The Change Coming to Arkansas Baseball May Not Satisfy Keyboard Pounders

Peyton Stovall, Dave Van Horn, Arkansas baseball
photo credit: Crant Osborne

Teams that fall short of expectations happen yearly in every sport, from high school to the professional ranks. Unfortunately, Arkansas fans have grown accustomed to it, as the three major sports on campus always seem to be underwhelming — albeit at different levels. 

In football, most fans would love to be good enough to make a bowl game. In basketball, Musselman raised the program from generally irrelevant to results akin to the glory years under Eddie Sutton and Nolan Richardson. With John Calipari on campus and a loaded 9-man roster so far, Final Four or bust will undoubtedly be expected and required.

Arkansas baseball has grown into a beast based on an incredible run the program is on with no signs of slowing down. The winningest team in the SEC since 2017 is the University of Arkansas. The winningest program in the country since 2017 is Dave Van Horn’s Razorbacks. 

Since 2017, excluding the COVID-shortened season of 2020, the Diamond Hogs have played 450 games and won 322. That’s 72% for those who like percentages. They’ve won the SEC West (home of three national champions during that stretch) five times, the overall SEC title twice and an SEC tournament title in 2021. Don’t forget a national runner-up in 2018, a third-place finish in 2022 and another trip to Omaha in 2019. 

That’s a remarkable amount of winning. 

Falling Short of Lofty Expectations

Despite the team’s impressive track record, the fan base has developed an insatiable hunger for a national championship. The near-miss in 2018 sparked this ‘natty-or-bust’ attitude. Or it could be the back-to-back top-five recruiting classes and strategic pickups in the transfer portal. The state-of-the-art facilities could also be a contributing factor.

The Arkansas baseball program has everything it needs to break through, including a sure bet hall of fame head coach. 

Dave Van Horn’s steady regular season success, along with the still-frequent appearances in Omaha, has fueled high expectations. He has built a machine that rolls even in disappointing years like this one:

As Nolan Richardson once stated when his protege Mike Anderson was fired for lackluster results, “We created a monster, and you’ve got to feed it.”

Coaches tend to be blamed when things go wrong in sports. Sometimes fairly, other times not. Hog fans saw this with Dan Enos and the football team’s anemic offense this past fall. Enos wasn’t the sole reason the offense sputtered, but someone had to be held responsible for that pitifulness.

Change in Philosophy for Arkansas Baseball?

The fans at this point are laser-focused on hitting coach Nate Thompson, given that the 2024 baseball offense was in the bottom third of nearly every statistical category in the SEC. Our own Andrew Hutchinson posed the question regarding Thompson’s future in the press conference following the loss to SEMO. 

Van Horn acknowledged they needed some better athletes and perhaps a tweak in philosophy. Van Horn, and most baseball coaches walking the planet, desire a blend of big bangers while mixing in consistent contact, get-around-the-base-path type guys.

Based on Van Horn’s comments, I suspect Thompson isn’t going anywhere, but they will tweak the approach and style of baseball to make it more productive. The top five home run seasons in the storied history of Razorback baseball belong to Nate Thompson’s offense. In the SEC, you have to be able to hit the ball out of the park because it can be hard to string together 3, 4 or 5 hits in an inning against frontline pitching. 

I don’t want the Hogs to sell out and go the route of small ball, slap hitters who run wild on the bases because that formula doesn’t consistently work well in this league or in tournament play. What works is a blend of all types of hitters who can also run and play defense with a few hammers scattered in there, and typically, that is the roster Arkansas has.

If you want to see that formula in practice, check out the Tennessee Volunteers. Vitello built most of that 2018 Razorback roster that made it within a foul popup of a national championship and put together several dynamic teams at Tennessee. He doesn’t win them all either, but the dude can identify and coach up talent. 

But he will miss on an upcoming roster in the future and the Vols will have a season that falls short. A team flames out (see: the Vols in 2022), a key guy doesn’t make it to campus, an injury and/or a couple of guys don’t pan out.

Looming Roster Churn

Roster change is inevitable at a program like Arkansas. Recruiting classes and juniors get gobbled up by the MLB Draft. There will almost always be a player(s) the coaches and/or fans believe would help the Hogs in the future transfer out as well. Hitting the mark in the portal, a select JUCO guy or two and getting some freshmen to handle the big time is what is required and typically what Dave Van Horn and his staff does. 

The style of play may need to adapt to the roster and being the savvy, successful coach that he is, Van Horn is receptive to modifying strategy and the type of players they recruit. 

The key will be filling all the vacancies with guys that can handle playing at the University of Arkansas. At bats at a school that doesn’t win a lot with 27 people in the stands isn’t the same as a packed Baum-Walker Stadium with an NCAA Tournament win on the line. I think that showed up this past season as well.

Arkansas baseball is a pressure cooker, much like Kentucky in basketball (and likely Razorback basketball starting next season). Winning not only big, but HUGE is required. The 2024 Diamond Hogs won big, as 44 games is nothing to ever, ever take for granted. Ask Ole Miss since winning the national championship or Mississippi State the two seasons prior to this one. Defending national champ and true powerhouse LSU almost missed the tournament this year until a late-season burst got them in the tournament and it was an out away from advancing to a super regional.

What to Expect from Arkansas Baseball

The trust in Dave Van Horn is still there, and frankly, I’m excited to see how he builds the roster for 2025. My guess is he puts many of those pieces that led to past Omaha runs in place and they are back there sooner than later. Whether that results in a national championship is yet to be seen, as there is so much more to that than a roster – luck, matchups, healthy players, weather (Oregon State got an extra day’s rest for their Game 3 pitcher due to a rain out) and so on. 

Hall of Famer Mike Martin, the all-time winningest coach in college baseball history, coached Florida State for 40 seasons with loads of MLB talent and never won a national championship. He went to Omaha 17 times and the cards never lined up in his favor. Think about that. 

I’d like to think Van Horn will win one or more someday, but he very well may not. That doesn’t mean he, his staff and his players aren’t aiming for that every season they take the field. And that standard leads to where the program is now and the national championship-or-bust fanbase outlook.

To even have a chance, it all starts with acquisitions this offseason and getting the right personnel on campus and ready to gel and perform under the bright lights. Then a successful regular season and, for now, let’s all think regional win and go from there. Arkansas baseball fans and their worn-out keyboards can’t and won’t will a team to a national championship. That’s never happened in any sport at any time. 

It’s always about the guys in the dugout and always will be.

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Brent Birch is a contributor to Best of Arkansas Sports who pitched for the Razorbacks from 1990-93 and is still on the UA’s all-time top 10 lists for games started and innings pitched.

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Needs for Arkansas Baseball

For the most part, the 2024 roster lacked SEC-level power hitters and guys who can get on base consistently and make things happen with their legs. Maybe it did on paper when the recruiting class and the portal players were mixed in, but that didn’t shake out during the season. This past season’s Hogs were more station-to-station than any team I can recall in recent memory. That leads to low productivity and scads of runners left on base. 

The late-season collapse wasn’t solely on the offense, as pitching also faltered down the stretch. The “best pitching staff in the country” was a shell of its former self late in the season. There were some bright spots, but those were not enough to keep the season alive.

In a column to publish tomorrow, I will discuss what I believe is an optimal roster and approach to solving the shortfalls of the last two seasons. Make sure to check back for more!

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