The finale of Peyton Stovall’s freshman season at Arkansas isn’t yet written. But, man, is this last chapter of Volume I turning out to be something else so far. In the Razorbacks’ College World Series opener vs Stanford on Saturday, Stovall knocked in four RBIs and went into Matrix mode with his fielding from first base, getting two outs on separate superbly athletic plays. In the first, he stretched out horizontally while somehow keeping his foot on base (although the ESPN broadcasters disagreed).
In the next web gem, it looked like Stovall might have decided to audition for Eric Musselman’s Arkansas basketball squad as he skied perhaps three feet in the air to snag an incoming missile from Robert Moore:
What makes this even more impressive is that first base isn’t projected to be Stovall’s long-term position. Next season, he may replace Moore at second next season or Jalen Battles at shortstop.
Arkansas Baseball Gets Crankin’
As the Hogs continue to crest in what looks like their most promising postseason run in a long time, they’re riding Stovall’s sudden growth as much as anything else.
No one questioned Stovall’s abilities. His high school successes caught scouts’ eyes early, and Arkansas certainly considers itself lucky to have secured his services for two more years. Stovall’s first year on the Hill blended flashes of brilliance with sporadic struggles. What looks like a modest slash (.286 BA/.375 OBP/.411 SLG) might surprise at first glance.
But Stovall’s 2022 season mirrors that of his whole team. The lulls of a long season led to some rough spots, especially near the end of the regular campaign.
He’s been a different, far more potent player in June. Indeed, coming into the World Series, he was among the nation’s top five hottest hitters in the postseason. That, as much as anything else, put the Hogs in Omaha after two tight contests in Chapel Hill.
Adapting to the Corner
The most surprising development, perhaps, for Stovall isn’t the one he’s authored at the plate.
When Stovall surprised many by spurning millions to honor his Arkansas commitment, he did so as the top-rated shortstop prospect in the region. His 6’, 190-pound frame makes him an ideal middle midfielder, as does his cannon arm.
Dave Van Horn saw a different opportunity for Stovall in the field in 2022, though. Brady Slavens’ return meant the Hogs entered the year with seemingly the deadliest infield in college baseball (Slavens, Bob Moore and Jalen Battles up the middle and Caden Wallace manning third).
Hog fans who’ve observed this season know that Moore and Slavens both battled through the year to still produce despite scuffling. Battles and Wallace did their jobs offensively, but combined to log 18 errors.
Slavens, though, spent some time in the outfield, and Stovall spelled him. Then Slavens made a couple of key errors against Vanderbilt and Alabama and Van Horn went back to Stovall at first.
The move paid off. Stovall highlighted the win over UNC with a first-inning 3-6-3 double play that buoyed starter Will McEntire and deflated Heel fans. He’d deftly handle a foul pop up with two outs in the sixth to briefly preserve McEntire’s 2-0 lead, too.
Those defensive exploits obviously don’t sum up Stovall’s progression. But being an unexpected linchpin at a new position (.995 FA, only two errors in nearly 400 total chances, and those CWS SportsCenter Top 10-worthy highlights) shows that Stovall is no ordinary baseball talent.
“Player Development” Personified
When Stovall decided to play college ball, he noted Arkansas’s player development reputation sold him. A few months thereafter, he became an example of what he meant.
Stovall didn’t show out in SEC play. In 21 starts, he batted only .218 with eight RBIs.
But that honestly did not measure his contributions. He took over for Slavens at first most weekends, still managed a clutch hit every now and then, and didn’t look overmatched.
In fact, just one series—an 0-for-13 weekend against Mississippi State—really dragged his numbers down. Stovall didn’t mope or appear frustrated, another sign of his uncanny composure.
He didn’t flinch when things got tough at the plate. At Alabama in the season-ending series, Stovall launched a big two-run homer to key a 7-3 victory.
The Hogs wiped the slate clean after an ugly finish and 0-2 showing in Hoover. And nobody typified that more than Stovall.
In his first six NCAA tournament games, he was 12-for-24 with the longest, loudest hit thus far. His ninth-inning single Sunday against the Heels proved more pivotal, and Slavens plated Stovall with the walk-off run. In a matter of two weeks, Stovall pushed his average upward by 35 points. He delivered big hit after big hit, and struck out only five times in the tourney.
Stats Never Tell the Full Story
You could try to summarize Stovall’s freshman year with numbers alone, and it would be deceiving.
The ordinary power metrics (five homers, seven doubles, 21 RBIs) don’t really do him justice. And in a game where honors are largely bestowed on stat-column fillers, Stovall won’t likely win SEC Freshman of the Year as some projected.
He also won’t likely complain. He’s the standout freshman hitter on one of eight historically sound programs that will compete for a national title this week.
He’s also been a major part of that, meshing well with veterans and calmly having great at-bats at the hardest time of the year to do so. If the Hogs wind up making it to the finals, their young first baseman (who might be back to shortstop come fall) will have to play a big role.
And he’s shown that he can do just that.
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