Analysis: Diving into what's wrong with 2022 Arkansas Razorbacks baseball of late
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Analysis: Diving into what's wrong with Arkansas baseball of late

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For a team that has been consistently ranked in the top 10, Arkansas has received an unusually high amount of criticism — most of which has come from within its own fan base.

That comes with the territory as a perennial power with expectations of not only making it to the College World Series, but also doing damage once in Omaha. Some of it, though, is unrealistic based on a historic 2021 season.

It’s not common for a team to win every series against one of the toughest schedules ever assembled. That’s what made coming up short in the super regionals almost as much of a gut punch as the dropped pop up in 2018.

There was rarely anything to complain about last year, so now — as Arkansas has come back down to Earth — some fans are making up for the lost time, something head coach Dave Van Horn went out of his way to mention last week before the Alabama series.

“Last year was smooth sailing amongst the players, amongst the fans,” Van Horn said. “This year, not so smooth. I think amongst the players it’s pretty good. Part of the fan base, not so good. It’s been a little disappointing. We feel like our guys play hard everyday, and we feel like there’s probably 90% of the fans who are awesome, and there’s 10% that put a lot out there.”

That’s not to say this team is immune to any and all criticisms, though. There are legitimate concerns, especially after a series loss at Alabama capped by an 18-5 drubbing when the SEC West title and postseason hosting implications were still in play.

With an 11-4 record and three-game lead in the division at the halfway point of the conference slate, the Razorbacks have gone backwards. They won just two of their final five series and lost the division outright after holding at least a share of first place for the first 29 games.

Most of the complaints have centered around Arkansas’ offense, which hasn’t quite lived up to the lofty preseason expectations set by both Van Horn and various media outlets, including this one.

As good as last year’s team was, the 2022 squad — on paper — appeared to be even better. They sputtered out of the gates, hitting just .213 over the first two weekends, but eventually picked it up and are now right about where they were at this point last year.

In fact, the Razorbacks’ team OPS in SEC play this year was just two points lower than last year’s team in conference play and they actually hit more home runs this year.

SEC Hitting Stats
Stat 2021 2022

AVG

.260

.254

OBP

.365

.356

SLG

.437

.444

OPS

.802

.800

HR

42

45

R/game

6.47

5.77

The most glaring issue in that chart is that despite having nearly an identical OPS, Arkansas scored 0.7 fewer runs per game in SEC play this season.

That could be attributed to what has also been a major point of contention when it comes to this year’s team: The Razorbacks have really struggled in “clutch” situations.

Three games illustrated that better than others. With a chance to sweep Mississippi State, Arkansas loaded the bases with one out, but failed to score and lost in extras. Twice against Texas A&M, Arkansas got the tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position with no outs in the seventh inning or later, but came up empty and lost a pair of one-run games. In those three scenarios, Arkansas went 0 for 8 with seven strikeouts.

Last year, you expected the Razorbacks to get the big hit and were surprised when they didn’t. This year, you’ve come to expect them to fail and are surprised when they don’t. Those aren’t isolated instances, either — the stats back up the sentiment.

Arkansas hit an impressive .306 with runners in scoring position during SEC play last year, which ranked second only to Ole Miss (.315) and was well above the league-wide average of .275. This year, the Razorbacks hit just .244 with runners in scoring position during SEC play, which ranked 12th — ahead of only Vanderbilt (.242) and Kentucky (.218) — and was well below the league-wide average of .269.

That said, the recent struggles can’t just be attributed to the bats. The inability to come up with clutch hits has plagued the team throughout the year, even when it was winning games, and the Razorbacks have actually experienced an uptick in production at the plate of late.

Arkansas posted a team OPS of .787 over its first 15 SEC games and .814 over its last 15 games — an increase of 27 points.

Where the issue has come from is on the mound. Specifically, the Razorbacks’ starting pitching has fallen off dramatically over that stretch.

What was once considered the biggest question mark before the season, compounded by the loss of Peyton Pallette, was probably Arkansas’ biggest strength through the first half of SEC play.

Connor Noland, Hagen Smith and Jaxon Wiggins far exceeded expectations to begin the year and kept it going through the first five weeks of conference play. They went at least five innings in 13 of 15 starts and had a respectable combined ERA of 3.92 while holding opponents to a .661 OPS.

That has not been the case the last five weeks. Opponents have an OPS nearly 200 points higher — .857 — and the ERA of the starters, which includes one start by Will McEntire and not Smith’s lone relief appearances, skyrocketed to 6.79. Only five of their 15 starts lasted at least five innings.

Starting Pitching Stats in SEC Play - 2022
Stat First half Second half

W-L

9-1

1-7

IP/start

5.82

4.07

ERA

3.92

6.79

WHIP

1.20

1.89

K/9IP

10.10

9.15

BB/9IP

3.09

6.20

K/BB

3.27

1.48

OAVG

.229

.294

OOBP

.304

.405

OSLG

.357

.452

OOPS

.661

.857

Before the Alabama series, Van Horn acknowledged it as a concern, but was still optimistic they’d turn it around because they still felt good, weren’t tired and had solid bullpen sessions. “Now it’s just about getting it done in the game like they did earlier,” he said.

Unfortunately for the Razorbacks, that didn’t happen.

McEntire was solid in his first career SEC start in Game 1, but still gave up three earned runs on eight hits in four innings. In Game 2, Noland got knocked around and was charged with five earned runs in 4 1/3 innings. Wiggins blew up in the second inning of Game 3 and lasted just 1 1/3 innings — and Smith wasn’t much better out of the pen that day.

After watching his three starters combine for only 9 2/3 innings in which they gave up 13 earned runs on 18 hits and six walks, Van Horn changed his tone, admitting the starting pitching was a “big concern” during his postgame press conference.

“It all started on the mound — that’s what’s changed everything,” Van Horn said. “It’s been the last couple of weeks and we’re behind, we’re throwing balls, we’re getting hit. Yeah, there’s a lot of concern there. Just disappointed with, really, two out of three starts this weekend.”

Noland’s recent downturn has been perhaps the most surprising of the group, as he was easily the most consistent starter early on and looked the part of a true ace. In fact, his numbers through his first six SEC starts were very similar, if not better, than those of 2019 Isaiah Campbell and much better than the likes of 2018 Blaine Knight and 2021 Patrick Wicklander.

Things have fallen apart lately. After holding opponents to a .178 batting average over his first six SEC starts, foes are hitting nearly double that — .344, to be exact — over the last four. His ERA and WHIP are drastically different over those stretches, too, jumping from 1.93 to 7.17 and 0.86 to 2.02, respectively.

If there is any kind of silver lining with Noland, it’s that all eight of the hits he gave up to Alabama were singles and several weren’t well hit and would have been ground balls had they not come against the shift. In his three previous starts, extra-base hits really hurt him — something that wasn’t the case early on.

The problem against the Crimson Tide was the fact that he consistently fell behind in the count. He threw 13 first-pitch balls to the 23 batters he faced, which is very uncharacteristic for a guy known for filling up the zone.

Noland getting back to his early-season form when he was locating his pitches and working deep into games is critical in the Razorbacks getting back on track and making a run in the postseason, as it’d help preserve their talented bullpen.

That’s of even more importance when the two guys that have typically been behind Noland in the rotation — Smith and Wiggins — have been wildly inconsistent.

For Smith, his struggles had predominantly been on the road, which isn’t too uncommon for freshmen. However, those issued followed him to Baum-Walker Stadium in his last start and resulted in him giving up five earned runs in 2 2/3 innings against Vanderbilt.

Throw in a rough 1 1/3-inning relief outing in the 18-5 shellacking at Alabama and it seems as though he might be hitting the so-called “freshman wall” — leaving open the possibility of McEntire permanently replacing him in the rotation the rest of the season.

Wiggins has been a wild card all year. There are times he looks like a first-round pick, other times he can’t find the strike zone and others when he looks great before quickly unraveling.

On any given weekend — or in a regional and beyond — the Razorbacks really need Smith or Wiggins (or McEntire) to give them quality innings because, coupled with Noland’s recent short outings, it has put a lot of stress on the bullpen.

Even though it’s arguably better and deeper without him, there is no Kevin Kopps to call on multiple times in a span of a few days. Brady Tygart, Evan Taylor, Zack Morris, Zebulon Vermillion and even Kole Ramage are a fantastic core up to a point, but stretching them out as Arkansas has the last few weeks has led to some late losses.

Last year’s team could get away with short starts — only 10 of the Razorbacks’ 30 SEC starts went at least five innings — because it had the clutch gene needed to overcome an early deficit and the ace in the hole that was Kopps, the best player in the country.

The 2022 version of Arkansas is just not built that way. It has the talent to make some noise in the postseason, but it’s likely dependent on its starting pitching getting back to what it showed earlier this season.

“If the pitching doesn’t get better, it’s not going to really make a difference,” Van Horn said when asked if Saturday’s loss could be the shock to the system needed to get back on track for the postseason. “We’ve got to get better on the mound.”

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