Flexibility serves UA baseball coaches well
FAYETTEVILLE — Good coaches generally fashion an identity.
Great ones don’t pigeonhole their teams with the identity they fashion.
Score Nate Thompson off to a great start, switching his baseball identity from the Missouri State Bears to the Arkansas Razorbacks.
Thompson was the hitting coach/recruiting coordinator for the Bears, who beat Arkansas two out of three times during the Fayetteville Regional the Razorbacks hosted last month at Baum Stadium.
After Missouri State’s season ended with a Super Regional loss at TCU, Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn hired Thompson as the Hogs’ hitting coach/recruiting coordinator.
Tony Vitello, Arkansas’ hitting coach/recruiting coordinator since 2014, had become Tennessee’s head coach.
Like Vitello, Thompson is regarded an excellent and energetic recruiter.
What about hitting philosophy? Is he about sluggers belting home runs or small ball stealing, bunting and hit and run?
“Personally, it doesn’t matter to me,” Thompson replied. “It’s just all about run production. And so whether it’s us driving the ball or just finding a way to compete and grind and get on base and being opportunistic on the base paths playing small ball, I don’t care.”
Better to adapt what each does best than cookie-cutter adapting them to what the coach reputedly coaches best.
“My style is to try and exploit each guy’s strengths,” Thompson said. “And help them understand what they do well as a player and how they can fit into a good role for themselves and us as a team to score runs. If what they do is hit the ball hard in the flat and run really well, then that’s the thing we are going to focus on. If they are more of a power type guy, then I am going to encourage them to try and get their best swing off and drive the ball and hit doubles and homers. So it goes both ways.”
So it has gone with Van Horn since becoming the Razorbacks’ head coach in 2003. He’s adapted while the NCAA variously altered composition of the bats and seams of the baseball adjusting to the college game’s offensive extremes of home run feasts and famines.
The 45-19 Razorbacks hit an SEC-leading 83 home runs in 2017.
However, Van Horn projected losing 37 home runs and 156 RBI from juniors Chad Spanberger, Luke Bonfield and Carson Shaddy in the Major League Baseball Draft.
Arkansas would play more small ball in 2018, Van Horn said between the season’s end and the draft’s beginning.
Unexpectedly, Bonfield (nine home runs and 49 RBI) and Shaddy (eight home runs and 40 RBI) did not get drafted and will return as seniors.
Van Horn says that somewhat changes his projected 2018 philosophical shift, but not entirely.
“We do have some athletic, young guys coming in,” Van Horn said. “Are they going to play every day? We’ll see. There are some guys that can run and they can swing it, too.”
The situation beckons for a versatile hitting coach.
Philosophically, it seems Van Horn has hired one.