Arkansas is arguably the most successful college baseball program of the last 20 years that does not have a College World Series title.
That makes what Aaron Fitt said eye-openingly incredible.
Fitt, a writer at D1Baseball.com, published his preseason write-up on the 2022 Diamond Hogs on Tuesday. Within it, he proclaimed “…this might wind up being the best Arkansas team ever, because the offense and defense will be elite once again.”
But, man, could that timing have been worse?
If you’re an Arkansas baseball fan, those remarks written earlier this week are enough to make one giddy with anticipation for the season’s beginning February 18-20 against Illinois State at Baum-Walker Stadium.
What was curious about the remark, though, is that it doesn’t quite jibe with what the rest of the country – at least, so far – is saying about the Razorbacks. D1Baseball.com opened with the Diamond Hogs as their No. 2 team in the nation in the preseason. In December, though, Collegiate Baseball pegged Arkansas as No. 20. And earlier in January, Perfect Game slated coach Dave Van Horn’s team at No. 9.
The discrepancy is certainly odd. Arkansas’ sports information department provided a not-so-subtle response when Collegiate Baseball called the Diamond Hogs No. 20. It seemed even to the casual college baseball fan to be low, especially considering what Fitt would later write.
Baseball is a strange game, though. What was left out of Fitt’s quote above was an important dependent clause: “If the unproven commodities on the mound can live to their prodigious talent,…”
And there’s the rub.
Expected Razorbacks Staff Ace Peyton Pallette Out
It’s even more focused after Thursday when Fitt’s colleague, Kendall Rogers, reported that Arkansas’ expected weekend ace Peyton Pallette would miss the season with a UCL injury that would require Tommy John surgery. Pallette, who hurls a fastball up to 99 mph, started 11 games for the Diamond Hogs last year and recorded 4.02 earned-run average with 67 strikeouts in 56 innings.
In Baseball America’s most recent draft rankings, Pallette ranked as the No. 5 college draft prospect and the No. 1 pitcher in the college class. “He was slated to go No. 9 in the 2022 draft according to MLB.com, which compared his arsenal — which also includes a devastating curveball — to Walker Buehler‘s. Buehler is close to the same size (6-2, 185) as Pallette and had Tommy John surgery two months after the Dodgers took him out of Vanderbilt with the 24th overall pick in 2015,” according to The Athletic.
Pallette’s loss leaves a gaping hole at the top of an Arkansas rotation that was already dotted with questions. The other two potential weekend starters were unknown to start with.
If all goes well, Pallette could return in time to play part of the 2023 season. But that’s a bit optimistic given the timetable for most Tommy John recoveries is 12 to 15 months. A couple of Arkansas pitchers in the recent past had to go under the knife for the same procedure and their outcomes were ultimately wildly different. Right-hander Keaton McKinney served as a steady hand his freshman season in the rotation during Arkansas’ College World Series run in 2015, but a hip injury and two Tommy John surgeries later, he retired from the game in 2018.
Then there’s Kevin Kopps, whose career did a similar 180-degree turn after his surgery. His, though, bolstered his output. After undergoing the surgery in October 2017, Kopps took a season or two to re-adjust. But by the end of 2021, he left Arkansas with the single greatest pitching season in school history. And unfortunately for the Diamond Hogs, his eligibility is exhausted.
Asking any team to replace a player the caliber of Kopps from the pitching staff is simply a bridge too far. Kopps had the best season for an Arkansas pitcher in school history, if not the best season for a college pitcher in modern times. He pitched 89 1/3 innings in 33 games with a 0.90 earned-run average. Opponents hit .162 against him as he registered 131 strikeouts to just 18 walks as he captured every Player of the Year honor under the sun…except one.
Arkansas Baseball Pitchers Who Must Step Up
Zebulon Vermillion, the big 6-foot-5, 230-pound right-hander, was a part-time starter last year, pitching in 15 games last year with six starts and two seasons ago (we are discounting the shortened 2020 season for all players), he was one of Arkansas’ better arms out of the bullpen, where he pitched in 20 games.
Right-hander Connor Noland will get a final shot, too. He was one of the most heralded local products in recent memory when joined the Razorbacks from high school as both a quarterback recruit and a starting pitcher. He stopped football pretty quickly, but his baseball career has been beset by injuries. Coach Dave Van Horn said this offseason has been the best Noland, who still has dreams – and the talent – of a professional career, has been since he arrived.
Another righty, sophomore Jaxon Wiggins, could step into the rotation. His first year on campus was a bit like Kopps’. Wiggins had a 5.09 ERA, but he struck 28 batters in 23 innings and held opponents to a .227 batting average. His issue, like many young pitchers, was control. He walked 14.
Freshman lefty Hagen Smith arrives in Fayetteville with stellar high-school credentials. He threw eight no-hitters in preps and was the top left-handed pitcher in Texas in his class and the No. 81 overall player, according to Baseball America. Arkansas landing him instead of the pro ranks was a coup, but not many freshmen are ready to hop straight into SEC weekends.
And that’s part of it, too. To the surprise of no one who has followed any college baseball for the last 20 years, the SEC is the world’s best college baseball conference. Texas is the No. 1 team in the nation in the D1Baseball rankings, but No. 2 through No. 5 are all SEC teams. So are No. 9, No. 10, No. 16 and No. 19. In Collegiate Baseball, where Arkansas is ranked 20th, the SEC holds down spots No. 2, 3, 6, 9, 19, 20, 33, 34, 40 and 44. The only two SEC West teams not hovering in the Top 40 are Auburn and Texas A&M and even they picked up votes.
The difference between the two polls is large. But it’s also largely irrelevant. Fitt has long been a defender of Arkansas baseball, most notably last year against South Carolina. Gamecocks fans were busting All-American Robert Moore’s chops for his height; he’s 5-foot-9. Moore proceeded to crush a two-run, tie-breaking home run one pitch after they began chants of “Oompa Loompa.” Fitt tweeted after the game that South Carolina fans got what they deserved.
Moore’s return at second base this spring is perhaps the biggest reason for Arkansas’ lofty status, especially with Fitt and D1Baseball. He, like Pallette, was a preseason All-American. But the returns of Cayden Wallace, Jalen Battles and Brady Slavens along with the arrival of newcomers Peyton Stovall and Jace Bohrofen make Arkansas more than just a single slugger. They’re one of the best defending teams in the game, too, as their .980 fielding percentage in 2021 was 11th out of the 286 teams in Division I college baseball.
Fitt’s praise must be nice to have as it gives Arkansas a proponent on the national level. Not that Van Horn and the Hogs need it. At this point of the DVH tenure, Arkansas will get the respect with the wins.They generally aren’t underdogs, even if they, like most teams, prefer to play with a chip on their shoulder.
Now, though, with Pallette’s injury, that chip may very well be justified.
Feature photo via Baumology (Rhett Hutchins).
More on Peyton Pallette’s injury at 4:00 below: