Photo courtesy of Arkansas Athletics
SEC Baseball is back baby! After a two year wait, the Hogs begin their SEC schedule facing off with the Alabama Crimson Tide on Friday, March 19 in the friendly confines of Baum-Walker Park. They enter conference play with a 12-2 record and hold the #1 ranking in the nation. This season has been about as wild a 14 games vs. non-conference opponents could be, but the state of Arkansas and I are damn proud of these boys. Here are my thoughts on the team so far, as well as my outlook for the remainder of the 2021 season.
The season started off with a huge bang, as the Hogs swept the Big 12 at the College Classic in Globe Life Park. I, for one, did not expect this at all after witnessing the 2020 Hogs on the wrong end of a sweep in 2020’s College Classic at Minute Maid Park. Nonetheless, the boys had an excellent all-around showing and stunned three top 10 teams, much to the chagrin of the Lone Star State. With sweep #1 in the books, the Hogs were able to complete two more relatively easy sweeps of Southeast Missouri St. and Murray St., and nearly swept Louisiana Tech in Ruston, only to fall short in game 3. The 12-game win streak to start the season was a first for the DVH era in Fayetteville, and the 12-2 overall record is the best in his first 14 games of the season. I expect the Hogs to build on this historic start and ride the momentum right into Omaha in June.
DVH was obviously instrumental in assembling and coaching the team to a historic start, but now I’d like to focus in on the guys that made it happen on the field. Returning stars Robert Moore and Casey Opitz have both played as expected. Opitz has posted a very solid .333/.400/.489 slash line and Moore follows with an even better .310/.388/.534, as well as a team leading 5 base swipes. Bobby Dongs is the face of this team and has backed it up, contributing clutch hit after clutch hit. On the topic of offensive stars, I can’t possibly forget to mention Christian Franklin. He has posted a somewhat disappointing .255/.379/.473 slash line (by Franklin standards), which I think can be chalked up to the extremely high expectations held for him prior to the season. Nonetheless, I think it’s fair to expect him to bounce back and finish of the season in a truly Franklin-esque way. Finally, the heart of the lineup, Matt Goodheart. He is another guy who has has a slow start to the year, but I’m just glad to see him in the lineup after overcoming health issues that caused him to miss the College Classic. As the year goes on, he and Franklin will return to form.
The main surprise in this lineup to me has been the performance of Brady Slavens. He leads batters that have at least 15 plate appearances with a .340/.410/.717 slash, on top of his team-leading 5 bombs and 19 RBI. I love this kid’s approach whenever he steps up to the plate; swing early and swing hard then elevate and celebrate baby! He does lead the team with 19 K’s, but in this age of three outcome hitters (HR, BB or K), he will be a very solid 4 or 5 guy in the lineup in 2021. Among other surprises on the offensive side, Jalen Battles and Cayden Wallace have been very impactful newcomers. Wallace has the 4th highest OPS on the team at the .816 mark. He looks to be a future star for the Hogs, as he is only a true Freshman. Battles, a transfer from McLennan CC in Waco, has posted a solid .286/.379/.449 slash to supplement the several clutch hits he’s had so far, including a walk-off vs. SEMO and go-ahead dinger in the 10th inning vs. LA Tech. On top of his offensive contributions, he becomes the final piece along with Franklin, Moore and Opitz that gives the Razorbacks arguably the best up the middle defense in the nation. Furthermore, I need to give Zack Gregory some credit. This is a guy who we saw a bit last year, and he struggled mightily. This year, he’s scrapped his way to a .278/.517/.444 slash line (.517 OBP… are you kidding me?!). He’s been arguably one of the most important cogs in the machine in 2021, as Braydon Webb has been unable to find his footing at the plate (he has a team worst .042 average). Gregory has performed well in left field and I love the way this kid grinds out at bats to get on base by any means. He is one of the best 9-hole hitters in the nation and will be crucial for the Hogs’ Omaha run.
As far as offensive struggles go, I have to call out the third basemen. Jacob Nesbit has been the starter for the past two years, but finds himself on the outside looking in so far. This can be attributed to his abysmal .091/.286/.364 slash line posted in 11 at bats so far. He is clearly the best defensive option at third on the team, but he’s not going to see the field much with offensive stats like that. Cullen Smith has been decent with a .244/.421/.366 slash, as his ability to get on base is valuable, but I’d like to see a heavy hitter at the hot corner. Nesbit and Smith have combined for a grand total of 4 extra base hits in 52 at bats, which is far off from optimal. Nonetheless, I’m not counting either one of them from turning it around and becoming a big contributor for the rest of the year.
Now that the offense is out of the way, I need to show some love to the pitching staff. Who else could I start off with other than flamethrower Peyton Pallette? This kid has been absolutely lights out, posting a 2.08 ERA with 31 K’s in 17.1 IP. I’m most impressed with him so far because my biggest question mark going into the year was the seemingly lack of a bona fide ace. Pallete has proven me wrong, and I’m extremely excited to see what he can do against SEC competition the rest of the way. Second, I’ll give the newcomer Lael Lockhart some love. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect out of him after he transferred from Houston to Arkansas, but he has been a Godsend in the third rotation slot. Lockhart has posted a 3.00 ERA with 22 K’s in 18 IP, which is very solid for a Sunday guy. The stability he brings to the backend of the rotation will be crucial for the road to Omaha. The 2 spot in the rotation has been the antithesis of 1 and 3, with someone new in that slot every week. Zebulon Vermillion and Caleb Bolden have made the appearances in those slots with very different results. Vermillion has posted a solid 2.60 ERA with 8 K’s in 17.1 IP which is not bad by any means, but he was the closer of the team prior to this year. His 8 inning appearance vs. LA Tech allowing a single run proves me wrong in how I doubted his stamina, but there’s just something in the back of my head that makes me nervous with him in the 2 slot the rest of the year. Bolden has pitched his way out of rotation consideration, posting a 5.14 ERA after his amazing shutout appearance vs. Texas in the College Classic. He’s not a bad pitcher by any means, but I need to see something different out of him before I’m comfortable throwing him in against SEC competition.
On the topic of the starting rotation, I can’t forget Patrick Wicklander and Connor Noland. These are two guys who were stars for the Hogs in 2019 and looked to be mainstays in the rotation for years to come, but both struggled in the abbreviated 2020 season. In 2021, they find themselves outside the rotation looking in, and I’m unsure if that will change the rest of the way. Wicklander has fared much better than Noland, throwing his way to a 3.00 ERA with 8 K’s in 9 IP, while Noland comes to the table with a 5.40 ERA and 5 K’s in 5IP. Even though they’re not currently in the rotation, I’m especially proud of Wicklander. He has worked his tail off to overcome a recent Type-1 Diabetes diagnosis and get back to previous form. I wish the best for this kid and hope to see him back in the rotation at some point this season, but that might not end up happening. If he can continue at the same rate, he can be a very solid long reliever the rest of the way. This is somewhat of a thankless role, as he wouldn’t get the glory of starting or performing in many high leverage situations, but a dependable long reliever that eats up innings is something the team has lacked in previous years. If Noland can turn it around, him and/or Wicklander would slot in very nicely to this role.
Finally, let’s talk bullpen. This has been another surprising strength of the team, as DVH has a pen similar to the “stable” Kevin Cash and the Tampa Bay Rays have at their disposal. The MVP’s of the staff so far have been true Freshman Jaxon Wiggins and Senior Kevin Kopps. Wiggins stands on the mound with an imposing 6-6 frame to accompany his lightning quick fastball that has touched 99 MPH with late life. You know a guy is throwing cheddar when even Casey Opitz struggles to catch it. He has established himself as the closer of the team so far and I’m very content with him in that role moving forward. Kevin Kopps leads the team with 3 wins and has posted a 1.86 ERA with 18 K’s in 9.2 IP. Kopps is the polar opposite of Wiggins in age, height (Kopps is 6-0) and velocity, but that just goes to show there is no true prototypical pitcher in college. Outside of those two, Elijah Trest has been lights out as well, posting a 2.45 ERA with 7 K’s in 7.1 IP. As far as the rest of the pen goes, guys like Kole Ramage, Zack Morris, Ryan Costieu and Caden Monke have struggled so far, but I’m not counting any of them out yet. When you throw in Evan Taylor, Blake Adams and Evan Gray, this is a good unit that will turn it on down the stretch.
Now that I’ve given my take on the past, let’s talk outlook. The Hogs have somewhat bad draw this year, facing Mississippi St., Ole Miss, Tennessee, and South Carolina all in road series, but if there’s a team that can overcome that, it’s this squad. With series against Memphis, Auburn, Texas A&M and Florida at home, there is plenty of good baseball that will be played in the Baum. The Mississippi St. and Ole Miss series are obviously crucial to the season success of the Hogs, but they are both beatable from what I’ve seen out of them this year. I’m looking to the South Carolina, Tennessee and Florida series to be the true make or break moments for this team. SC currently holds the #16 ranking, but I think they will climb up the charts as the year goes on. Tennessee holds the #13 rank and Florida holds #5 on today’s date as well. The reason I find these to be more important than the SEC West foes is because I see a 2-1 or 1-2 outcome in both West matchups, but if the Hogs can sweep at least one of the SEC East teams, that will pay huge dividends towards a regular season championship and ultimately SEC tournament seeding.
I’m not saying the Hogs can’t win an SEC West title this year, but Mississippi St. has a much easier schedule than them outside of their series vs. Vanderbilt. Because of this, I see the Bulldogs capturing the SEC West narrowly over the Hogs. As far as the SEC tourney goes, I can’t give a fair assessment yet. The victor of that comes down to who is hottest entering, and the Hogs have a brutal schedule heading in. The bottomline is SEC titles don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. The ultimate goal is Omaha, and the Hogs WILL be booking a flight to Eppley Airfield come June. After hosting a regional and super regional in Baum, the Hogs will march into TD Ameritrade Park and put up a fight. I don’t know if a national title is in the cards, but they will perform better than their 2019 showing.
All in all, this will be a great season of baseball for the Hogs and I hope the state of Arkansas is ready for a hell of a ride. I hope to see Baum packed by the end of the year as it should be. 2021 is going to be a good one.
Woo damn pig.