Dave Van Horn’s New Blueprint for Arkansas Baseball Begins Here

Dave Van Horn, Arkansas baseball
photo credit: Craven Whitlow

When things don’t go well, fans always clamor for what they don’t have. That is true across all sports and is the case with Arkansas baseball after yet another disappointing regional exit from the NCAA Tournament.

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. The bright spots were not enough to keep the season alive.

I will not dive into all the shortfalls that caused the season to end well before anyone desired, including the coaching staff and players. 

All the keyboard-hitting critics, pitching experts, and wannabe head coaches seem to be keenly aware of the team’s struggles. However, I will discuss what I believe is an optimal roster and approach to solving the shortfalls of the last two seasons.

What Arkansas Needs on the Mound

Headed into the 2024 season, pitching coach Matt Hobbs’ group had all the pieces. And for most of the season, it performed like an Omaha-caliber staff. A dominant ace, followed by two proven, successful weekend starters and all kinds of options in the bullpen – power arms, good to great secondary pitches, and a solid mix of left- and right-handers.

With such a premium on pitching, Arkansas had it all in place.

There was so much quality depth that Razorback starters rarely went past 5-6 innings or 100 pitches, all in hopes of having them fresh for the postseason. 

That protection didn’t pan out, as the respected pitching staff that led the nation in ERA for most of the season fell apart down the stretch and buckled in postseason play. Tired, sore arms, focus, pressure, slump…likely a mix of all that contributed to the struggles.

Provided the transfer portal doesn’t suck up guys the coaching staff would welcome back, there are some solid building blocks on campus already. Sophomore-to-be Gabe Gaeckle gives the pitching staff a bonafide future Friday night guy as a building block. There are also two highly recruited lefties set to return in Hunter Dietz and Adam Hachman. 

Dietz pitched briefly coming off a high school arm injury, only to be shut down after two appearances. Hachman spent the entire school year rehabbing from an injury suffered before coming to Fayetteville. 

Dietz, meanwhile, was the No. 7 left-hander in the country and Hachman was No. 8 for the 2023 graduating class, according to Perfect Game.

Both of those guys, along with effective midweek starter Colin Fisher, should have every opportunity to be frontline guys once they heal up from these injuries. Remember that Hagen Smith had Tommy John surgery in high school, and that guy turned out pretty good. 

Christian Foutch made a big jump during the 2024 season and seems destined to be that power arm closer for next season. Gage Wood had some moments, but must improve his secondary offerings to pitch in high-leverage spots. Same for Parker Coil from the left side. Surely someone from the redshirt group also steps forward like Will McEntire or Jacob Kostyshock has in the past. 

The incoming class has some nice pieces, but it is hard to count on the better ones, given the MLB Draft tends to pick those off before they ever show up for class.

The Hogs will definitely pursue some older, experienced pitchers in the portal and/or junior college ranks, with a keen eye for proven starters and relievers.

Hobbs will seek guys with proven results, the ability to command multiple pitches and mound presence. The transfer portal will be littered with them — some from brand name schools, others from schools you’ve never heard of. The challenge will be getting them to be a Razorback and not a Volunteer, Bulldog, Gator or Tiger.

Needs in the Field

From the sound of things, Dave Van Horn expects most regulars from this season’s lineup to move on from college baseball. I can see where most fans might say that’s good. The Hogs need a fresh start, and that’s understandable after how lackluster and, frankly, boring the offense was this year. 

But I sure would like to see Hudson White back for another year, given how he ended the season. His catching exceeded preseason expectations and he almost carried the offense the last month of the season. 

Shortstop Wehiwa Aloy may be the one and only key returner. He had a stellar defensive season and hit better than the typical Van Horn-era shortstop. Much better power and RBI numbers than Jalen Battles in his sophomore year, with a better fielding percentage. 

I expect Aloy to make a jump next season after seeing what was surely a notch above what he saw pitching-wise during his freshman year at Sacramento State.

The first two types of players Van Horn and hitting coach Nate Thompson should pursue would be a true leadoff man and a surefire, power-hitting run producer that the pieces fill in around. Think Trevor Ezell or Tavian Josenberger for the former and Heston Kjerstad or Andrew Benintendi for the latter.

Those two spots change the entire dynamic of an offense. The lead-off guy is a disruptor who pressures opposing defenses. Meanwhile, the big bopper does damage with runners on base or forces pitchers to pitch to other formidable options in the lineup. 

They will also have to find productive options to hit behind the Kjerstad-like centerpiece or he will be pitched around more times than not in key spots. Georgia had protection for SEC – and likely national – player of the year Charlie Condon, which allowed him to hit 36 home runs and counting. 

The number of different lineups Van Horn tried this year was astounding and spoke to just how short this roster came up in terms of SEC-caliber talent. It was almost like the entire team, outside of the Peytons, were 6-9 hole hitters.

Kendall Diggs’ nightmarish junior season didn’t help. I am certain they never envisioned Jared Sprague-Lott hitting in the top half of the lineup, but they had to put him there because he had a pretty decent season, although not numbers like a typical SEC 3-hole hitter. Even the typical steady Ben McLaughlin had a nearly month-long stretch of struggles. Others simply never got going.

Ideally, some of the youngsters from this season – Nolan Souza, Ryder Helfrick – will step into starting roles, but Van Horn is likely to lean on the transfer portal once again.

The key will be doing so with a higher hit rate than this past season.

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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.

See his other postseason column here:

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