By: Eric SanInocencio
SEC Digital Network
Birmingham, Ala. -- They say patience is a virtue. When it comes to hitting and the game of baseball, Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn thinks patience is everything.
The nine-year head man of the Razorbacks is at the helm of one of the nation's most prolific walking teams, drawing free passes better than anyone in the Southeastern Conference. This is turn gives Arkansas a high on-base percentage, with the team reaching first base 38 percent of the time they come to bat. The success in that philosophy has shown up in the runs column, with Van Horn's group putting up double digit totals four times so far this year.
But, despite the strong plate discipline that Arkansas has now, Van Horn believe true patience for a Razorback hitter begins before they ever step foot in Fayetteville. "From the time we start recruiting kids, we are checking to see if they have a feel for the strike zone," he said. "You can learn the strike zone, but it is very difficult. You have to already have a feel for it, and that comes with experience."
For a collegiate coaching staff, that ability can be difficult to try and evaluate. High school baseball is not a level playing field, and a box score often doesn't tell you the whole story. As Van Horn explained to me, a lot of background work is done numbers wise, with seeing the player being the final evaluation. "If I'm looking at stats, once of the first things I'm looking at is walks to strikeouts," he mentioned. "If I get a high school kid that has walked 25 times and only struck out three, that right there is a major plus for me. But I still need to see the player against good pitchers."
Once they do put on an Arkansas jersey, the philosophy of taking pitches and working the count is instilled early. Van Horn's fall practices consist of strike zone training and teaching, including drills that force players to lay off borderline pitches. "During our batting practices if they swing at a bad pitch, we are letting them know about it," Van Horn said. "It isn't just about wailing away, we are always trying to work on something."
The work is indeed paying off, as the Razorbacks have gotten off to a 22-6 start and are currently ranked ninth in the country. The entire team has embraced the idea, with seven different players already having drawn more than 10 walks this season. Knowing the strike zone has even won Arkansas a game this year, as they drew three straight walks to capture a victory over Western Division rival Alabama.
"I think the main thing is that as coaches we are always talking about it, we discuss it and we emphasize how important it is," Van Horn added. With the numbers in their favor so to speak, Van Horn feels it makes it easier for his players to buy into the system. "We back it up with stats, some from the Major League level. We tell them what the percentages are for hitters when the count is 2-0 or when it is 1-2 and what that disadvantage is," he explained.
Van Horn isn't the only SEC coach buying into this system, with all but one team in the league having already surpassed the 100 walk mark as a unit.
However, with new changes that were implemented with college bats over a year ago (BBCOR), he feels the pendulum could switch in the coming years. "I already see the adjustments being made," he said. "The last two years pitchers aren't as scared of giving up a cheap hit, and they are pitching more like they do in professional baseball."
For now though, Arkansas approach will remain the same. They will wait and see…as many good pitches as they can.