Whether Hog Nation’s “Fire Nate Thompson” Movement Has Merit or Not

Nate Thompson, Arkansas baseball
photo credit: Craven Whitlow

Another year, another unceremonious exit from the NCAA Tournament for Arkansas baseball.

In what has become an all-too-predictable formula, the Razorbacks failed to live up to their regular season success that saw them capture an SEC West title and earn the No. 5 national seed. The stage was set for Baum-Walker Stadium to host two weekends of NCAA Tournament action en route to another Omaha trip for the Diamond Hogs.

Instead, the lowly four-seed in the regional, SEMO, downed the Razorbacks. It leaves some extra heartburn because the night before Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn had fired back at reporters for their pessimism after the first loss to Kansas State, saying the Hogs could turn things around and make it out of the regional.

“We can do it,” Van Horn said. “Everybody’s Mr. Oh Poor ‘Ol Me negative. We can do it. We might not do it, but we can.”

Rather than running the gauntlet and winning three games in two days, the Razorbacks didn’t even take the time to build up any tension as they bowed out in the very next game against the Redhawks.

In previous years, the four seed in the Fayetteville Regional has been embraced with love by a fanbase showing northern schools like NJIT some southern hospitality. There’s no fear of losing to teams like that when you’re the hosting juggernaut. Instead, the Hogs were toppled by the smallest fish in the pond on Sunday.

It’s the second year in a row they’ve been bounced in their own regional after the bloodbath against TCU last season. 

The elephant in the room is getting harder and harder to ignore for Van Horn, who is 63 years old and still in pursuit of the elusive national title that’s the only missing piece on his historic resume. At his age, the Head Hog doesn’t have any more throwaway years left – the clock is ticking. So what went wrong this year?

Bats Go Quiet in NCAA Tournament…Again

It’s a familiar story. After walloping SEMO 17-9 on Friday, Arkansas went out with a whimper on Sunday. The Hogs were held to just three runs, and didn’t record a hit until the 5th inning. The only scoring plays on the day came off home runs from Peyton Holt and Parker Rowland.

In 2022, Arkansas was shut out by Hunter Elliott in a season-ending 2-0 loss to Ole Miss in Omaha. In 2021, the top-seeded Razorbacks gave Golden Spikes Award winner Kevin Kopps just two runs of support in a Game 3 Super Regional loss to NC State.

In the 2019 College World Series, Arkansas went 0-2 after managing to score just four combined runs in losses to Florida State and Texas Tech. The infamous CWS Finals in 2018 saw the Hogs’ season ended in a shutout Game 3 loss. 2017? The Missouri State Bears walked out of Fayetteville with a regional win after holding Arkansas to just two runs in the decisive game.

You get the point. Almost every season-ending loss in recent memory has seen the bats disappear at a time when Arkansas needed them most. Stats compiled by Best of Arkansas Sports’ Andrew Hutchinson show that the Hogs have hit for a combined .145 average across their last seven season-ending losses in the NCAA Tournament.

That’s not to say the pitching has been flawless in the postseason, by any means – TCU scored 32 runs in two games against the Hogs last year, and Hagen Smith showed his human side this weekend by allowing six runs to Kansas State.

But the common denominator in the Hogs’ numerous postseason shortcomings over the years has been a lack of offense, and it’s led to a microscope being put on hitting coach Nate Thompson’s status at Arkansas. Take a look at some heated fan reactions after Sunday’s loss:

Damning Statistics Explain Offensive Shortcomings

Thompson just wrapped up his seventh season in charge of the Arkansas batting order, a time over which he’s created a distinct offensive identity – for better or worse. As you can probably imagine by the “gorilla ball” moniker that the team embraced this season, the idea is all based around power hitting.

Be patient at the plate. Try to draw a lot of walks, and hit for power. You might even hear the fabled phrase of “launch angles,” as well. Just doing a keyword search of Thompson’s bio on the team website, you’ll find the words “homer” or “home run” mentioned a whopping 26 times.

It’s more than a calling card – it’s become life and death for the Razorback offense. The saying goes in basketball that some teams live and die by the three pointer. That double-edged sword has stabbed the Arkansas baseball team a number of times, as it accurately applies to the pursuit of home runs, as well.

This season, the Hogs were mediocre across the board on offense. They ranked either 10th or 11th out of 14 SEC teams in all of the following categories: batting average, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, runs scored, RBI and total bases. 

Below average in all those stats, and to what end? The pursuit of long balls and free passes are supposed to be the core of the approach, and yet Arkansas hitters ranked just 8th in the conference in both walks and home runs.

It’s not even like you have to choose one or the other, either. Tennessee led the conference in batting average, hits and home runs. Contact and power hitting don’t have an inverse relationship – you can do both.

What’s even worse is the fact that out of 13 non-freshman Razorback hitters who had at least 50 at-bats, Peyton Stovall was the only player with a higher batting average this season than he had last year – the other dozen all regressed statistically. The below slash lines show some of this:

And here are how the transfer portal guys, including Jared Sprague-Lott, performed after arriving:

Source: Hogville.net

Sure, many of these transfers went up significantly in competition level, especially with guys like Will Edmundson (not in the image) coming out of JUCO. Sprague-Lott and Aloy did OK all things considered. This particular data set, along with the one mentioned above about the dozen regressive hitters, doesn’t paint the whole picture. But the portrayal it paints to me comes across as a fairly damning one.

If the offensive coordinator for LSU or Alabama football oversaw a unit whose players regressed every year, you best believe the fans and university brass would be at DEFCON 5.

Van Horn, on the other hand, seemed more relaxed when pressed about his assistant after the loss.

“He really tries to train a swing. He does a great job,” Van Horn said. “Nobody works harder than him at it. You can always make adjustments, and a lot of times I think what you’re talking about is maybe a little bit more of an approach. In my opinion, that’s always important to do.”

Anything can happen, but it doesn’t sound like there’s going to be a major shakeup on the coaching staff this offseason. With that in mind, and with Thompson presumably still manning the offensive wheel, what can Arkansas do better next year?

Missing Pieces for Next Year’s Arkansas Baseball Squad

All year long, the Hogs’ identity was based around pitching. DVH himself said that the offense “has been a roller-coaster all year.” As soon as the Razorback arms faltered even in the slightest, everything unraveled. Van Horn candidly described the team as showing a “crack in the armor” when Smith struggled unexpectedly on Friday.

“We just played really solid baseball [this year],” Van Horn said. “We weren’t real exciting to watch, so to speak, all the time, unless you like pitching and defense. But that’s what we had.”

“The steady is Smith. Smith was the guy. He was a rock, he carried us the whole season. You take him off our team and we’re just really average.”

Ouch. But in hindsight, a painfully accurate diagnosis from the veteran skipper.

Van Horn said he anticipates that his team is “going to lose almost all our players again for the third year in a row.” While he didn’t name any names, he specifically mentioned that he anticipates the departure of the entire outfield as well as the starting first, second and third baseman. Additionally, he expects the starting catcher and the whole starting rotation to go.

Arkansas is going to get hammered in the draft, as usual, but Van Horn has done a good job in recent years to make sure that the roster is being reloaded, not rebuilt. Year-over-year success, in the regular season, at least, has been consistent. 

But what types of pieces has Arkansas been missing and where will the search start for next year? It sounds like the Head Hog knows exactly where to look first.

“The outfield this year, they all hit seven, eight, and nine in the order a lot of them, very rare. Usually those guys are going to be in the middle of the order, so we’ve got to get that right,” Van Horn said. “I could go on and on about personnel and what we’ve got to do for the future because my mind is already hitting there.”

While DVH did defend the job Thompson is doing, the Head Hog said he’d like a little more variety in the personnel that they bring in next season.

“We’ve got to get a little better athletes. We can’t just have eight guys that hit homers,” Van Horn said. “I like guys that hit doubles and I like guys that hit homers, but you’ve got to have some guys that can run, too. You’ve got to be able to create some offense the days the wind’s blowing in or they’re really good on the mound and you’re having trouble making contact.”

Can Thompson Adapt to a New Philosophy?

That would certainly create a more balanced lineup on paper, but after seven years of Thompson emphasizing mashball, can you really convince an old dog to start teaching new tricks? Giving him speedy contact hitters might be a bit like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.

If Thompson stays, he needs to change up his game a little bit. Arkansas is a program that has reached the status of every season being “natty or bust.” Whether those are fair expectations or not, it’s the reality, and if you want to compete for a national title then you can’t just be good at pitching or hitting. You have to be a strong all-around team, not have an offense that lags behind and struggles to produce timely hits.

Can Thompson coach an approach that allows for that? Only time will tell, but his hitters’ lack of development these last seven years has been a common thread in Arkansas consistently missing the mark.

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Well, here’s one potential solution:

More on what the next Arkansas baseball roster could look like:

Lowlights from the miserable loss to SEMO on Sunday:

Van Horn’s full postgame remarks after the season-ending defeat:

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More coverage of Razorback baseball from Best of Arkansas Sports:

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