FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Two weekends into the SEC baseball season and the case could be made that Arkansas is the best team in the best league.
Normally that wouldn’t be a shock. The Razorbacks have been near the top of the SEC for 15 years or so now. But last year was a blow. Dave Van Horn’s team finished dead-last in the SEC.
Everything went awry. Pitching couldn’t keep guys off base. Hitting lacked power — homers or doubles. Fielding errors came at the worst time. Injuries. The ol’ Murphy’s Law season hit in 2016.
Fast-forward, though, and Arkansas is sitting pretty. The Diamond Hogs are on top of the SEC West, tied for the top of the SEC overall. When you play in the toughest league — or, at worst, one of the toughest leagues — such a standing automatically puts you in the conversation of nation’s best.
If Arkansas is among the nation’s best, then why couldn’t the Razorbacks host a regional come late spring? Heck, why couldn’t they be a national seed, even?
Certainly there is a long way to go, but here are five reasons this Arkansas baseball start isn’t a fluke.
1. The Two Aces
Blaine Knight and Trevor Stephan are rocking. Arkansas’ Friday and Saturday starters have been nothing short of glimmering so far. Knight’s 20.5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio is tops in the SEC and by a large margin. Stephan’s 50 strikeouts (in six starts) are third most in the league.
They may not be the best one-two punch in the SEC, long known for elite pitching, but they’re in the conversation. And that’s a long way from where Arkansas pitchers were last year when the Razorbacks had the worst staff in the league in a last-place season.
2. Strikeouts and walks
But it isn’t just Knight and Stephan, either. The team’s total walks allowed are down and strikeouts are up. Last year Arkansas was 12th in base-on-balls and ninth when it came to batters struck out. So far this season Diamond Hogs pitchers are fifth in the SEC in walks and tops in strikeouts as a team.
Those aren’t just ancillary stats. They’re important because they’re the two things pitchers can control. Fielders don’t come into play with walks and strikeouts. The two stats measure a pitcher’s effectiveness, whereas batting average against takes in some measure of the quality of the defense behind him.
Bottom line: Arkansas pitchers aren’t just getting lucky. They have been good.
3. Dropping the hammer
Diamond Hogs hitters have knocked 36 home runs in 25 games so far. The total number of home runs is tied for ninth in all of Division-I college baseball. It’s 11 more than the second-place team in the SEC and it’s just 13 short of the total number of home runs they hit the entire previous season.
It is a bit troubling such a high percentage of Arkansas runs have come from the long ball (the Razorbacks just fifth in the SEC in runs versus tops in home runs), but home runs, if nothing else show one thing — Arkansas can get back into a game or put away a team in a hurry. That’s an underrated, if not consistently important, quality.
4. That schedule though
This might be the biggest reason here. Any team that finishes among the top three in the SEC during the regular season is going to have a shot at a national seed. The conference’s cachet dictates as much. That has nothing to do with Arkansas.
Where the Razorbacks are helped by that, however, is with their SEC schedule. It could not be better, frankly. With eight SEC series remaining, this is a basic breakdown of what remains
- at Alabama
- vs LSU
- vs Georgia
- at Auburn
- vs Ole Miss
- at Tennessee
- vs Vanderbilt
- at Texas A&M
Arkansas’ most difficult opponents come to Baum Stadium. The least difficult ones are on the road. Right now, teams that come to Baum Stadium are a combined 11-13 and teams where Arkansas travels are a combined 7-17. Both those records are in SEC only.
5. Dave Van Horn
Dave Van Horn has been a power-conference college baseball coach for 19 seasons. He’s failed to make the NCAA Tournament exactly two times: his first year at Nebraska and last year with Arkansas. The man has six College World Series appearances on his resume. His teams at Arkansas have finished first or second in the SEC West seven times in his 14 seasons in Fayetteville.
With a seemingly down league and an “up” Arkansas, everything points to the Razorbacks being able to take advantage. It might take some continued high-level play and perhaps a bit of luck, but for the first time in three years, at this point of the season, Arkansas baseball looks the part of super-power.