Arkansas offense goes 'next level' with disciplined approach
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FAYETTEVILLE — Even with a top-ranked team and already stellar resume, Dave Van Horn knew Arkansas could take it to another level.
There have been concerns about starting pitching all year, but the veteran coach also felt like the Razorbacks’ vaunted offense could improve with a better approach at the plate.
The result has been an NCAA-leading 240 walks to go along with an NCAA-leading 74 home runs. At its current pace, Arkansas has an excellent chance to break - and possibly shatter - both single-season school records, which were set in 1985 (361) and 2018 (98), respectively.
“I’d say a little over a month ago, we discussed it with the team that if we want to make a move to the next level, we have to…cut down on our strikeouts,” Van Horn said. “They’ve worked on it hard and made a little bit of an adjustment, maybe an approach thing and a team thing, and it’s definitely paying off.”
Following a sweep of Mississippi State down in Starkville, Miss., that improved them to 19-3 overall and 5-1 in SEC play, the Razorbacks had a respectable .392 on-base percentage despite striking out in 29.1 percent of their at bats and walking in just 13.0 percent of their plate appearances.
Those numbers were even worse in the six SEC games. Against the Bulldogs and Alabama, Arkansas had a strikeout rate of 33.5 percent and walk rate of 10.9 percent, leading to a .349 on-base percentage.
In their 12 conference games since then, though, the Razorbacks are striking out much less (25.9%), walking a lot more (16.6%) and getting on base at an elite level (.406).
Van Horn admitted to being concerned about not having a shutdown guy like a Blaine Knight or Isaiah Campbell, but the pitching staff’s struggles during the fall turned out to be mostly because of how good the hitters are.
With power up and down the lineup, he expected his team to hit a lot of home runs and it has. Arkansas’ 74 home runs are seven more than the next-closest Division I team and 14 more than the next-closest SEC team (LSU).
Five different Razorbacks have hit at least nine home runs - Matt Goodheart (11), Robert Moore (10), Brady Slavens (10), Christian Franklin (9) and Cayden Wallace (9) - and no other team has more than three players with nine-plus long balls.
Combining that with a more disciplined approach at the plate has led to Arkansas having the top scoring offense in the SEC at 8.2 runs per game, which is half a run better than Ole Miss and ranks 10th nationally.
The Razorbacks’ .405 on-base percentage is their highest of the Van Horn era - on pace to top their .396 mark in 2010 - and also leads the conference while being 16th in the country. Considering how often runners get on, it’s not surprising that half of Arkansas’ home runs this year have been multi-run shots.
“Obviously it’s about on-base percentage for us and a two-run homer is a lot better than a solo,” Van Horn said. “We always tell our pitchers that solo homers aren’t going to beat you. It’s those three-run homers that’ll get you.”
Another way that approach has helped the Razorbacks produce a lot of runs is that they are making opposing pitchers throw a lot of pitches.
Through 18 SEC games, half of Arkansas’ opposing starters have thrown at least 90 pitches - with five going over 100 pitches - and they’ve averaged 88.1 pitches per game.
Despite those high totals, only four starting pitchers have made it through at least six innings against the Razorbacks - Auburn’s Cody Greenhill and South Carolina’s Thomas Farr threw seven innings apiece, while Alabama’s Tyler Ras and Texas A&M’s Bryce Miller each went six innings - and they average just under five innings per start.
“It’s nice when you’re getting pitchers’ pitch counts up and that’s what we’ve done,” Van Horn said. “We’re getting into the bullpen. There’s usually a reason guys aren’t starting. … Those one- or two-inning guys, those middle guys, aren’t quite as good as those starters. If you can get there, you’ve got a little bit better chance to score.”
Statistics back up what Van Horn said. In conference play, starting pitchers have a 5.04 ERA against the Razorbacks. That isn’t great, but it’s nearly two and a half earned runs better than the 7.53 ERA by opposing relievers.
Arkansas’ batting average also goes up by 51 points - from .234 to .285 - against SEC bullpens, compared to their starters.
Van Horn said a key to the increased walks and opposing pitch counts has been the Razorbacks’ willingness to take a borderline 3-1 pitch if it’s a “pitcher’s pitch” because they aren’t afraid to fall into a full count. They also aren’t chasing pitches out of the zone as much.
In fact, several times when Arkansas has been caught looking at strike three, TrackMan data shows the pitch was two balls off the plate and should have been called a ball. That means the Razorbacks sometimes have a better grasp of the strike zone than umpires.
“I just think our hitters have done a good job and I think the more at bats we’ve gotten the second half of the season, they’re more confident on what they see,” Van Horn said. “Overall, we’ve done a tremendous job the last four or five weeks of getting pitchers’ pitch counts up, swinging at strikes and making guys work on that other team.”
Arkansas hits the road again this weekend, beginning a three-game series against LSU at 6 p.m. CT Friday. That game will be televised on the SEC Network.