Week Five Evaluation
Five weeks into the season and a couple of Freshmen are leading the red hot Arkansas lineup that ranks 8th in the country in batting average (.321) and 2nd in home runs (41). Heston Kjerstad is batting .366 with 5 home runs and a team leading 25 RBI, and Casey Martin has a team leading 7 home runs with 22 driven in while batting .369. How’s that for March Madness?
But we all saw this coming, right? With the veterans the Hogs returned from a year ago, it could hardly be expected that a couple of rookies would be pacing the production of the 4th ranked team in the nation. But the production doesn’t stop with Kjerstad and Martin. In fact, Dominic Fletcher is the only player with 40 or more at bats who is hitting below .317, and even he has been swinging it well lately.
Not to be outdone, Arkansas’ pitching staff has put together a great start to the season with a 2.66 ERA that is good for 14th best in the country. Although several Freshmen have contributed quality innings, the Razorbacks have mostly relied upon its returners to carry a heavier load on the mound. With only 55 of their 76 runs allowed being earned, it could be said that defense has contributed to at least a few of the 5 losses on the season.
With one conference weekend behind us, here are the early season position rankings:
Starting Pitching: A-
Blaine Knight (3-0) has turned in 5 quality starts to begin the season and is leading the team with a 1.30 ERA. Isaiah Campbell (2-2) is pacing right there with Knight, carrying a 1.73 ERA and team leading 27 strikeouts. Campbell has fallen victim to the aforementioned defensive struggles that have cost him a win or two. Other than these two power pitchers, the Hogs have tried several arms on the back end of the rotation, but Kacey Murphy (3-0, 1.69) has made the case for becoming the Sunday starter.
Relief Pitching: B+
Matt Cronin (2-0, 2.35) has established himself as the hammer to nail down the end of a game whether it be a couple outs or several innings. He has been the most dominant reliever with 18 strikeouts in just 15.1 innings, and oh by the way has saved 3 games. Freshmen Caleb Boulden, Bryce Bonnin and Kole Ramage have all looked good thowing at least 12 innings, and classmate Jackson Rutledge has yet to give up an earned run in over seven innings while lighting up the radar with 97mph fastballs. Veterans Evan Lee, Jake Reindl and Barrett Loseke have all looked good at times but each have an ERA sitting north of 5.00.
Grant Koch (.317) has looked good to start the season both behind the dish and while standing over it. His four home runs and 14 RBI make him quite the productive eight-hole hitter.
Corner Infield: A+
Martin and Jordan McFarland have solidified their positions at third and first base, respectively. McFarland (.357, 2 HR, 11 RBI) saw only left handed pitching early until his recent success have made him a staple in the lower middle of the lineup. Evan Lee (.385) has also had success in his limited action at first base early.
Middle Infield: A
Jax Biggers has picked up where he left off last season when he led Arkansas in hitting. His .356 average and .489 on base percentage have made him the true leadoff hitter that Arkansas needs to go along with its potent lineup. He is also the only player with over 60 at bats to have fewer than 10 strikeouts. Carson Shaddy has quietly slugged 6 home runs at the bottom of the lineup while hitting .328. While Shaddy’s defense has greatly improved from a year ago, Biggers is leading the team with 5 errors.
The campaigns of Eric Cole and Kjerstad are more than making up for the struggles that Fletcher has seen so far. Cole has shown why he deserved so many chances the last two seasons while battling injuries that kept him out of the lineup. Now occupying the second spot in the lineup, where you may remember a year ago Dave Van Horn kept Chad Spanberger all year, Cole is hitting a solid .365, with 6 home runs, and team leading 31 hits and 26 runs scored. In addition to Kjerstad’s power numbers, he has been hit by pitch 11 times with only 8 walks. Fletcher’s struggles peaked when Arkansas visited the west coast three weeks ago and he has slowly been pulling out of it. His 20 strikeouts lead the team but he is also pacing the Hogs with 6 doubles.
Designated Hitter: A+
Luke Bonfield has a solid grasp on the DH spot as he is leading the team with a .377 batting average and .524 on base percentage.
Going forward some stories to keep an eye on will be how Van Horn will use his bullpen and who might come off the bench if a position player starts to struggle or gets injured. It is at least a little concerning that Reindl and Lee are struggling to keep runs off the board, but I expect that they will get things turned around soon. Another concern on the mound is that Keaton McKinney has not pitched since the first week of the season. He has experienced some elbow soreness and should be ready to test it out again soon.
Offensively, there have been several infielders rotate in to get some at bats and looks in the field, but the Hogs do not have much in the way of outfield relief if something were to go wrong. Cole Turney, who was the most highly touted recruit in the current Freshman class, has not looked the part in his first several opportunities at the plate. It will be interesting to see if he can overcome his shoulder injury to get more chances and prove himself ready to compete at the college level.
One thing is certain, no matter how you look at it this team does not have any major holes. If one person is struggling, someone else is ready to jump in and hit the ground running. That recipe has led them to success early against an overall difficult schedule, and it will be fun to see how they do navigating a rough stretch in the SEC coming up.