FAYETTEVILLE — This may be stating the obvious, but Hagen Smith is really, really good at baseball. Which is great news for Arkansas, but bad news for the rest of the SEC.
Already deemed a preseason All-American and tabbed the preseason SEC Pitcher of the Year by Perfect Game, the left-hander showcased why he’s racking up those accolades Friday afternoon.
In the Razorbacks’ first preseason scrimmage of 2024, Smith was electric in his lone inning of work despite giving up a home run to Kendall Diggs. He struck out the other three batters he faced and touched triple digits on the radar gun.
“I felt good,” Smith told reporters afterward. “Obviously it didn’t go the way I wanted it to all 100%. I gave up a home run to Kendall, which he’s a good hitter, so that always happens. But I felt pretty good.”
It was just the second time Smith has taken the mound inside Baum-Walker Stadium since the end of last season, which ended with an upset loss to TCU in the Fayetteville Regional that he said left a “bad taste in our mouths.”
Coming off an All-SEC campaign in which he was arguably the second-best pitcher in the league, behind only a generational talent in LSU’s Paul Skenes, Smith has taken his game to another level.
After using his 98-99 mph fastball to get ahead of projected starters Ty Wilmsmeyer and Peyton Holt, Smith struck out both of them with his slider. He stuck with that pitch against Diggs, but the second one he threw to him was deposited over the right field wall.
The long ball didn’t seem to bother Smith, as he blew three straight fastballs by Jayson Jones for his third strikeout. He went 98, 99 and 100 mph, according to the UA’s TrackMan system, and Jones had no chance.
“For him, just the way he carries himself — he knows he’s good and you have to at this level,” Diggs said when asked about what makes Smith so tough. “Every pitch he throws is incredible and (he) really just controls the game. That’s a guy you love playing defense behind and try to supply some runs for.”
The outing was just 14 pitches and Smith used only two of the four pitches in his arsenal. We didn’t get to see the splitter he added over the offseason, but he didn’t really need to get too deep in his bag.
Smith threw four sliders and 10 fastballs, the latter of which had an average velocity of 98.5 mph. That’s a significant uptick from last year and is on par with Skenes, whose fastball averaged 98 mph.
“That’s all we worked on, is strength and then just my mechanics and everything,” Smith said. “Now it’s not much forced velocity. Now it’s an easy thing — not easy, but more smooth and rhythm.”
What made Skenes so special, though, was his ability to maintain that velocity throughout a game. It wasn’t unusual for him to still touch 100 mph in the seventh inning or later. It remains to be seen how well Smith can hold his velocity.
We should learn more about that in the coming weeks, as the plan is for Smith to throw two innings in next weekend’s scrimmage outing and then three innings the week after that.
However, even if he isn’t throwing that hard in the late innings, he should still be effective because of his secondary stuff, which also includes a cutter to go along with the slider and splitter.
Diggs Goes Deep…Twice
As good as the pitching was, the MVP of the day was likely veteran right fielder Kendall Diggs, who actually homered twice.
The first one was the aforementioned long ball off Smith. He admitted to be gearing up for a 98-100 mph fastball, but “just happened to stay through that slider” and hit it 359 feet with a 100 mph exit velocity. Afterward, he said it was actually a good pitch, as it was low and away.
In his second at bat, Diggs was first-pitch swinging against Gage Wood and smacked a 368-foot blast that left the bat at 104 mph. It was a line drive off the Hunt Center beyond the right field wall.
“This past couple of weeks we’ve been working our tails off over there in the Fowler,” Diggs said. “Just really focusing on some things, maybe some flaws that we’ve realized over the last — I mean, it’s my third year here — and really keying in on those and just trying to minimize all of those.”
There were two other home runs in the scrimmage:
- Freshman catcher Ryder Helfrick hit a 353-foot solo shot to right off Wood. It had a 102 mph exit velocity.
- Transfer shortstop Wehiwa Aloy opened the fourth inning by staying on an off speed pitch by Jake Faherty and pulling it 368 feet with a 109 mph exit velocity into the left field bullpen.
Koty Frank’s Return
Had he not gone down with a torn lat muscle early in the season, Koty Frank likely would have been one of Arkansas’ top bullpen arms in 2023. The Nebraska transfer had a 3.09 ERA in 11 2/3 innings across six appearances.
Luckily for the Razorbacks, he was able to receive a medical redshirt and return for a sixth year of college baseball. He didn’t pitch in any of the fall scrimmages, but returned to the Baum-Walker Stadium mound Friday.
Inheriting a 3-1 lead heading into the fifth — and final — inning, Frank struggled to put the game away. He issued a leadoff walk to Reese Robinett and then threw a wild pitch that moved him into scoring position.
That set up an RBI single by freshman Ty Waid, but it wasn’t exactly a well-hit ball. It was a blooper that found grass in shallow center. That wasn’t the case for Will Edmunson, who followed it up be ripping an RBI double off the base of the wall in right field.
With the score now tied, Texas Tech transfer Hudson White hit a line drive into center that likely should have been a walk-off, but Edmunson held up at second and had to stop at third.
A younger pitcher likely would have crumbled in a similar situation, especially with the heart of the order coming up, but Frank displayed a veteran presence by striking out Tarleton State transfer Jack Wagner and then inducing a 4-6-3 double play from Sacramento State transfer Wehiwa Aloy.
That preserved the tie and ended the scrimmage with a 3-3 score.
Other Arkansas Pitchers Shine
For the most part, the scrimmage was dominated by Arkansas’ pitching. The first four runs came via the long ball before Koty Frank scuffled in the final inning.
Even with the Red team’s rally, the Razorbacks went just 7 for 36 at the plate, which is a .194 batting average. There were also only five walks and one HBP with 17 strikeouts.
While the combined 5.40 ERA isn’t impressive, the 1.20 WHIP and 15.3 strikeouts per nine innings paint a better picture of how they performed Friday.
A perfect example on an individual basis is right-hander Gage Wood. He gave up two home runs in his two innings, but struck out five of the other six batters he faced, with the other popping out.
Left-hander Mason Molina and right-hander Will McEntire each threw two scoreless innings, but Molina did issue three free passes (two walks, one HBP). That was an issue for him in the fall and could be something to monitor moving forward. McEntire, meanwhile, was pretty efficient. A great at bat by Ty Wilmsmeyer, resulting in a two-out, full-count walk, was the only blemish on his line.
One of the more encouraging outings was by right-hander Jake Faherty. A true wildcard in Arkansas’ bullpen, he has an incredible arm, but has struggled to harness it over his first two years in Fayetteville.
Now a junior, Faherty gave up the homer to Aloy and followed it up with a walk, but responded with back-to-back strikeouts sandwiched around a pickoff on which he showed a good mound presence to spin and get the runner who left early. That came after he already threw a perfect inning — and he did it with a lot of his off speed stuff, not just overpowering hitters with his elite velocity.
Arkansas Baseball Scrimmage Box Score
NOTE: Peyton Stovall did not play in the scrimmage because of an illness, per a UA spokesperson.
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