In the last couple weeks, the realization that we may never see stars like Heston Kjerstad and Casey Opitz in a Razorback uniform again is hitting Hog fans.
The Diamond Hogs had everything set up for a third straight College World Series run in 2020, but global events beyond their control squelched those dreams before they could get rolling. Arkansas ends the 2020 campaign with an 11-5 record, with 7- and 4-game win streaks bookending a 5-game losing streak.
Could this team have gotten back to Omaha? It’s hard to say. The talent was there, but without seeing this team play a single SEC game, it’s hard to compare the 2020 Hogs to the previous two years. But we can still try.
All key stats are improved over 2019, but again, the 2019 numbers include an entire conference slate, plus the conference and NCAA Tournaments.
Team MVP: Heston Kjerstad
Kjerstad was really setting up a special season. Through 16 games, he posted a ridiculous .448/.521/.791 slash line, a significant improvement over his already-impressive.327/.400/.575 in 2019. He was on pace to hit 25 home runs (he hit 17 in 2019) and 21 doubles (he hit 13 in 2019). There’s little doubt we’ve seen his last at-bat in a Razorback uniform.
The Case for Making the CWS
The case for the Hogs getting back to Omaha starts with the hitting. Although it’s tough to compare stats directly given the differences discussed above, the Hogs were probably going to improve on 2019’s batting average and OPS numbers, and probably would have posted more extra base hits per game.
Kjerstad wasn’t the only player hitting well. Five other regular players were batting .300 or better: Christian Franklin (.381), Braydon Webb (.340), Robert Moore (.317), Matt Goodheart (.302), and Casey Opitz (.302). Franklin in particular was in the middle of a breakout season.
The Case Against Making the CWS
There was still one issue with the hitting, and it’s been a nagging one: strikeouts. The Hogs’ go-for-broke approach at the plate has driven high strikeout rates over the last couple of years. I listed last year’s 22.3% strikeout rate as a weakness for last year’s team. Despite weaker competition, the strikeout rate actually moved up to 22.7% this year. The problem with a high strikeout rate is that you risk getting shut down by elite pitching. Recall in the 2018 CWS Finals against Oregon State, the Hogs were 1 for 33 with 15 strikeouts when starting the at-bat with a called strike. In their last five games in Omaha, they are 4 for 52 with 21 strikeouts when starting with a called strike. You just can’t afford to give back pitches like that against good pitching. That could have hurt them again this year.
Starting pitching was the other potential issue. The Hogs were blessed with Blaine Knight and Isaiah Campbell going a combined 29-1 over the 2018 and 2019 seasons. Connor Noland was off a solid start: 2-0 in three starts with a 2.00 ERA and opponents hitting just .203 against him. Look for big things from him in 2021. But Saturday starter Patrick Wicklander (2-2, 6.43 ERA) was not off to a great start, and the Hogs started four other guys looking for that third starter, but there were no clear answers there. Still, six guys had an ERA under 2, with Elijah Trest (1.93 ERA, 10 strikeouts in 9 innings) and Zebulon Vermillion (1-0, 0.00 ERA, 12 strikeouts in 7 innings) among them.
So would the Hogs have made it to Omaha? It’s hard to say. Wicklander would have needed to get at least get back to 2019 form, a third starter would have needed to emerge, and the strikeout rate would have needed to not balloon against SEC pitching. All of these things would have needed to happen. I think all of them probably would have happened, so yes, we were probably watching a team that would have been favored to get back to the CWS for a third straight year.
As we bid farewell to a year of unfinished business, there’s still a lot to be excited for. Dave Van Horn is still the coach, so we can continue to expect good baseball in Fayetteville. The Hogs will have a loaded pitching roster next year, and young studs like Webb, Moore, and Franklin will lead this team’s hitting in 2021. Can you wait ten and a half months for baseball to return? I’m already looking forward to it.