FAYETTEVILLE — The biggest question is not who will make up the Opening Weekend starting rotation for Arkansas baseball, but rather which order they’ll pitch.
When James Madison visits Baum-Walker Stadium for a four-game series beginning Feb. 16, it will almost certainly see some combination of Hagen Smith, Brady Tygart and Mason Molina for the first three games.
They’re all juniors, but Smith and Tygart spent the last two years as significant contributors for the Razorbacks, while Molina transferred in from Texas Tech.
With two of them – Smith and Molina – being left-handers and the third being a righty, not to mention each of them having different skill sets, any of the six possible combinations would make sense and give Arkansas arguably the best starting rotation in the country.
In an exclusive interview with Best of Arkansas Sports, though, pitching coach Matt Hobbs gave some insight into how the coaching staff is leaning at the moment.
“Really, the easy answer is Hagen goes first and then Brady, because we know him, and then Mason goes third,” Hobbs said. “That’s the easy answer, but I don’t know if that’s how it’ll happen. I would say the smart money’s on Hagen going first right now.
“That could evolve into some fun matchup games you could play or some different stuff that you could do. But it’s definitely the best going-into-the-season rotation since I’ve been here.”
The fact that each of them have ace potential is a major reason expectations are once again sky high for the Razorbacks, who are in the midst of an unprecedented run of success that has included everything except a national title.
We spoke to Hobbs about all three of the expected starters in our one-on-one interview following fall ball and will preview them separately over the next few days, starting with the projected ace…
Projected Ace: LHP Hagen Smith
Jr. | 6-3 | 225 | Bullard, Texas (Bullard HS)
2023 Stats: 18 G/11 GS, 8-2, 2 saves, 3.64 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 109 K/42 BB, 71.2 IP, .217 BAA
Coming off an All-SEC season in which he was arguably the best pitcher in the conference not named Paul Skenes, there was already a lot of hype surrounding Hagen Smith and him potentially being a first-round pick in next summer’s MLB Draft.
That hype went into overdrive when reports surfaced this fall that Smith touched 100 mph on the radar gun. Matt Hobbs confirmed to Best of Arkansas Sports that several scouts had the triple-digit reading, but added he was mostly 97-99 mph on TrackMan, the UA’s in-house system.
If he was a closer, head coach Dave Van Horn told reporters that Smith could probably sit 97-100 mph, but they’d prefer him to be in the 93-96 range as a starter.
What’s more important – and what that uptick in velocity has overshadowed – is Smith’s secondary stuff.
Van Horn didn’t want to give away too much when he met with reporters after fall ball, but Hobbs spilled the beans to Best of Arkansas Sports: Smith has added a splitter.
“The split was really kind of the thing that we went in working on the most,” Hobbs said. “He needed something that could deflect some carry off his fastball that could be a little bit different and not be one of his spin pitches with the cutter and the slider.”
That new and improved pitch hasn’t really been put on public display yet, as most of his work this fall came in about seven or eight bullpen sessions. He pitched in just one intrasquad scrimmage and it was electric.
Facing three projected starters in Ty Wilmsmeyer, Jack Wagner and Wehiwa Aloy, Smith made quick work of his lone inning, sitting each of them down on strikes.
Of course, the velocity can’t be ignored, especially with him hitting 100 mph. Hobbs said that can be attributed to work he’s done with strength coach Hunter Bell this offseason, as well as work he’s done on his own, such as when he worked out in the hotel weight room while pitching out of the bullpen with Team USA.
“Hagen Smith is probably one of the hardest workers I’ve ever been around,” Van Horn said. “He really worked hard on his body. He had a great strong physique, but now he’s super strong. He’s put on some really good weight.”
Outside of an overall improvement of his arsenal, one area Smith could improve from his stellar sophomore season is his control. He issued 42 walks in 71 2/3 innings last year, which is an average of 5.3 per nine innings. For comparison, here’s how previous No. 1 starters at Arkansas performed in that stat in recent years:
- 2023 Hunter Hollan: 3.2
- 2022 Connor Noland: 2.6
- 2021 Patrick Wicklander: 2.8
- 2019 Isaiah Campbell: 1.7
- 2018 Blaine Knight: 2.0
- 2017 Trevor Stephan: 2.0
Having such a high walk rate has led to extended innings, which increases his pitch count and prevents him from working deeper into games. For Smith to make that next jump, he needs to consistently get through the sixth inning and work into the seventh — something that made the likes of Knight, Campbell and Noland so great.
Luckily for the Razorbacks, Hobbs said “the biggest thing” Smith improved this fall was throwing that aforementioned fastball more frequently in the zone.
“His fastball command as a result of just being stronger and older and more mature and having a better idea of what he wanted to do with it, that also got better,” Hobbs said. “His delivery is a little bit more sound than it was last year. He doesn’t have to jump down the mound as much. He can kind of get into positions and be a little bit more aggressive down the mound, because he’s stronger.”
Even though he was a heralded recruit coming out of Bullard High School in Texas, where he famously threw seven no-hitters as a senior, Smith looks nothing like he did when he arrived on campus in the fall of 2021.
MLB Pipeline ranks Smith as the 15th-best prospect available in the 2024 MLB Draft — quite the rise from when he was No. 117 on that same list coming out of high school.
To illustrate just how far he’s come, Hobbs said he met with him one morning following fall ball and showed him video from his freshman and sophomore seasons compared to now.
“You can see the maturation is crazy in terms of just what his body looks like, but also his delivery is better,” Hobbs said. “He’s in better positions, he’s in better spots and obviously the repeatability of a delivery is hard enough, but he’s able to do it a little bit more. He’s been able to move a little bit better, a little bit cleaner down the mound.”
Potential History for Hagen Smith
If current projections hold true, there’s a very good chance Hagen Smith becomes the highest-drafted pitcher in Arkansas baseball history.
As mentioned above, he’s ranked No. 15 on MLB Pipeline’s top prospects list, but in that publication’s first full mock draft for 2024, Smith was actually slotted 12th.
The Razorbacks have had only three pitchers selected in the first round of the MLB Draft, with Nick Schmidt being the highest at No. 23 in 2007. David Walling was the 27th pick in 1999 and Ryne Stanek went 29th overall in 2013.
Arkansas Baseball’s 2024 Pitching Staff
- RHP Ben Bybee – sophomore
- RHP Dylan Carter – redshirt senior
- LHP Parker Coil – sophomore
- RHP Cooper Dossett – sophomore
- RHP Jake Faherty – junior
- RHP Christian Foutch – sophomore
- RHP Koty Frank – super senior
- RHP Josh Hyneman – redshirt freshman (Tommy John surgery)
- RHP Will McEntire – redshirt senior
- LHP Hagen Smith – junior
- RHP Brady Tygart – junior
- RHP Gage Wood – sophomore
- LHP Stone Hewlett – senior (transfer from Kansas)
- LHP Mason Molina – junior (transfer from Texas Tech)
- RHP Jaewoo Cho – freshman
- LHP Hunter Dietz – freshman
- LHP Colin Fisher – freshman
- RHP Gabe Gaeckle – freshman
- LHP Adam Hachman – freshman
- LHP Tucker Holland – freshman
- RHP Tate McGuire – freshman
- RHP Diego Ramos – freshman
- LHP Jack Smith – freshman
For more insight into Arkansas baseball’s projected ace, Hagen Smith, check out his interview with Joe Doyle of Future Stars Series:
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