kent State – similar to White at Texas Tech.

The Red Raiders played him at multiple infield spots, including first base, and he struggled behind the plate. Last year, he threw out only 10 of 68 (14.7%) potential base stealers, allowed 10 passed balls and committed nine errors for a .977 fielding percentage. For a comparison, Rowland threw out 11 of 42 (26.2%) base stealers, allowed only one passed ball and committed just one error for a .998 fielding percentage on more chances.

However, by reviewing some video and analyzing him as a catcher, the Razorbacks saw potential for White to be much better than that defensively.

“That was something we identified early, is some mechanical adjustments with his setup that could clean some things up, help him move the needle relatively quickly,” Wernes said. “Everyone knew about the bat. The bat is something that’s going to play obviously.”

Oh yes, the bat. That will keep White in the lineup even when he’s not catching, whether it’s as a designated hitter or first baseman.

After earning Big 12 Freshman of the Year accolades in 2022, White was even better as a sophomore last season. He slashed .296/.397/.550 with 11 home runs and 49 RBIs, plus had 27 walks and 31 strikeouts, in 49 games.

Van Horn is so confident in White’s ability at the plate that he said he’ll put him in the leadoff spot on Opening Day with Peyton Stovall out with a broken foot. He quipped that it might be the first time he’s ever had a catcher in that spot.

The Freshman: Ryder Helfrick

The path to Fayetteville was much more traditional for Ryder Helfrick, who had a very quick recruitment before committing to the Razorbacks early on in the process.

That happened so long ago that Wernes wasn’t involved in his recruitment, but he has gotten to know him over the years. The biggest worry with Helfrick wasn’t his loyalty to Arkansas baseball, but whether or not he’d make it to college at all because he was a touted MLB Draft prospect coming out of Clayton Valley Charter High in California, too. That said, Wernes felt like he’d end up in Fayetteville.

“I think we were more confident than not, but you just never know,” Wernes said. “If you spend any time around him, there’s a quiet confidence and he’s a guy that’s going to bet on himself. He knows what it’s worth to play three years here, what that’s going to be worth for him in the draft down the road.”

The Discovery Bay, Calif., product likely could have commanded a high signing bonus from the pros, but chose to go to school instead. And despite all of the accolades and hype, Wernes said he can tell Helfrick is still “desperate” to get better.

“He was pretty dang good when he walked in the door,” Wernes said. “I think the most special thing about him is he has all the physical tools and ability you could want, but the way he works and the way he goes about his business, you would think he’s a walk-on scratching and clawing for that 40th spot – and I mean that as a compliment.”

Those tools and that attitude has led to pretty steady praise from Van Horn, who has even compared Helfrick to former catcher James McCann – a current big leaguer who played for the Razorbacks from 2009-11.

Helfrick is also athletic enough to play multiple defensive positions, even getting some reps at second base in the preseason. He played some center field over the summer, as well, but his future at Arkansas is behind the plate.

The Veterans: Parker Rowland & Hudson Polk

The most surprising aspect of the offseason, from a catcher perspective at least, wasn’t that Arkansas landed a top transfer or got a top recruit to campus. What stunned most people on the outside was the fact that the Razorbacks retained both Parker Rowland and Hudson Polk.

With both of them down to their final year of eligibility and the coaching staff being very open about their intention to add more players at their position, many assumed at least one – if not both – of them would move on, especially in the era of the transfer portal.

Those in the program weren’t as surprised. In fact, Wernes said he would have been more surprised if they left. He pointed to the atmosphere and playing in the SEC as reasons for them to stay, but also circled back to their development in the program.

“Maybe something that doesn’t get talked about as much is just their development,” Wernes said. “They made huge strides just individually in their development. So I think that they were excited about taking another step forward and neither of them are afraid of competition, which maybe you could say is rare in today’s day of college athletics.”

It’s understandable that Arkansas would go after other catchers because neither of them hit at an SEC level. Rowland eventually emerged as the starter, but hit just .182 with 19 RBIs and a .531 OPS. Polk wasn’t much better in more limited playing time, hitting .190 with a .652 OPS.

Regardless of which catcher was in the lineup, it was virtually an automatic out for the Razorbacks.

“We joke around a lot, we kind of call that group the Walking Dead, so to speak,” Wernes said. “Maybe last year they kind of ‘died’ a little bit – they really struggled for the first time in their life. Once you’ve kind of felt that and you’ve died, you’ve struggled, you can’t be hurt like that again, so it kind of frees you up a little bit.”

Rowland in particular had a tough time in the SEC. Despite being the everyday starter because of his defense, he hit just .159 and struck out 40 times in 88 at bats with no extra-base hits in conference play.

It wasn’t that bad, but Wernes knows what Rowland went through last year. In his first season at Arkansas as a JUCO transfer in the lineup primarily because of his glove, Wernes had a .217 batting average and managed only one extra-base hit (a double). The following year, Wernes was much improved. Not only did he hit .279, but he added 18 extra-base hits.

“If you look at my first year with the stick coming from a junior college, I wish we could kind of delete that off the face of the internet, it’s rough,” Wernes said. “Guys coming from a junior college to the SEC that first year, that’s a huge jump and it’s impossible to be prepared for it. Usually that second year is when you see a big step forward.”

If he gets a chance, Rowland might also show massive strides at the plate. There were signs of that in the fall, as he hit .265 with a team-high six home runs, but the question is whether there will be enough at bats to go around for him to show that during the regular season.

It’s a similar story with Polk, an Oklahoma transfer who entered last season as the projected starting catcher.

He also had a productive fall and preseason. In fact, his unofficial 1.063 OPS in scrimmages open to the public was second only to shortstop Wehiwa Aloy. Nearly everything Polk hit, he hit hard, with seven of his 14 hits going for extra bases – including five homers.

“He sometimes played with the weight of the world on his shoulders, like he needed to be Superman,” Wernes said. “Like he was the catcher at the beginning of the year and kind of holding on too tight. If he can get to a spot where it’s truly playing with nothing to lose, that natural ability I think will kind of seep out.”

Sensing he was probably pretty far down the pecking order at catcher, Polk actually asked Van Horn if he could get some reps in the outfield during scrimmages and the veteran coach obliged. It’s probably not something to expect in games, but it does show that Van Horn at least recognized his production at the plate and he could be a potential pinch-hit option during the season.

Projected Arkansas Depth Chart – Catcher

1. Hudson White
2. Ryder Helfrick
3. Parker Rowland
4. Hudson Polk

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