Hutch's week-by-week picks, other predictions for 2020 Diamond Hogs
The long offseason for Arkansas baseball finally comes to an end Friday when it opens the 2020 season against Eastern Illinois.
Coming off back-to-back trips to the College World Series, expectations are sky high for the Razorbacks once again. They are tied for sixth in the preseason HawgBeat Composite Poll and were picked to win the SEC West by the conference’s coaches.
Here is how our baseball expert, Andrew Hutchinson, sees the year playing out, plus a few other predictions for the season…
I was reminded of a very valuable lesson last season: Never doubt Dave Van Horn.
With several key pieces from arguably the best team in school history - which came within one out of winning a national title - moving on to professional baseball, the 2019 season seemed destined to be a “rebuilding” year.
Quotations are needed there because “rebuilding” years for Arkansas baseball are much different than those for football or basketball. I still thought the Razorbacks would make the postseason and even possibly make a run to a super regional.
Full disclosure: I pegged Arkansas at 36-20 overall and 16-14 in SEC play in my preseason week-by-week picks, which likely would have meant going on the road for the NCAA Tournament.
Instead, Van Horn and the Razorbacks blew past that. They went 40-15, won the SEC West at 20-10, earned a top-eight national seed to host a regional and super regional, and made it back to Omaha.
I bring that up to say this: Take these predictions with a grain of salt - or as our HawgBeat subscribers would say, a “grade of slaw.” I can’t see the future (what would be the fun in that?), so these are just informed opinions based on conversations with Van Horn and players, observations from the fall and preseason intrasquad scrimmages, and a gut feeling.
Without further ado, here they are…
Opening Weekend - vs. Eastern Illinois (Feb. 14-16)
Arkansas opened up last season against Eastern Illinois and won the first couple of games easily - 15-7 and 12-3 - before completing the sweep with a walk-off hit by Heston Kjerstad.
This season, the Panthers have an ace in Will Klein who throws 95-plus miles per hour and is drawing attention from MLB scouts. They’ll follow him up with a pair of lefties, so it will give fans an early look at how well Arkansas has improved facing those pitchers after struggling last year.
I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the games is close, like last season’s opening series, but the Razorbacks should open the 2020 season with a sweep.
Week 2 - vs. Gonzaga (Feb. 20-23)
The next weekend, Arkansas plays a four-game series - giving its pitching staff an early challenge - against Gonzaga, a traditionally strong baseball program that is picked to win the WCC this year.
The Bulldogs are led by junior right-hander Alek Jacob, who has earned All-WCC honors as a starter and closer and is a preseason All-American according to several publications. They also return a pair of all-conference infielders in Brett Harris and Ernie Yake, who each hit over .300 last season.
Pulling off a four-game sweep against a quality opponent is difficult, but winning three of four would still be a successful weekend.
Week 3 - vs. Oklahoma (Feb. 28), vs. Texas (Feb. 29), vs. Baylor (March 1)
A trip to Houston for the Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic is the Razorbacks’ biggest non-conference opportunity. It is essentially a Big 12/SEC Challenge at Minute Maid Park, as Arkansas is joined by LSU and Missouri in a showdown with Oklahoma, Texas and Baylor.
Those teams are picked fourth, fifth and sixth, respectively, in the Big 12, putting them right in the middle of the nine-team conference.
On Friday, the Razorbacks will likely face preseason All-American right-hander Cade Cavalli, who is focusing on pitching after two years as a two-way player and is the Big 12’s Preseason Pitcher of the Year. Two days later, they’ll face the Big 12’s Preseason Player of the Year, Nick Loftin, who hit .323 for the Bears last year and had a good summer with Team USA.
Arkansas has owned former rival Texas in recent years and I think that continues. Cavalli may hand the Razorbacks a loss, but I see them bouncing back by beating both of their old SWC foes.
Week 4 - vs. Illinois State (March 3), vs. South Alabama (March 6-8)
It isn’t a big-name program, but Illinois State typically plays good baseball. Led by reigning MVC Coach of the Year Steve Holm, the Redbirds are picked third in the Missouri Valley after finishing as co-champions last year. They also have the most preseason all-conference selections in a talented baseball conference. I wouldn’t be shocked if Illinois State sneaks up on Arkansas and pulls off the upset.
The final non-conference weekend won’t be much easier, as the Razorbacks welcome South Alabama to Fayetteville. The Jaguars are No. 23 in Collegiate Baseball’s preseason poll and picked to win their division in the Sun Belt over traditional power Coastal Carolina. They have a legitimate super star in Ethan Wilson, who hit .345/.453/.686 with 17 home runs and 51 RBIs last year to earn Sun Belt Player and Freshman of the Year honors.
That said, I still think Arkansas finds a way to win the series and enter SEC play on a high note.
Week 5 - vs. Grand Canyon (March 10-11), at Mississippi State (March 13-15)
Before traveling to Starkville, though, Arkansas has a two-game midweek series against WAC favorite Grand Canyon. It might be a different story if it was a weekend series and the Razorbacks had to face preseason All-American and WAC Preseason Pitcher of the Year Kade Mechals, but both games are midweek, so I’ll pick them to win both.
Playing No. 8 Mississippi State at Dudy Noble Field is a less-than-ideal way to open up conference play, but such is life in the SEC. The Bulldogs have a loaded lineup once again and probably remember getting swept at Baum-Walker Stadium last season, so they’ll be fired up.
When I initially made my picks, I penciled this in as a possible sweep, but I think the Razorbacks find a way to salvage a win.
Record: 13-6 (1-2)
Week 6 - at Oklahoma (March 17), vs. Alabama (March 20-22)
If Arkansas suffers a midweek loss to Illinois State and a series loss against Mississippi State to open SEC play in a span of two weeks, fans will likely hit their midseason panic around this time.
Van Horn and the Razorbacks will remind everyone they’re still one of the best teams in the country this week, though. Getting a midweek rematch with the Sooners in Oklahoma City, I feel the offense will explode in a big win.
They’ll ride that momentum into the weekend and rough up Alabama’s young rotation for a sweep in Fayetteville to get back over .500 in conference play.
Record: 17-6 (4-2)
Week 7 - at Troy (March 24-25), at Ole Miss (March 27-29)
Van Horn likes to take a long road trip over spring break and he’ll get to do that this year with a pair of midweek games at Troy followed by a weekend series at Ole Miss.
The Trojans are a middle-of-the-pack Sun Belt team. They could steal one of the two games playing at home, especially if Arkansas gets caught looking ahead to the weekend, but I don’t see it happening.
The Rebels have been a thorn in the Razorbacks’ side for a while. They’re the only team to win a series at Baum-Walker Stadium the last two years and Van Horn has almost as much trouble against them as LSU. Arkansas conquered some demons by beating Ole Miss in the super regional, but now back in Oxford, I have to go with the Rebels winnings two of three.
Record: 20-8 (5-4)
Week 8 - vs. Oral Roberts (March 31), vs. Florida (April 2-4)
Oral Roberts is a common opponent for Arkansas. The Golden Eagles win their conference almost every year and are once again the favorites in the Summit League. Isaac Coffey is back after a solid freshman year and Arkansas transfer Caleb Denny is Perfect Game’s pick to be the Freshman of the Year in the league. It should be a good game, but I’m taking the Razorbacks.
Coming off a down year in which they barely made the postseason, the Gators are primed for a big bounce-back season in 2020. They’re No. 9 in the preseason HawgBeat Composite Poll and could challenge Vanderbilt for the Eastern Division title. The good news is that Arkansas gets them at home, so I’m picking the Razorbacks to win two of three.
Record: 23-9 (7-5)
Week 9 - vs. UALR (April 7), vs. Texas A&M (April 9-11)
Athletics director Hunter Yurachek loosened Arkansas’ decades-long policy of not playing in-state schools last year and it was a disaster. Despite being well under .500, the Trojans crushed the Razorbacks 17-7 in a midweek game. I can’t envision Arkansas letting that happen again.
A couple days after hosting former assistant Chris Curry, Van Horn will face another one of his former assistants in Texas A&M coach Rob Childress. The mentor has beat the protege in five of seven series since they became conference foes, but one of the Aggies’ series victories was last year. Back in Fayetteville, I think the Razorbacks resume beating Texas A&M.
Record: 26-10 (9-6)
Week 10 - vs. Missouri State (April 14), at LSU (April 17-19)
This is essentially rivalry week for Arkansas. Missouri State baseball is a much bigger rival that Missouri football, despite what the administration hopes, and simply put, the two teams - and fan bases - don’t like each other. An interesting twist to this year’s game is it’ll be the return of former Arkansas player Jordan McFarland. Considering the teams’ histories, I’m anxious to see if he received a reception anything like Hunter Wilson when Oral Roberts came to Fayetteville last season. Regardless, I’m picking Arkansas.
The SEC team Diamond Hogs fans hate the most is probably LSU. Unfortunately, the Tigers have owned the series. Arkansas finally killed the rally possum by winning last year’s series, but back in Baton Rouge, I have a hard time seeing the Razorbacks winning the series. They’ll probably come close to winning a rubber match, but lose in heartbreaking fashion.
Record: 28-12 (10-8)
Week 11 - at Michigan State (April 21-22), vs. Auburn (April 24-26)
The Big Ten gained some respect with Michigan’s national-runner up finish last season, but the Spartans are nowhere near the in-state rival Wolverines. It’s a long ways away from home and playing on the road can be tough, so I wouldn’t be surprised by a series split, but I’m picking Arkansas to pull off the midweek sweep.
Tanner Burns is back as Auburn’s ace. He has allowed four earned runs on 11 hits and four walks while striking out 17 in 12 career innings against the Razorbacks. If Arkansas jumps on him Friday night, I think it’ll be a fun weekend at Baum-Walker ending in a sweep.
Record: 33-12 (13-8)
Week 12 - vs. UAPB (April 28-29), at South Carolina (May 1-3)
Arkansas had a lot more success against this in-state foe last year, beating UAPB 16-4 in seven innings. It will play the Golden Lions twice this year, once in Fayetteville and once in North Little Rock, and should win both. The only thing that gives me pause is that the Razorbacks have traditionally played close games at Dickey-Stephens Park, with last year’s 17-3 win over Grambling State being the exception.
It has been a while since Arkansas played at South Carolina, but it faced the Gamecocks seven times during its national runner-up season in 2018, including in the super regional. Although the Razorbacks followed that up with a return trip to the College World Series, South Carolina went backward and barely made the SEC Tournament. I like Arkansas’ chances to go on the road and pick up a big series win.
Record: 37-13 (15-9)
Week 13 - vs. Georgia (May 8-10)
With the non-conference slate completed, Arkansas welcomes Georgia to Fayetteville for the final regular-season series at Baum-Walker Stadium. The Bulldogs have a pair of projected first-round draft picks in their rotation - Emerson Hancock and Cole Wilcox - and are ranked No. 5 in the preseason. The Razorbacks have been dominant at home, but I still think they drop two of three in this series.
Record: 38-15 (16-11)
Week 14 - at Tennessee (May 14-16)
Arkansas swept former assistant Tony Vitello’s squad last year and now has to face the Volunteers on the road to end the regular season. It might need another sweep to win the SEC West again, but that is so hard to do on the road in the SEC. Taking two of three should still give it a good seed for the SEC Tournament and put it in the conversation for a top-eight national seed, though.
Record: 40-16 (18-12)
Postseason Projection: No. 9 national seed, return to Omaha on the road
Winning 40 games and finishing 18-12 in SEC play would pretty much lock up a regional host bid, but I’m not quite sure it would be enough to clinch a top-eight national seed. Much to fans’ displeasure, Van Horn typically doesn’t go all-out at the SEC Tournament, so an 0-2 or 1-2 showing in Hoover could knock the Razorbacks down to the No. 9 seed.
Assuming the No. 8 national seed wins its regional, Arkansas would have to go on the road for the postseason for the first time since 2015. It’s hard to predict when you don’t know who the opponent would be in this hypothetical super regional, but I think this lineup is good enough to get back to Omaha.
What will the Razorbacks do once they get to the College World Series? Who knows, but at least they would be in the conversation.
Surprise All-SEC Selection: Christian Franklin
Despite a massive slump near the end of the season, Christian Franklin was pretty much the only Arkansas player who hit well in two games in Omaha. He credited a mechanical tweak for the turnaround and he hasn’t stopped hitting since, with success over the summer, fall and preseason.
All four of the Razorbacks’ preseason first-team All-SEC selections have a great opportunity to fulfill those expectations, but I also see Franklin making a huge jump as a sophomore. After hitting .274 with six home runs last year, I think he hits over .300 with double-digit homers this year.
Bold Prediction I: Heston Kjerstad wins National Player of the Year
Based on what he did with Team USA over the summer and what I saw from him in the fall and preseason scrimmages, Heston Kjerstad could be on the verge of putting together one of the best seasons in school history.
Five years ago, Andrew Benintendi won the Golden Spikes Award and Dick Howser Trophy after hitting .376/.488/.717 with 20 home runs, 57 RBIs and 24 stolen bases. He likely won’t run as much, but Kjerstad could definitely have a similar slash line in 2020.
To make this prediction even bolder, I’ll say this: Kjerstad will make a run at the UA’s all-time home runs record - not the three-year record, but the overall record. He should shatter the three-year mark of 42, which is shared by Brett Eibner, Andy Wilkins and Jeff King, but reaching Danny Hamblin’s four-year total of 57 would require a whopping 26 long balls this year. The single-season record is 24 by Ryan Lundquist during the juiced-bat era.
I don’t know if he hits quite that many, but I definitely think it’ll be in the conversation late in the year.
Bold Prediction II: Arkansas hits 100 home runs
One reason I think Kjerstad has a chance to have such a historic season is because he’s surrounded by a powerful lineup and opponents won’t be able to pitch around him.
It might be the best lineup Arkansas has had, which is saying something because its 269 home runs since 2017 rank second in Division I behind only Tennessee Tech. Two years ago, the Razorbacks set the single-season school record with 98.
Here’s my path to triple digits: Kjerstad - 25, Casey Martin - 17, Braydon Webb - 13, Franklin - 11, Matt Goodheart - 8, Casey Opitz - 7, Jacob Nesbit - 7, Cole Austin - 5, Robert Moore - 4, Bench (Curtis Washington Jr., Zack Gregory, etc.) - 3.