(Photo via WholeHogSports, Andy Shupe)
Arkansas expected to be here. When ace Blaine Knight announced that he would be foregoing the Texas Rangers to return to Fayetteville for his junior season, he finished his statement by telling Razorback fans, “We’ll see you in Omaha!” That statement proved prescient, as Arkansas clinched its ninth College World Series appearance in program history Monday with a 14-4 drubbing of South Carolina. It was a fitting offensive outburst for a team that finished second in the SEC in runs, home runs, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. That the Razorbacks are in the final eight should not be surprising; they ranked fourth in Baseball America’s preseason top 25. More interesting is how they’ve gotten here. While Knight has been as good as advertised this season, the Razorbacks’ offense has been less predictable. Sophomore outfielder Dominic Fletcher and junior catcher Grant Koch, All-SEC performers in 2017, have seen their numbers back up a bit this year. Among the lineup anchors instead are two freshmen who have excelled since stepping on campus.
That Arkansas has gotten some impactful production from first-year players is not shocking; last summer, Baseball America ranked the Razorbacks as having the third-best incoming recruiting class, thanks largely to five top 500 draft prospects headed to campus. Not included among those five, though, were infielder Casey Martin and outfielder Heston Kjerstad. Both Martin and Kjerstad ranked among Perfect Game’s top 500 high school recruits for the year – they were not complete unknowns – but neither headed to school as the jewel of their class. Despite that, they have had a remarkable level of success immediately.
Kjerstad and Martin rank second and third on the team (behind senior infielder and Nationals draftee Carson Shaddy) in on-base percentage and slugging percentage. CBBSN’s advanced metrics are in agreement; Kjerstad and Martin have been 45 and 38 percentage points better than average at the plate by wRC+, placing them near the top of the nation’s freshmen. And this is not a function of overperformance in a limited sample- Kjerstad has started every game this year and is tied for the team lead with 14 home runs, while Martin has slugged 13 of his own and ranks third on the team in total bases. Unsurprisingly, both players were selected Freshmen All-America by the NCBWA, making the Hogs the only team with multiple selections to the first team.
Martin’s breakout is particularly remarkable, given that he did not enter the season with a guaranteed job. Martin started only one of Arkansas’ first five games, with his initial foray into playing time coming mostly as a pinch runner. This jives with Baseball America’s brief report on Martin from high school, which noted that he “bases his game around his plus speed.” Indeed, Martin did lead the Hogs in stolen bases and attempts this season. His power outburst, though, had to have been more unexpected. “Bases his game around his plus speed” hardly translates to “lineup anchor on one of the nation’s top offenses,” yet Martin has emerged as exactly that.
Kjerstad’s success would have been a bit more anticipated, although, yet again, envisioning him as an immediate lineup anchor would have been optimistic. Kjerstad ranked as Baseball America’s #58 draft prospect from Texas in 2017, with BA offering him modest praise as a potential “solid option” for Arkansas’ lineup. His stock did improve by the time the year started, as he began to pop up on various rankings of freshmen prospects in college baseball by February, but he was far from the top of any such list. As is shown time again, high-level performance in the SEC can do wonders for a player’s draft stock, so Kjerstad figures to be of much more interest to pro scouts if he can replicate this level of production over the next two years.
In the interim, though, both Martin and Kjerstad figure to be instrumental in Fayetteville. Their seamless transition to college baseball’s toughest conference is as big a reason as any that Arkansas finds itself headed to Omaha for the first time in three years, with their national title pursuit kicking off against Texas on Sunday. They will have their work cut out for them, leaving Baum Stadium (where they have been stellar all season) and needing to advance through the top overall seed, Florida, to reach the championship series. Arkansas, though, has an ace who can handle any lineup in the country. Couple Blaine Knight with a lineup that blends players with long track records like Shaddy, Fletcher, and Koch with their fantastic freshman duo, and the Hogs have a chance to do something special.