Fresh off the best season of his young career, Ryne Stanek is hoping the second time’s the charm in the 2022 World Series.
The former Arkansas baseball standout and the Houston Astros are back in the Fall Classic for the second straight year, taking down the New York Yankees to win the American League and set up a showdown with the Philadelphia Phillies beginning Friday.
Stanek, who was an All-American for the Razorbacks, evolved from a key arm in Houston’s bullpen to one of the most dominant relievers in all of MLB this season. Throwing 54 2/3 innings in 59 regular-season appearances, he posted an incredible 1.15 ERA with 62 strikeouts while holding opponents to a minuscule .188 batting average.
Although he didn’t pitch enough to qualify for the ERA crown, which teammate Justin Verlander won with a 1.75 mark, Stanek shattered the Astros’ single-season record for ERA by a relief pitcher (1.50 by Will Harris in 2019) and was second only to the Dodgers’ Evan Phillips (1.14) among relievers this year.
Pro Hogs’ Pitching Performances
Not surprisingly, this also sets the all-time single-season standard for former Razorback baseball pitchers (min. 50 IP) — although it’s worth noting that Cy Young Award winners Cliff Lee and Dallas Keuchel were at their best as starters and comparing them to relievers is an apples-to-oranges comparison.
|Ryne Stanek||2022||Houston Astros||1.15||54 2/3*|
|Les Lancaster||1989||Chicago Cubs||1.36||72 2/3*|
|Dallas Keuchel||2020||Chicago White Sox||1.99||63 1/3|
|Drew Smyly||2013||Detroit Tigers||2.37||76*|
|Cliff Lee||2011||Philadelphia Phillies||2.40||232 2/3|
|Dallas Keuchel||2015||Houston Astros||2.48||232|
|Blake Parker||2017||Los Angeles Angels||2.54||67 1/3*|
|Cliff Lee||2008||Cleveland Indians||2.54||223 1/3|
|Dick Hughes||1967||St. Louis Cardinals||2.67||222 1/3|
|Trevor Stephan||2022||Cleveland Guardians||2.69||62 2/3*|
Unlike last season, when he was a workhorse who appeared in all but three of Houston’s postseason games, Stanek has pitched just twice so far this October and was perfect both outings.
In the deciding Game 3 of the ALDS, he needed just 11 pitches to retire the Mariners in order in the 11th inning of a game the Astros eventually won 1-0 in 18 innings. Facing the Yankees in the ALCS, Stanek struck out Gleyber Torres, Matt Carpenter and Harrison Bader in order in the seventh inning of Game 3.
By retiring all six batters he’s faced, Stanek has improved his career postseason numbers to an incredible 1.80 ERA and 0.67 WHIP with 18 strikeouts and five walks in 15 innings across 17 appearances. Even more impressive, opponents are slashing just .104/.189/.250 against him in the playoffs.
He is part of what has been an unstoppable bullpen in October. Through their first seven playoff games, the Astros’ bullpen has a 0.82 ERA and 0.72 WHIP with 42 strikeouts in 33 innings. Being part of a dominant staff like that is nothing new for Stanek, though, as he was the ace of Arkansas’ 2013 team that posted a 1.89 ERA — the lowest mark in college baseball since 1976.
If the Astros, who are 7-0 this postseason, can finish off their run by winning a best-of-seven series against the Phillies, Stanek would become just the sixth former Arkansas player to win a World Series ring.
Three of the previous five have done so in the past five seasons, as Dallas Keuchel won one with Houston in 2017, Andrew Benintendi won one in 2018 with Boston and Drew Smyly won one last year with Atlanta. Before them, Dick Hughes won one in 1967 with St. Louis and Eric Hinske captured a pair of rings with the Red Sox in 2007 and the Yankees in 2009.
Benintendi Up for Another Gold Glove
His run to another World Series title ended in the ALCS, but Andrew Benintendi could still repeat as a Gold Glover in 2022.
The former Arkansas star was announced by Rawlings as one of three finalists for the award for left fielders in the American League, along with Steven Kwan of the Guardians and Brandon Marsh, who was with the Angels before being traded to the Phillies.
A midseason trade sent Benintendi to the Yankees after his first career All-Star Game appearances, but he struggled in New York. After hitting .320 in 93 games with the Royals, his batting average dipped to .254 in 33 games with the Yankees.
Making matters worse for Benintendi, he fractured his right hamate bone on Sept. 2 and spent the rest of the year on the injured list — including the postseason. The Yankees held out hope that he’d be available for the World Series, but obviously that didn’t come to fruition because they were eliminated by the Astros.
He now enters the offseason as a free agent. Still just 28 years old, he will likely receive a large contract — it’s just a question of which team will give it to him. According to NJ.com, whether or not he returns to New York could depend on the Yankees’ ability to re-sign superstar Aaron Judge.
Stephan’s Stellar Sophomore Season
The sophomore slump didn’t hit Trevor Stephan in 2022. In fact, he made massive strides in his second season in the big leagues after debuting with Cleveland last year.
As seen in the chart above, Stephan actually had the 10th-best single-season ERA among former Arkansas pitchers who threw at least 50 innings, finishing at 2.69 in 63 2/3 innings.
In almost the exact same number of innings as a rookie (63 1/3 IP), Stephan had a 4.41 ERA. He also improved his WHIP (1.41 to 1.18), increased his strikeouts (75 to 82), cut down his walks (31 to 18) and gave up far fewer home runs (15 to 3).
Similar to Stanek, Stephan was even better in the postseason. He made four appearances and struck out 11 of the 18 batters he faced and retired six of the other seven. Unfortunately, the one batter who reached against him, who did so via a walk, came around to score with another reliever on the mound. That meant he was charged with an earned run.
Stephan was so dominant that he became a favorite subject of the Pitching Ninja on Twitter.
A sometimes-forgotten ace in recent Arkansas baseball history because of guys like Blaine Knight and Isaiah Campbell, Stephan was excellent in his lone season with the Razorbacks.
In 2017, the right-hander posted a 2.87 ERA with 120 strikeouts and only 20 walks in 91 innings. Having already pitched a couple years in junior college, he was draft eligible after the season and was taken in the third round.
Beeks Bounces Back from Tommy John
One guy who just missed the cut for the chart above was Jalen Beeks, who turned in the best season of his career in his first year back from Tommy John surgery.
The Prairie Grove native missed the entire 2021 season because of a torn UCL suffered late in the 2020 season. It was unknown how he’d bounce back this year, so he agreed to a contract that paid him just $750,000 in 2022.
The Tampa Bay Rays got their money’s worth and then some from Beeks, as he appeared in 42 games and posted a 2.80 ERA and 1.16 WHIP with 70 strikeouts in 61 innings.
Unfortunately, he did end the regular season on the injured list because of right lower leg tightness. The Rays included him on their postseason roster, but he didn’t pitch in their best-of-three AL Wild Card Series against Cleveland.
Smyly Enjoys Renaissance in Chicago
Although he won a World Series title with the Braves last season, Drew Smyly didn’t exactly have a big role in it and was relegated to a lightly used bullpen arm in the postseason.
He ultimately chose to sign an incentive-laden, one-year, $5.25 million deal with the Cubs during spring training and earned a spot in the back end of their rotation.
It went about as well as both parties could have hoped, as Smyly revived his career by starting 22 games and posting a 3.47 ERA and 1.19 WHIP with 91 strikeouts in 106 1/3 innings. He did miss some time with an oblique strain, but still earned an extra $1.05 million in incentives.
Smyly and the Cubs have a $10 million mutual option for the 2023 season, but according to the Chicago Sun-Times, they are expected to work out a new contract to keep him in Chicago.
Pair of Hogs Make MLB Debuts in 2022
Two former Razorbacks made it to the big leagues for the first time this season, with Zach Jackson making the Opening Day roster in Oakland and Evan Lee getting a midseason call-up in Washington.
A third-round pick back in 2016, Jackson was a key bullpen arm for the Athletics. He appeared in 54 games and posted a solid 3.00 ERA and 1.27 WHIP with 67 strikeouts in 48 innings. He also notched three saves.
Lee’s ascent to the Show was much quicker, as he was a 15th-round pick in 2018. He made his debut on June 1 with a start against the Mets and then appeared in three more games out of the bullpen before going on the injured list with a left flexor sprain.
Before getting hurt, Lee gave up four earned runs on nine hits and seven walks with seven strikeouts in 8 2/3 innings. That works out to a 4.15 ERA.
Versatility Highlights Reynolds’ Season
His numbers don’t necessarily jump off the page, but dig a little deeper and you find Matt Reynolds’ true value to the Cincinnati Reds this season.
Beginning the year with the Mets, Reynolds was claimed off waivers by the Reds in April and ended up playing in 92 games. He hit .246/.320/.332 with three home runs and 23 RBIs – all career highs.
Making his season more impressive, though, is the fact that he was a Swiss Army knife for Cincinnati. Primarily an infielder, he played every position except catcher in 2022. Not only did he play all three outfield spots, but Reynolds also found himself on the mound twice.
Because of that versatility, there’s a good chance Reynolds makes the team again next year.
Struggling Hogs on the Move?
Outside of Benintendi and Reynolds, the only other position players from Arkansas in the big leagues this season were James McCann and Brian Anderson – and neither had a particularly good year.
Making the All-Star Game with the White Sox in 2019, McCann was a big free agent signee for the Mets leading up to the 2021 season and things haven’t quite worked out like they hoped.
After slashing .232/.294/.349 last year, the former Arkansas catcher’s numbers dipped to .195/.257/.282 this year and he appeared in half the games he did the year before.
Considering New York is set to pay him $24.3 million over the next two years, there is plenty of speculation that he might be dealt this offseason.
The same could happen to Anderson in Miami, as his playing time dwindled because of the emergence of younger players on the team. Since finishing fourth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2018, his numbers have steadily fallen. Appearing in 98 games this season, Anderson slashed .222/.311/.346 with eight home runs and 28 RBIs.
Having seemingly been beaten out at third base and in the corner outfield spots, Anderson could be non-tendered and become a free agent this offseason.
More coverage of Arkansas baseball from BoAS…