FAYETTEVILLE — Fans can be forgiven if they aren’t completely buying into the preseason hype surrounding the Arkansas baseball team’s pitching staff.
Some of the same things were said last season, before a rash of injuries took down several of the Razorbacks’ best arms. Despite all of that, Dave Van Horn’s squad still found a way to win the SEC regular-season title and earn a No. 4 national seed while posting the second-best ERA in the SEC during conference play.
With the obvious caveat of everyone staying healthy, there’s a strong likelihood that this year’s pitching staff could be one of the best in the country in 2024. It all starts with the stellar starting rotation of Hagen Smith, Brady Tygart and Mason Molina, but it’s the pitchers behind them that separates it from the rest.
“From top to bottom, Arkansas might have the best pitching staff in college baseball,” D1Baseball’s Aaron Fitt wrote. “On paper, only Wake Forest can rival the Hogs in the weekend rotation — and Arkansas has more depth in the bullpen, with power arms galore and a variety of different looks from both sides.”
That variety will probably be the strength of the bullpen this season, as the Razorbacks’ roster includes a whopping nine left-handers. Last season, lefties accounted for 39.6% of Arkansas’ innings and the bulk of that was from Smith and Hunter Hollan, who threw starter-like innings.
The Razorbacks will again have two lefties in the rotation with Smith and Molina, but now they’ll also have several more options out of the pen for multiple situations, whether it’s a left-on-left matchup, long relief or closing.
“We feel like we have a really good mix of left- and right-handed pitching,” Van Horn said. “The right-handed pitching is usually there. Having some left-handed options out of the pen is going to be a big-time plus for us this year.”
Another thing that stands out about Arkansas’ bullpen is its experience.
In a conversation with Best of Arkansas Sports following fall ball, pitching coach Matt Hobbs pointed out that “the youth” is what creates depth on a pitching staff and that usually means freshmen. However, for the Razorbacks, it’s sophomores who were thrust into action last year because of all the aforementioned injuries.
Hobbs has dubbed this the “buffer group” – right-handers Ben Bybee, Gage Wood, Christian Foutch and Cooper Dossett, plus left-hander Parker Coil.
“The things that you hope are going to happen are the freshmen of last year’s freshmen get better as sophomores,” Hobbs said. “I think that group is the most impressive to me just because they all got better, especially Coil and Bybee, (but) all of them really.”
Of course the Razorbacks have some key veterans like Will McEntire, Dylan Carter and Koty Frank, as well as a loaded group of freshmen, but that “buffer group” could be the difference between Arkansas having just another “good” pitching staff and an historically dominant one.
For that reason, we figured it’d be best to take a closer look at them separately from the rest of the bullpen, which will be previewed in another piece.
Potential Midweek Starters for Arkansas Baseball
There is a lot of buzz surrounding some of those talented freshmen as potential midweek starters – which would also mean starting the fourth game of Arkansas’ opening weekend series against James Madison.
However, as long as he’s healthy, the frontrunner appears to be Ben Bybee. That qualifier is important, though, as the right-hander is dealing with a minor hamstring injury that’s bothered him since the summer. It forced an early departure from his start on the opening weekend of preseason scrimmages and then he was held out the second weekend to allow him to hopefully heal up.
When he’s available, Bybee has a big presence on the mound, standing 6-foot-6, 235 pounds. He got a chance to pitch a bit last year and had some success, but it was mostly a rough freshman season. In 27 1/3 innings across 15 appearances, the Overland Park, Kan., native posted a 7.24 ERA and 2.05 WHIP.
Still, the Razorbacks liked his stuff enough to start him seven times, including twice in SEC play. A year later, that stuff is starting to shine through.
“One of the pitchers that’s made a really big jump is Ben Bybee,” Van Horn said. “He throws nothing but strikes, for the most part, now. He had a really good breaking ball, now he’s got a slider-cutter, which he needed. Had a good changeup.”
That was first evident this summer with the Santa Barbara Foresters in the California Collegiate League, as he was utterly dominant. Bybee posted a 1.38 ERA and 0.83 WHIP with 40 strikeouts and only seven walks in 32 2/3 innings.
The sophomore wasn’t as dominant in the fall, as he unofficially had a 7.84 ERA in 10 1/3 innings, but he still had a solid 1.16 WHIP and didn’t issue any free passes. The staff has seen enough of his “pretty deep arsenal” that he may still end up starting at some point in midweek games even if he isn’t healthy enough to pitch on opening weekend.
“He got hit this fall by our guys, which it’s never good when the guy’s giving up a lot of hits,” Matt Hobbs said, “but I feel like his stuff has just jumped up so much that once he gets more comfortable with it, he’s going to be fine.”
Hobbs added that Bybee has a “Swiss Army knife quality” because not only could he spot start on the weekend or be the midweek starter, but he could also come out of the pen for long relief.
Another pitcher who could be used in a similar way is Parker Coil. Even though he throws with the other arm, his 2023 followed the same script as Bybee for the most part.
Only three of Coil’s 15 appearances were starts and he struggled to a 6.55 ERA as opponents hit .344 against him. However, he did notch a five-out save in an 8-7 win that clinched a sweep of Texas A&M.
“Parker was the guy when he got on the mound, he looked so young,” Van Horn said. “I remember I’d look out there and go, ‘Man, he looks like he’s a junior in high school.’ Well, now Parker knows that I said that every time I saw him. But Parker Coil has gotten stronger, starting to look older and his stuff’s good.”
The Edmond, Okla., product went up to Massachusetts this summer to play in the prestigious Cape Cod League and had a lot of success. His final numbers – 3.60 ERA and 1.40 WHIP in 25 innings – were solid, but they were skewed by one particularly bad outing. In his other 10 appearances, Coil had an impressive 2.42 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in 22 1/3 innings while holding opponents to a .225 batting average, all against some of the best college players in the country.
He followed it up with an even more impressive fall. In five outings against his teammates, Coil unofficially had a 1.86 ERA and 0.62 WHIP with 10 strikeouts and no free passes in 9 2/3 innings.
Van Horn said he made “one of the biggest jumps of any pitcher that we’ve had,” while Hobbs described his fall as “unbelievable.” He even made an impression on assistant coach Bobby Wernes, who primarily works with the catchers.
“I think Parker Coil could be a guy that you see make a bigger jump forward than what’s maybe expected,” Wernes said. “I’m a sucker for a good lefty and his experience as a freshman like that – getting to pitch, whether he had success, failure, whatever – that’s huge. That counts for this year. So I think he got just enough of his feet wet, so to speak, in the league where he saw it enough, he can make a true step forward.”
The Projected Closer
Going into last season, it wasn’t clear what kind of role Gage Wood would have as a freshman.
The Batesville native walked the first three batters he faced in his scrimmage debut with the Razorbacks in the fall of 2022 and, upon finding the strike zone, gave up a grand slam to Peyton Stovall.
In a sign of things to come, Wood battled back from that rough outing to earn the coaches’ trust as the first freshman out of the bullpen during the regular season. Unfortunately for him, it came in the sixth inning of a tie game with runners on the corners against No. 15 TCU at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.
It was a massive stage in a big moment and the freshman’s first pitch was hit for an RBI single to give TCU the lead. Only one of his next nine pitches found the strike zone as he issued back-to-back walks, the second of which came with the bases loaded and drove in another run in a game Arkansas ultimately lost 18-6.
Van Horn has told the story numerous times that when he went out to make a pitching change following those walks, Wood’s hand was shaking as he handed over the ball.
That kind of outing could kill a freshman’s confidence, but it didn’t seem to hurt Wood. By the third week of SEC play, he was the Razorbacks’ closer. He finished with five saves and a 2-0 record.
His final ERA of 4.80 doesn’t really tell the full story of his season, as he hit the so-called “freshman wall” the final weekend of the regular season and struggled in the postseason. Prior to his final four appearances, in which he gave up nine runs on six hits and five walks in 2 2/3 innings, Wood had an ERA of 2.30 with 41 strikeouts and 18 walks in 27 1/3 innings.
The hope is that he’ll bounce back from the lackluster finish, similar to how Hagen Smith and Brady Tygart (when healthy) rebounded as sophomores after hitting the freshman wall.
“You’ll see, he’s just really grown up and matured,” Van Horn said. “He looks older, and physically he’s in tremendous shape. And I think you’ll see a difference there. As far as throwing the baseball, he’s been better than he ever has been.”
In a perfect world, Wood will lock down the closer role. However, the coaching staff isn’t designating one player as the “closer” heading into the season.
Van Horn said it’ll likely be older players early on, and even as a sophomore Wood probably fits that category. It could also be a freshman. After all, Tygart was a freshman closer in 2021 and Wood was a freshman closer in 2022.
“I like going in with options and letting it evolve,” Hobbs said. “Hopefully the first weekend we’re not faced with one run and you’ve got to get three outs, but we definitely have guys that can go do that.”
Fighting for Roles with Arkansas Baseball
Not counting right-hander Josh Hyneman, who is still recovering from Tommy John surgery and is likely in line for a medical redshirt, last year’s freshman crop included two other names – one probably more recognizable than the other.
Christian Foutch got a decent amount of work last season, pitching 12 1/3 innings across 14 outings – nine of which came in SEC play or the postseason. The right-hander finished with an 8.76 ERA, but it ballooned over his last six appearances. He actually had a stretch in which he failed to retire 12 straight batters, starting with the infamous collapse at Georgia.
Prior to that, though, Foutch looked like a guy who might help the Razorbacks in a postseason run, as he had a 3.72 ERA and was borderline dominant in seven of his first eight outings.
Now a sophomore, Arkansas believes he can be more like the guy from the first half of the season rather than the back half. Foutch has always been known for his splitter, which numerous teammates have described as one of the best pitches on the entire staff, but he’s added to his arsenal this offseason.
“Christian Foutch is refining a new pitch,” Van Horn said. “When it’s on, honest to goodness, it’s almost unhittable. Our hitters do not like hitting off him because if he gets that thing in a groove, he’ll throw it to you three times and they take funny swings at it, like they’re chasing it.”
The other pitcher is right-hander Cooper Dossett, a local product out of Springdale Har-Ber who was actually the highest-ranked pitcher in the 2022 class to make it to campus. He checked in at No. 156 overall on Perfect Game.
However, he battled an injury in the fall and was a redshirt candidate, but ended up making two appearances in the first two weeks of the season. Dossett was one of several pitchers who nearly a year ago got roughed up by TCU in Arlington, allowing four earned runs and recording only two outs, but he did pitch a scoreless inning against Eastern Illinois the following weekend.
There was a thought that he might not be back in 2024 considering the depth of the pitching staff and his status as a heralded recruit in the era of the transfer portal. Not only did he return, but Dossett has given himself a chance to contribute this season.
“He’s probably worked as hard as any pitcher on our staff and he’s a lot better,” Van Horn said. “Credit to him for sticking it out and hanging in there.”
Both pitchers benefited from going up to the Northwoods League over the summer and playing for the Green Bay Rockers. Their final stats may not jump off the page, but they threw extended innings and were put in situations they likely won’t see out of the bullpen at Arkansas.
Foutch finished with a 4.68 ERA in 32 2/3 innings, but also had 53 strikeouts – an average of 14.6 per nine innings. Take out one particularly rough outing out of nine and his ERA improves to 3.45 and opponents hit just .207.
Dossett posted a 4.83 ERA in 31 2/3 innings. Like his teammate, he also racked up a good amount of strikeouts – 43, for an average of 12.2 per nine innings. Still, Green Bay had a habit of leaving him in too long, which inflated his ERA. On three separate occasions, he had thrown at least 3 2/3 scoreless innings, only to end up allowing multiple runs.
See an in-depth analysis of Friday’s intra-squad scrimmage here:
Miss our in-depth breakdown of each projected starter in Arkansas’ weekend rotation? Check them out here:
More coverage of Arkansas baseball from BoAS…