Pitching Success Surprised Van Horn

Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn reviewed the prospects for Friday's MLB draft and how it might impact the 2015 season for the Razorbacks.

Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn is pretty sure what he's going to lose from the current team as far as the draft. Pitchers Chris Oliver, Michael Gunn and Jalen Beeks and position players Brian Anderson and Eric Fisher are the top hands that should be drafted Friday and signed soon by Major League Baseball.

Van Horn is not as sure about relief pitcher Jacob Stone, but he believes seniors-to-be Tyler Spoon and Joe Serrano will be back along with shortstop Brett McAfee. The often injured McAfee has another year of eligibility, plus a potential medical hardship giving himself some leverage with MLB.

Trey Killian will be the staff leader. The junior-to-be pitched like a captain all year and will obviously be the top man in the locker room next year. Van Horn said he's an aggressive leader and can "police" the dugout.

There will be experience among the position players returning, led by Spoon, another captain. Serrano is a leader, too. Freshmen Andrew Benintendi and Clark Eagan were solid down the stretch.

"Spoon and Serrano are a couple of guys with experience coming back, and then Benintendi got 200 at-bats, and Eagan got 12," Van Horn said. "Eagan really impressed me down the stretch. There was just a little bit of something … we changed his batting stance. He had a real wide open stance.

"When I'm messing around with these guys, I'll say, 'Hey, you've got your high school batting stance. When are we going to change that?' And he changed his feet, and he squared up, his hands. Then he just started hitting. He got more power in there.

"Benintendi was wide open, and he closed it up a little bit. Just some little tweaks. But there's four pretty good hitters right there. Just off the top. We get (Blake) Baxendale back. We're going to change him a little bit. He's got to make some changes in himself, and I think he can help us. We've got a couple three kids coming in, there's a couple more guys I didn't mention, we redshirted a kid or two. We'll be better off offensively."

Van Horn said there is hitting talent in the recruiting class.

"Yeah, you'll see," he said. "We'll be better."

Stone, junior college transfer, had a solid junior season with the Hogs, posting an 0.94 ERA after pitching coach Dave Jorn suggested a drop in his arm slot. Stone was 4-0 with four saves.

"I don't expect to see those that are going to the draft," Van Horn said about exit meetings the last two days after the Hogs were ousted in the finals of the NCAA Charlottesville Regionals. "But Jacob came in. It will depend on how high he goes. But I think he wants to come back."

Spoon has battled injuries throughout the season and will take the summer off to regain his strength. Spoon had sports hernia surgery in the winter, sustained both wrist and shoulder injuries. He batted just .256.

"I feel like Tyler will be back," Van Horn said. "He wants to come back and have a big year at the plate.

"Serrano won't be drafted. It's all about tools. You have to have something like the ability to run, have a power arm and hit for power. We let the scouts talk to our players on Mondays during the season. He wasn't requested so I think that's an indication that he won't be drafted.

"McAfee, if he was healthy, he'd be drafted. He's been drafted two other times. He tells me he's coming back."

Van Horn met with the media Wednesday for a postseason wrap and draft preview. The Hogs went 40-25, 16-14 in the SEC. They also won three games in the SEC tournament in a strong finish after spending most of the season under .500 in SEC play.

"We got better," Van Horn said. "The California trip didn't go well, but we battled and started to play better as the conference season progressed. Our freshmen relaxed and started to handle the pressure that comes with the SEC.

"I think we kept working and you saw it start to pay off. Our backs were against the wall, but we just kept getting better and our offense came around a little bit.

"If you asked me in the fall if we were going to win 40, I would have said yes. But I might not have been telling you the truth.

"We lost a lot of pitchers. I was a little worried about the pitching. We got a lot out of our starting pitching for a long time. Trey Killian and Jalen Beeks gave us a lot of innings."

So did Oliver, getting some key Sunday victories in league play. Oliver is likely going in the second round, but could have cost himself some money with an arrest earlier this week.

"Some teams have called, but there are no issues with Chris," Van Horn said. "He made a mistake and I'm just glad no one got hurt. But he's still going to probably go in the same slot. Maybe the money won't be as good. It will probably be second, maybe sandwich, maybe late first. He's still going to go high."

Beeks helped himself with his comeback in Virginia when he got a win with nine strikeouts on a Sunday morning start against Bucknell.

"He touched 90 and had nine strikeouts and that showed them his arm was good," Van Horn said. "He's well. They know that now. He just had an injury, but his arm is good. It was important for him to do that."

Van Horn hinted at what could be the weekend pitching rotation. Obviously, it starts with Killian on Friday night. Zach Jackson, who got a start against Virignia on Sunday, will likely be in the weekend rotation, too. He'd like to get a few of the big arms in the signing class to campus. There are two in the top 200 and another close. Van Horn said a key would be to escape the draft with one of them.

Killian led the team with 94 innings. He'll be counted on to pitch big innings next year, too.

"That's the main thing," Van Horn said. "Whether he wins 10 games or five games next year, he's going to lead us. And he'll lead that pitching staff. He's got a lot of toughness to him.

"You've got to have a guy like that. The guys look up to him, because he works hard. He backs it up. He'll police that locker room a little bit, and he'll police that dugout. When guys aren't paying attention or goofing around, he'll say something. They respect him, because he works hard. When you do that, you can say what you need to say."

Jackson is a stud with a big arm and a variety of pitches with movement. He just needs to throw more strikes. He had 42 strikeouts in 42 innings, but also had 24 walks. He had a big walk that let Virginia off the hook in their big inning Sunday night, a border line call. Van Horn said being around the plate a little more next year might get Jackson that call next time.

"It was a pretty good pitch," Van Horn said. "I didn't watch it again. I asked catcher Jake (Wise). I said, where do you think that pitch was that walked him? He said maybe a ball off the plate.

"That's right there. You can call that a strike. Sometimes you get them, sometimes you don't. It just depends on how the inning's going. Probably because he was a little wild, he didn't get the call. We always tell our pitchers, you've got to earn that spot by throwing it there a lot. They'll start giving it to you. But if you're scattering the ball all over, and then you need a big pitch, a lot of times you won't get it."

Jackson will probably earn a starting spot next year.

"I'd like him to be a starting pitcher next year, and I want him to go out this summer and do that," Van Horn said. "We're going to groom him to do that. It's really just about throwing some more strikes. He's got great stuff. You see that long, lanky body. He's a good kid, great student, very dedicated. He cares, and he's got talent.

"It's a good combination. If you'll work … He just needs to get stronger. He's a skinny kid. He's put on a little weight, but he's a guy that could pitch at 225, 230, and he probably weighs 200 pounds. He'll get there. He's got a chance to be really good in a year or two."

McAfee's decision to return could impact the makeup of the signing class. Van Horn signed another shortstop knowing McAfee would likely be drafted.

"McAfee was a kid that was projected to be a top 10 round pick at the end of this year," Van Horn said. "He got off to a good start with the bat, he was playing good defense, and then the back went down. We brought him back, he got hurt again.

"From everything that he's told me, and I've talked to his parents, he's coming back. But he's got to get healthy. So we'll see what happens in the draft. I'll have to see it first. We've also signed another shortstop. It could be a battle. The other shortstop we signed was planning on McAfee not being here, so that might be a situation we'll have to handle. That might be a situation we're got to release somebody to go to another school because he doesn't want to come in and sit behind another guy."

Van Horn said the Hogs have been trying to play catchup in the recruiting of offensive players for the last few months.

"We've gone out and tried to go out and take care of some stuff," he said. "And I'm to big into getting a lot of junior college guys. They have to be the right guys. We were on the road a lot this spring watching kids."

Will he spend more money on hitting in this class?

"Well, a lot of times it's the luck of the draw," Van Horn said. "Let's say you signed five pitchers and five position players and if you get three of each you're feeling pretty good about it. But it just happens we get four and three or five and two. And all of a sudden we got a little lopsided.

"Once you sign them, you're guessing a little bit who's going to make it. then guys you didn't think you're going to get you get. We didn't think we were going to get him and they didn't even draft him. I think he wanted $500,000 and they wanted to give him a couple hundred and he went to school for three years and he made more than that.

"But that's what happens a lot of times. Yeah, we've got to get better offensively. We've got a core group of hitters that's kind of leaving and we've got some young guys in here, bringing some more guys in. Sometimes you just have to change the mindset. Guys are set in their ways or they don't want to change. And when you don't have a lot of depth you don't have a lot of options. We're trying to make sure we've got some options and some open minds and we can get some guys going."

Van Horn will change his schedule approach next year after five games against SWAC teams caused a severe hit to their RPI and strength of schedule. He said there will be only two SWAC games, both against Mississippi Valley, on the schedule next year. And, he's likely going on the road for another early series next year.

"We had an East Coast team coming here for the first weekend and they just called and said they couldn't make the trip," Van Horn said. "We have a tournament at South Alabama for the second weekend. So now maybe we'll be on the road for the first two weekends. Road wins count so much more.

"If we hadn't played those five SWAC games, we would have had a top 15 RPI and a top five strength of schedule. It's too bad that's the way the RPI works because those SWAC teams need games. We need to play some games where we throw some younger guys, but it's tough to do that now. Maybe in the next few years, they will change the way this works."

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