Loaded Arkansas Bullpen Features a Wildcard, Potential “Super Reliever” + More

Will McEntire, Arkansas baseball, Arkansas vs Eastern Illinois
photo credit: Baumology

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas baseball has a deep pitching staff this season.

How deep? Well, Best of Arkansas Sports has already written extensively on each of the Razorbacks’ three projected starters – Hagen Smith, Brady Tygart and Mason Molina – and a five-man group of relievers that will play a vital role in 2024.

Many college baseball programs would love to have that many seemingly dependable arms heading into a season.

However, that only scratches the surface of Arkansas’ staff and doesn’t include several other key pitchers who are expected to see a lot of innings this year.

Here’s a closer look at who makes up the rest of the Razorbacks’ bullpen…

The Super Reliever

He may not have the greatest stats or the best stuff on the staff, but there’s a strong likelihood that Will McEntire ends up being the most important reliever for Arkansas baseball this season.

A fifth-year senior out of in-state powerhouse Bryant High, the right-hander is expected to throw a lot of innings for the Razorbacks again in 2024 after leading the team in that category last year.

Although his final 2023 stats – 5.07 ERA, 1.39 WHIP and .271 BAA – weren’t overly impressive, McEntire was much better after moving to the bullpen midway through the season.

What started out as piggybacking off of Brady Tygart as he slowly worked his pitch count up upon returning from injury eventually evolved into him showing signs of being a “hybrid super reliever,” as pitching coach Matt Hobbs described it.

McEntire pitched twice in the final regular-season series at Vanderbilt, throwing a combined 6 ⅓ scoreless innings, before pitching twice in the SEC Tournament and Fayetteville Regional.

It was reminiscent of Kevin Kopps, the national player of the year by virtually every outlet in 2021, although not on the same scale. The hope is that McEntire will be able to have a similar role this season, even if he doesn’t have the same videogame-like numbers Kopps put up.

“The Kevin Kopps-type role is realistic,” Hobbs told Best of Arkansas Sports after fall ball. Kopps “could go out and throw 75 innings out of the pen. That’s not crazy to think that Will could handle that either.

“He’s always handled big workloads and been good with it and been able to do it. There are certain guys that bounce back better than others and Will’s one of those guys that’s kind of pretty resilient. He’s big and physical (and) he is in the best shape of his life.”

McEntire did get roughed up a bit in three preseason outings, but his unofficial 6.48 ERA is somewhat deceptive. He would typically have one bad inning either preceding or following a couple of very good-to-great innings. That’s more reflected in his unofficial 1.08 WHIP and .235 BAA.

The Wildcard for Arkansas Baseball

The average fan may not recognize the name Jake Faherty. After all, he’s thrown only one combined inning in two appearances over the last two seasons.

Those who closely follow Arkansas baseball on the recruiting trail, though, know he was a late addition to the Razorbacks’ 2021 signing class. Faherty was headed to JUCO out of high school, but Dave Van Horn and Matt Hobbs saw the right-hander touch 100 mph and took a flier on him knowing he was probably more of a long-term project.

Well, he’s a junior now and it’s time for that project to come to fruition.

“He needs to go out and decide enough’s enough,” Hobbs said. “He’s in his third year of college and you can erase a lot of past discretion by going out and having a good spring. People forget real fast how good you were in your first two years if you’re good your third year.”

Consistently throwing the ball over the plate and improving his secondary stuff have been the keys for Faherty.

An inability to throw strikes has largely been why he hasn’t seen the mound more the last two seasons, but Hobbs said he also needed something to go with the fastball. Even though it sits 97-99 mph, Faherty’s fastball metrics aren’t exactly unique, so it needs to be located to be a plus pitch.

To help with that aspect, he’s now throwing a slider and a cutter. On top of that, his command is much better. In fact, Hobbs said he had the fifth-best overall zone percentage (how often his pitches found the strike zone) on the team this fall. Faherty has also shown improvement in other small areas of the game, such as holding runners on. 

Van Horn said he believes his success with the Wareham Gatemen in the prestigious Cape Cod League – where he was named an all-star this summer – has contributed to that improvement. 

“I think going out and playing in the Cape Cod League and throwing the ball really well, except for maybe one game, has really helped him,” Van Horn said. “He’s a guy that has super stuff. Upper 90s all the time, kind of easy out of his hand. Throwing a breaking ball for a strike, throwing a fastball for a strike.”

In three preseason scrimmages open to the public, Faherty gave up four hits and three walks, but allowed only one run while striking out seven in five innings of work.

The Kentucky native may not be a long-relief option for Arkansas, but he’s shown flashes of being someone capable of pitching an inning at a time and the Razorbacks even threw him twice this past weekend, with his second outing coming in a closed indoor scrimmage.

The Transfer

A lot of attention has understandably been on Arkansas baseball adding Mason Molina out of the transfer portal, but the Razorbacks also brought in a transfer reliever in Stone Hewlett.

The left-hander comes to Fayetteville from Kansas, where he pitched 42 1/3 innings for the Jayhawks. His numbers don’t exactly jump off the page, posting a 4.68 ERA and 1.32 WHIP, but he did it in the Big 12 and Arkansas’ coaching staff saw something it liked.

Specifically, Dave Van Horn and Matt Hobbs were intrigued by how well he did against lefties. While right-handed batters hit .308 and slugged .505 against him, Hewlett held left-handed hitters to a .242 batting average and .371 slugging percentage last season.

“We won’t throw him against too many righties in what we call leverage situations,” Van Horn said. “He’s a guy you could see pitch three times on the weekend — come in and get a lefty, come in and get two lefties. Depending on the score and situation, we might leave him out there, but he’s really hard to hit if you hit left-handed.”

Hewlett has actually been really good over multiple innings the past two weekends of intrasquad scrimmages, allowing only three total hits while striking out nine in scoreless outings of 2 and 2 2/3 innings, so it’s possible his role expands. The safe bet, though, is that he’ll at least be a left-on-left specialist.

Returning from Injuries

There’s a chance the Razorbacks will be even deeper as the season progresses, with three pitchers battling back from season-ending injuries.

One of them will be available immediately, as right-hander Koty Frank is 100% healthy and has pitched in each of the three weekends of preseason scrimmages. His velocity isn’t completely back to where it was, but that’s okay because he wasn’t a big velocity guy in the first place. (Van Horn said he touched 93 mph last year, but he’s not expected to throw that hard.)

A transfer from Nebraska, Frank looked like he was going to be Arkansas’ go-to guy out of the pen last year before tearing a lat muscle that required surgery. At the time of the injury, he had a 3.09 ERA in 11 2/3 innings across six outings – all within the first 11 games of the season.

“He’s thrown a couple of times to live hitters in the indoor and he pretty much sliced them up because that’s what he does,” Van Horn said before the preseason. “He’s different. He’s got an incredible change-up with movement, works fast, fields his position. He’s not scared. I think he’ll get a lot of innings for us if he stays healthy and I don’t know why he wouldn’t.”

However, it’s worth noting that Frank has struggled since then, allowing six runs on eight hits and two walks while striking out four in 5 1/3 innings across three scrimmage appearances. If he can return to form, though, he’ll again be a key arm as a sixth-year senior in 2024.

Interestingly, right-hander Dylan Carter didn’t get much of a chance to pitch last season until multiple injuries forced him into action and he made the most of his opportunity.

Before needing Tommy John surgery late in the season, the Bentonville West product was 6-0 with two saves and a 3.65 ERA in 37 innings across 16 appearances. The timing of his elbow injury made it unlikely he’d be able to pitch in 2024, but he’s well ahead of schedule in his recovery and could potentially be on the mound sometime in March.

“We’re still going to let him kind of show us what we need to do,” Van Horn said. “He’s not going to come to me and say, ‘Hey, I need to pitch.’ He’s going to have to show us that he’s ready to pitch at this level. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was because it’s been amazing watching him get better week by week.”

His mother, Carmen Carter, shared on Friday that he has only four more bullpens before he’s cleared and begins the evaluation process – the last step before getting on the mound for real.

The third pitcher whose 2023 season was cut short by injury is left-hander Adam Hachman. The freshman from Wentzville, Mo., was touching 100 mph before getting hurt and was a serious MLB Draft selection possibility as the No. 58 overall recruit in his class, according to Perfect Game.

The injury was initially believed to require Tommy John surgery, but Hachman ended up having an internal brace procedure, which isn’t as invasive and allows for a quicker recovery time.

It’s not yet known when he’ll be able to pitch in games and there’s a chance he ends up redshirting. That said, if he does return to pre-injury form, Hachman would be another electric left-handed arm for Arkansas to use out of the bullpen.

“Adam is working hard, has a big arm,” Van Horn said. “Our hope was that he would get on the mound before this season is over. When? He’ll have to show us when he is ready, how he feels, how he is throwing the baseball and hopefully he will do that. But he is feeling good and just has to keep building up.”

Arkansas Freshmen to Watch

Even though they have numerous veteran options, there is a lot of excitement surrounding the Razorbacks’ freshmen. That’s the case every year, but especially so when the group includes multiple top-100 prospects.

However, just because they were ranked highly as recruits doesn’t mean they’ll immediately have a big role at Arkansas. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as Matt Hobbs said he’d like for them to have “a chance to grow up a little bit instead of having to just (go) straight into a fire” like last year’s group.

Pitchers like Hagen Smith, Brady Tygart, Patrick Wicklander and Connor Noland don’t come around all the time, either. Even for them, there’s an adjustment going from high school to the SEC.

“The key is, for a freshman, can you throw it over the plate? Can you pitch?” Van Horn said. “That’s the whole key and then you go from there. You don’t throw it over the plate and you have good stuff, you can watch over there with us, go to the bullpen and learn how to throw it over the plate and then you get to pitch.”

Thankfully for the Razorbacks, they have a handful of freshmen who have shown they can do that – albeit sometimes inconsistently – in preseason scrimmages.

When he met with reporters after fall ball, Van Horn specifically mentioned right-handers Gabe Gaeckle and Tate McGuire and left-handers Hunter Dietz and Colin Fisher. Whether intentionally or not, the veteran coach mentioned those same four – in reverse order – before the start of the preseason two months later.

Of that group, Dietz probably drew the most hype because he was Perfect Game’s No. 57 overall recruit in the 2023 class and was dominant in fall scrimmages.

However, he won’t pitch until early April because of a minor procedure he had following fall ball to fix a problem that had been lingering since his sophomore year of high school. Dietz had hoped to wait until after the season to do it, but his stuff fell off and the decision was made for him to go ahead and do it. Van Horn said he’d rather have Dietz available for the second half of the season than the first half.

“He showed his first few outings how good he was,” Van Horn said. “At the end of fall ball, he wasn’t the same. He was still good, but it wasn’t nearly as good, because it’s pretty electric.”

Gaeckle is another heralded recruit, checking in at No. 51 in Perfect Game’s rankings and turning down the Cincinnati Reds to come to college. He sits 96-97 mph with the fastball and also has a good changeup and slider. In three preseason scrimmages, Gaeckle posted a 3.52 ERA and had flashes of brilliance while starting opposite of Brady Tygart.

Fisher (No. 409) and McGuire (No. 414) weren’t as touted coming out of high school, but have also shown glimpses of being able to contribute as freshmen. Fisher, in particular, was dominant in his first preseason start, while Van Horn described McGuire as a “strike-thrower” with a good slider.

The other freshmen on the roster aren’t expected to pitch much in 2024, but right-handers Jaewoo Cho and Diego Ramos and left-handers Tucker Holland and Jack Smith may develop into key arms down the line.


Hear Matt Hobbs talk more about the pitchers below. He discusses McEntire starting at 23:50:

Check out our other in-depth previews of the Razorbacks’ loaded pitching staff:


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More coverage of Arkansas baseball from BoAS… 

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