Former UA Pitcher Diagnoses Tygart, Molina’s Struggles; Can They Be Fixed?

Brady Tygart, Arkansas baseball, Mason Molina
photo credit: Craven Whitlow

FAYETTEVILLE — After teasing a change and not going through with it last week, Dave Van Horn has officially tweaked his starting rotation heading into Arkansas’ final regular-season series.

With a chance to clinch the SEC West and a shot at the overall title, the No. 3 Razorbacks will keep left-hander Hagen Smith as the Game 1 starter. The difference is behind him, as right-hander Gage Wood will get the nod in the second game while Van Horn has left the starter for the finale as TBA.

It will be Wood’s second career start and first in SEC play, but he has pitched better of late and Van Horn has openly discussed that he’s “getting ready to take somebody’s job.” That came after a solid 4 1/3 innings of relief at Kentucky, which Wood followed up with a save in Friday’s win over Mississippi State. He was less effective in his second appearance against the Bulldogs, but did settle things down to keep Arkansas within striking distance for a dramatic comeback.

Now it’s a matter of whose job, exactly, Wood took. Van Horn said both right-hander Brady Tygart and left-hander Mason Molina — the previous weekend starters — were options for Game 3 and indicated they could also come out of the bullpen.

The only other healthy pitcher who’s started a game this year is sophomore right-hander Ben Bybee and he gave up a pair of two-run homers in relief of Tygart last Saturday. Freshman Colin Fisher, a lefty, likely would have started an SEC game by now, but he is out for the year with an elbow injury that required surgery.

If Tygart and Molina don’t start, it will be interesting to see how — or even if — the Razorbacks use them.

Tygart has a lot of experience pitching in high-leverage situations out of the bullpen, but his velocity dipped dipped some in his last start. While that prompted some injury concerns, Van Horn insisted he’s healthy.

“We’ve had him looked at and, as of right now, we’re told everything’s clean,” Van Horn said. “So we might just give him some time off.”

(UPDATE: Since the Arkansas baseball coach met with reporters Wednesday afternoon, D1Baseball’s Kendall Rogers has reported that it’s already been determined that Tygart won’t pitch this weekend for “precautionary reasons.”)

Molina hasn’t pitched out of the bullpen since the back half of his freshman year at Texas Tech in 2022, but he was very effective in that role, posting a 1.96 ERA in 18 1/3 innings across 11 relief appearances.

“If we bring him out of the pen and he pitches well, he’ll stay in there and grab that starting job again. He’s just got to go out and throw the ball better. That’s obvious. I think that’s a good spot for him and he needs to embrace it and get after it.”

Starters Struggle for Arkansas

The fact that this is being discussed ahead of the final weekend of the regular season is nothing short of shocking. Coming into the season, Arkansas baseball had what many considered to be the best starting rotation in the country, with three ace-level starters.

For a good chunk of the season, they lived up to the hype. Hagen Smith emerged as the best pitcher in college baseball, while Brady Tygart and Mason Molina each had moments of brilliance — albeit not quite as consistently as Smith.

The last few weeks, though, Tygart and Molina have seemingly fallen off a cliff.

It started with Molina, when he issued seven walks in just 3 1/3 innings at South Carolina on April 20. He missed the Florida series because of a twisted ankle and has struggled in his two starts since returning.

Kentucky tagged him for three earned runs — on a pair of homers — in three innings on May 5 and then he failed to record an out in the second inning against Mississippi State, allowing another four earned runs.

Prior to that stretch, Molina had a 3.32 ERA. It has since grown to 4.44 after giving up nine earned runs in only 7 1/3 total innings across those three starts.

Meanwhile, Tygart produced back-to-back quality starts against South Carolina and Florida, doing what Arkansas baseball fans have come to expect from him:

Since then, things have mostly fallen apart.

Granted, he didn’t get much help on a play in left field by Ross Lovich, but the right-hander was rocked for five runs on six hits and three walks against Kentucky on May 4. He followed it up by failing to get through the second innings against Mississippi State, giving up four runs on three hits and five walks in just 1 2/3 innings.

The nine earned runs over 4 2/3 innings has led to Tygart’s ERA ballooning from 2.68 to 3.86.

Diagnosing the Issue for Brady Tygart

That raises an obvious question: What the (insert expletive of your choice) is going on?

To try to get an answer, Best of Arkansas Sports spoke with someone who knows a thing or two about pitching: former Arkansas standout Brent Birch. A left-handed pitcher for the Razorbacks from 1990-93, he made 42 starts and threw 272 2/3 innings — both of which still rank inside the top 10 in school history.

Birch, who lives in Little Rock and still watches every Arkansas baseball game, said he believes the two pitchers are dealing with separate issues.

To him, Brady Tygart’s problem appears to be in his delivery. The mechanics are out of whack, leading to him “yanking” his pitches — meaning everything is away from right-handed hitters and in on lefties. For a right-hander like Tygart, that’s known as missing “glove side.”

“If you notice with him, he’s got a pretty violent action with his glove hand,” Birch said. “That glove hand is getting out and open too soon, so your body kind of follows. When your body goes that way, your arm’s going to go that way (and) you’re either going to miss high and arm-side or you’re going to yank pitches out into that left-handed batter’s box. That’s what’s happening a lot.”

That’s because Tygart can’t find the proper release point. Then, when he tries to self-correct the issue, it leads to pitches being over the middle of the plate, which SEC hitters don’t typically miss. Sure enough, Kentucky and Mississippi State went 9 for 21 (.429) against him — a staggering number considering opponents had hit just .195 in his career before those two games.

When such a hitting spree happens, it becomes a bit of a mental problem, too, because pitchers start worrying about analytics and mechanics instead of focusing on simply getting the hitter out.

Then there’s the issue of Tygart’s decreased velocity last week. Each of the last two weeks, Van Horn has made it a point to say he’s healthy, so it’s not believed to be injury related. Given his history, skepticism is understandable, but Birch believes it and said the velocity dip can actually be explained by the same mechanical problem causing his lack of command.

Similar to other athletic skills that require “whole body torque,” like hitting or swinging a golf club, everything must be in sync to maximize power.

“What happens is when that front side flies open, your arm drags,” Birch said. “When your arm drags, it doesn’t have the same ability to whip and create the spin and everything else because it’s behind, or his body’s kind of left the delivery of the pitch, so it’s just all arm.”

Now, It’s Mason Molina’s Turn

As for Mason Molina, Birch said he believes it’s “all between the ears” — which is also what Van Horn indicated after his start Sunday.

He thinks the Texas Tech transfer is struggling to find it even in the bullpen and then takes it with him to the mound, at which point it’s even harder to correct. Then, when your confidence is down, you’re less likely to attack hitters.

That seemed to be the problem against Mississippi State, as Molina fell behind 3-0 against the leadoff man in the first and second inning.

“I think it’s a confidence thing,” Birch said. “He’s probably got all kinds of thoughts in his head mechanically, or ‘can I get these guys out’ or ‘I don’t have my good stuff today’ and it’s causing him to nibble and miss the strike zone way too much.”

Although he averaged only 3.8 walks per nine innings as Texas Tech’s ace in 2023, Molina has struggled with them since arriving on campus — even in scrimmages during the fall.

He managed to work around that the first nine weeks of the season, averaging 4.4 walks per nine innings and prompting Van Horn to label him as “effectively wild” amid gems like this:

That’s a delicate balancing act and, unfortunately for the Razorbacks, Molina has been much more “wild” than “effective” of late.

“I wouldn’t say he was just painting strikes all over the place in February and March, but he was effective,” Birch said. “If you know that’s how you pitch, that’s not going to get you that worked up, because there’s a lot of guys nowadays that are 2-2, 3-2 on it seems like every hitter. I think he’s fighting something between the ears.”

How Can Arkansas Fix It?

The natural follow up to those problems is whether or not they can be fixed. If so, it needs to happen soon with the NCAA Tournament just around the corner and this Arkansas baseball team having national title hopes.

For that, Brent Birch had no easy answer. It’s ultimately up to each individual player.

Some pitchers are super in-tune to their bodies and can sense when their mechanics are out of whack, like Brady Tygart’s appear to be, leading to an easy correction. For others, it takes more time.

“It sounds like it’d be an easy fix,” Birch said. “He and Hobbs would get in the bullpen and they’d figure that out, but it’s not that easy. Usually it can take a little time and it’s really hard to do in-game. Very hard to do, especially facing an SEC lineup because mistakes get compounded, as we’ve seen.”

When it comes to the mental side of things, Birch echoed Van Horn’s sentiment that it’s really up to Mason Molina to figure the issue out and overcome.

“It’s hard for a coach to fix that,” Birch said. “You can pat him on the butt and tell him, ‘Hey man, your stuff looks great,’ all you want to, but as a pitcher, or hitter, you’ve got to have that inner confidence to know whether you have your stuff or not. I think he’s fighting it and once it starts going off the rails, he obviously hasn’t been able to get it back right because he’s really struggled.”

Birch added that Molina is “too good” not to use and that he’s “due to find it,” but he isn’t sure moving him to the bullpen is the best idea. It might be worth a shot, though, considering his success there as a freshman.

As for his coach, Van Horn said Molina’s attitude has been good this week and that he’s still confident the lefty will get back on track.

“He’s more upset about it than anybody and we need him,” Van Horn said. “He knows we need him. He doesn’t want to let the team down. Good things are going to happen for him if he keeps his head up. He’s done it before. He’ll do it again. Sometimes there’s some hiccups throughout the season individually and as a team.”

If there’s a silver lining for Tygart, it’s that he’s already overcome one blip on the radar this season.

Over a three-week stretch against Auburn, LSU and Ole Miss, he gave up nine earned runs on 12 hits and eight walks in only 12 total innings, failing to make it through the fifth in any of those starts.

The Hernando, Miss., bounced back with five strong innings at Alabama before turning in back-to-back quality starts of six innings against South Carolina and Florida.

His answer to what flipped things around might provide the best answer for Molina’s current struggles — if not his own, again.

“Early in the season, I wasn’t myself,” Tygart said following his start against the Gators on April 27. “I wasn’t confident or anything. I was worrying about analytics and I was thinking about a million different things. I was thinking about my mechanics. All of a sudden, one day I said, ‘Screw this. I’m not having fun. I’m just going to go up there and throw the ball.’ That’s literally what I thought. Then I started improving.”


Watch Dave Van Horn’s full press conference previewing this weekend’s Arkansas vs Texas A&M series:

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