Connect with us

Clay Henry

CLAY HENRY: Fans don’t need to be worrying now about offense

Dave Van Horn has pitching and defense playing at a championship level that’s nearly elite heading to UAPB game.



When Michael Lewis wrote Money Ball in 2003, it shook the foundation of baseball. So many had held the wrong values in the way they constructed their teams.

Lewis had the background to prove new analytics both had merit and did the reporting to back up the theories that would eventually change the game.

It was simple stuff. The key to winning games wasn’t so much home runs, it was the art of not getting out. If you were consistently on base, there was value.

For most of us, batting average was the way we measured success in baseball. It’s a good barometer, but it doesn’t always provide the exact path to victory.

Of course, there are lots of ways to skin the cat. You can play small ball, like they do on the west coast, often because the thick air in the evenings because of the marine layer make it difficult to smash the ball out of the park. You can’t slug your way to victory on a regular basis.

I love baseball and all of its statistics. I grew up on minor league baseball, spending most of the summer at Ray Winder Field where the Arkansas Travelers played in the Texas League.

During the days the Travs were on the road, I played a statistical baseball game, Stratomatic. Players were given value by their career stats and you rolled the dice to give at least some random results, but not much. I played all sports and was decent, but my most fun days was playing catcher at age 14 and 15. A catcher is involved in everything and I started learning baseball at a different level and the stats of Stratomatic faded away.

But Stratomatic had value for me early on. It’s what kids that loved baseball did before Play Station video games. We could spend hours with Stratomatic, but we were doing the math in our heads. We were learning odds. The computer wasn’t doing it for us like today.

Willie McCovey was going to bash in that game. Sandy Koufax was going to pitch eight innings, maybe nine. Bob Gibson was golden. And, if you held the cards from the Yankees, you would win the championship in your neighborhood.

I kept the scorebook and ran the scoreboard for the American Legion park in Little Rock, Curran Conway Field, when I was 14 and also swept the grandstands in the mornings. I called in the results to both papers each night. I kept the batting averages and the ERA. There were no calculators. I did long division.

So as far as I knew in my teenage years (and much later), those were the most important stats and I knew how to figure them.

I’ve since learned better. Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn has slowly taught me, as have some of his assistants: Dave Jorn, Wes Johnson, Matt Hobbs, Tony Vitello, Todd Butler and Nate Thompson. The first three were pitching coaches, and the latter three hitting coaches.

I probably learned the most from Butler, now the recruiting coordinator at Oklahoma. He was Van Horn’s hitting coach and recruiting coordinator from 2006-2013. He was really good, but criticized during the days of the weak bats and dead baseballs. He was signing pitchers because that was the ticket to Omaha. He’d taken Alabama to Omaha with elite hitters.

Soon after Butler arrived, Norm DeBriyn introduced us in the parking lot and said, “Todd wants you to teach him how to fly fish.”

I told Butler I didn’t guide and didn’t teach. I was a fly fisher. I was not going to be his mentor.


But, if he went to the local fly shop and bought a rod and took a casting lesson from the owner — a real guide — then I might take him after four to six weeks of backyard practice.

Six weeks later, Butler called me to the field in pre-game for a brief talk,

“I’ve done it,” he said. “I’ve been practicing for six weeks. I think I can cast a fly line OK. When are we going to the river?”

We got really close thereafter and have maintained a relationship even after he left Arkansas. Sometimes on the trip back from the river he’d make a recruiting call. I could only hear one part of the conversation, but I learned he was an elite recruiter.

What happened during that time is he learned to fly fish and I learned details of baseball I could not have found anywhere else. If I wrote a book now, I’d call it, “Beyond Money Ball.”

We have made many long fishing trips to the rivers and of late he’s visited me for over night stays at my river home in Norfork. We stay up late telling rich stories. He likes mine. His enthrall me.

Through Butler there have been fishing trips with major league scouts, including front office executives from top MLB teams. The fishing talk takes center stage, but there is always time for me to soak up baseball knowledge. I’ve taken MLB executives on their first fly fishing trips. I’m better equipped to teach now than when Butler asked me in 2006.

What I learned foremost, Van Horn is the best at both assembling talent, coaching staffs and running a college program than about anyone. These men all respect Van Horn’s judgment both in scouting, evaluation, in game management and skill. They rave about his ability to build toughness in teenage blue chippers. That last part isn’t always easy. MLB executives value what he does when they draft his players.

All marvel at the way he places value on the different aspect of the game: pitching, defense and offense.

Notice I did not mention hitting. That’s an entirely different subject and not at all the most important part of baseball. Offense is a huge category.

It’s working the count, taking pitches, fouling off a pitcher’s pitch, moving along runners and the key late game understanding of a well-placed bunt or sacrifice fly.

College baseball is about taking walks and not allowing walks. It’s about digging into the opposition’s bullpen early in the game. You might take some strikes to make sure an ace starter doesn’t make it past the third inning. Or you make sure your own ace gets more than a little break in the dugout between innings. First-pitch swinging doesn’t allow much of a rest for your pitcher.

How many times have you seen a Van Horn team run up the pitch count in the second inning? There may not be many hits in that inning, but it probably changed the course of the game.

Walks will eventually produce runs. A solo homer doesn’t do a lot of damage, but a three-run blast changes the game.

You get where I’m going, that sometimes we don’t see the details as they happen. It’s one pitch at a time.


Sometimes the hitter wasn’t going to swing no matter the pitch. Van Horn told the Swatter’s Club earlier this spring he’s probably given more take signs than at any time in his career. So when a fan yells at a hitter to swing, he’s really clueless of what is going on. I don’t mean that in a mean-spirited way, but we don’t really know what’s going on most of the time.

The other issue we don’t get until it’s bad is defense. We don’t appreciate how much time Van Horn spends on making sure pitchers don’t have to get four outs in an inning. You win a lot of games because of the mistakes the other team makes in the field — as long as you don’t make many errors.

The Arkansas fielding percentage was at .984 ahead of the UA-Pine Bluff game Tuesday night. Anything over .975 is considered championship level. When you get close to .985, that’s elite.

During the fall, someone bemoaned the loss of Jalen Battles and Robert Moore over the last couple of seasons. They were among the best middle infielders ever to play at Arkansas. Could Wehiwa Aloy and Peyton Stovall come close?

No way, I kept hearing. They may be better. That tandem has combined to make only three errors in the first 14 SEC games. That is elite defense.

No one disputes the 2024 Arkansas pitching staff. It is arguably the best in college baseball. Hagen Smith may be the best-ever Arkansas pitcher and that’s a mouthful. Every time I ask one of my MLB friends, they have moved him up a little closer to the top three. He’s amazing. His slider reminds of Steve Carlton and I’m not the one saying that. It’s men who have scouted Carlton as a MLB star.

The UA pitchers don’t issue a lot of walks. In 18 league games, they have walked 18 fewer than the opposition. Over the entire 40-game season the difference is even wider, 218-130.

If you don’t walk batters and you play elite level defense, the opposition enters at a huge disadvantage.

I don’t worry about the offense. It should improve and could be just what the doctor ordered for a hot finish. There are professional hitters up and down the lineup. Kendall Diggs (shoulder) and Jared Sprague-Lott (back) are both battling injuries that have slowed their offense. They may hit a good spurt.

Those that are critical of Thompson are just wrong. They don’t understand the Van Horn approach. Remember, Van Horn is running the offense. He’s giving the signals in the dugout. Thompson is coaching third base, but not calling the offense.

But the Hogs have been good on offense since Thompson arrived. Remember, I said offense, not hitting.

The Hogs have taken the word “power” to a new level since Thompson arrived in 2018. The team has posted four of the top five school records for home runs in a season under Thompson.

2021 – 109
2022 – 106
2018 – 98
2023 – 92

The Hogs had never posted back-to-back seasons with over 100 homers until 2021 and 2022.

But this is the stat that points to a top-level offense. Since 2018, the Hogs entered the season tops in the SEC in runs scored (2,508) and runs batted in (2,326).


I figure the offense will hit another gear at some point this season, perhaps in post-season play. There is more in the tank. Van Horn said these hitters could hit the UA pitchers in the fall better than any SEC team has this season.

No matter, I’m happy with what I see right now. This is a really strong college baseball team. It’s a joy to watch it every single game.

The one thing that just stuns me is the amount of complaining about a team that sits No. 2 in the national polls (after several weeks at No. 1) and is just as high in the national RPI, a huge metric in earning regionals and super regionals. The Hogs are 34-6.

No one wants to play Arkansas. The opposition knows what is waiting on them, a team that plays the game the right way and is good in all phases. They don’t beat themselves. Most importantly, they have the great intangible in sports, a genuine toughness. It’s almost a given with Van Horn teams.

I sit in the stands sometimes and am stunned at what I hear. I did just that with my daughter for three games in Arlington early in the season. The Hogs won two of three in a great setting. It was open seating, something that made me happy, until it didn’t.

Sarah and I picked a section behind home plate that compared to my press box seat at Baum Walker Stadium. It just was easy on my eyes because I could find everything I wanted.

There was one problem, I did not get to pick the fans around me. They were Hog fans, but you wouldn’t know it if they weren’t wearing red.

Some griped about everything. One man about my age found fault with every pitcher, every defender and each batter. None of them did one single thing right.

They were not in the right spot in the field, the box and the pitcher went with the wrong pitch. He had some things Hagen Smith did wrong. Really? He fanned 17 of 18 in the best performance by a college pitcher ever and against an elite lineup!

His wife, who explained she once was a good softball player, did say Smith was having a decent game. I bet things were fun in that home watching games on the TV.

We moved seats. We moved again when someone got mad about a Van Horn pitching decision. We moved three more times over the next two games. We finally found a spot in the outfield upper deck with no fans anywhere close. It was blissful.

Back in Norfork, I ran into a transplant from Baton Rouge, an LSU baseball fan. He said the same thing goes on in Alex Box Stadium even after an LSU national title. He said, “You guys are going to get more of that with your baseball fans. They expect perfection and this is a game played at the amateur level. They are not MLB players. Some of them might be after a few years of polish in the minor leagues.”

So there you have it, fans are fans no matter where you go. I’m spoiled. I have always sat in the press box. I do enjoy the atmosphere in the stands, but I need to get some ear plugs if I’m going to enjoy the game to its fullest.

It’s a beautiful game full of great strategy options. No matter what you do, a coach is open to a second guess by fans. It’s absolutely what makes baseball fun.

Just make sure you understand that offense includes walks, extending a pitch count and not just a batting average.


I know what you are thinking, that crazy old man needs to stay in his recliner on the river. I may do it, or take Todd Butler’s advice: fish a little more.