FAYETTEVILLE – Reviewing great Arkansas hitters of the Dave Van Horn 2003-present Razorbacks coaching era and it’s hard to think of many starting better than freshman right fielder Cayden Wallace of Greenbrier
“He’s right there with them,” Van Horn replied to the question of measuring Wallace against his past Razorbacks greats. “He’s having a better freshman year than some of the guys.” Better than the best in fact.
Andrew Benintendi was voted the Golden Spikes Award, college baseball’s equivalent to the Heisman Trophy, hitting .376 with a nationally leading 20 home runs as a 2015 sophomore. But Benintendi’s 2014 .276, one home run freshman year is dwarfed by Wallace’s accomplishments thus far.
“You think about Benintendi, he was banged up a little bit, but he had an OK freshman year and a great sophomore year,” Van Horn said.
Wallace, starting 26 of the 28 games for Van Horn’s 24-4 Hogs, was leading the team’s regulars hitting .323 until Wednesday’s 0 for 5 in the 10-3 victory over the University of Arkansas-Little Rock dropped him to second on the team .307 behind Brady Slavens batting .308.
Wallace is tied at seven with junior Preseason All-American center fielder Christian Franklin and first baseman Slavens, the former national junior college player of the year, for the team home run lead while knocking in 13 runs and hitting four doubles.
“You think about some of the guys from way back that maybe physically are the same,” Van Horn said. “Like maybe a Danny Hamblin (2004-2006) , or something, and that’s going way back. But Danny played pretty much every day as a freshman. Cayden’s doing every bit what Danny did, and a few others.”
The elite of the elite.
“We could talk about Heston Kjerstad (the first taken in the 2020 Major League draft) and those type of guys, because Cayden’s a bigger kid and he can hit for some power,” Van Horn said. “He’s been good.”
Some tough luck hitting line drives right at fielders and getting robbed by some great defensive plays plagued Wallace’s batting average at the season’s outset but literally powered through it.
“He started out slow,” Van Horn said. “The batting average, he didn’t let it bother him. He still was having good at-bats. He was hitting about .170 and we took him from the 7- or 8-hole and moved up to the 4-hole, and he’s hit ever since. Just a good player.” And a scientific rather than just raw power hitter, Van Horn explained.
“He knows the strike zone a little bit,” Van Horn said. “Obviously he can hit a fastball, but he also can hit that off-speed pitch, and that’s the difference.”
Now when raw power is required Wallace can be electric. He certainly put a charge into one for his first-inning home run against the wind in Tuesday’s 7-2 victory over the UALR. “When he hit it I was a little bit amazed that he fought through that wind,” Van Horn said. He hit it so hard it was kind of hooking. The wind knocked it down a little bit but it just couldn’t get it down. He put a really good swing on that pitch.”
Getting Wallace’s “really good swing” into the lineup presented Van Horn a preseason dilemma.
Wallace played third base for Greenbrier but the Razorbacks return Jacob Nesbit, one of the premier defensive third basemen in college baseball, and added slugging third basemen/first basemen Brady Slavens and Cullen Smith.
Designated hitter would be an obvious Wallace spot but they sport senior Matt Goodheart, the Preseason All-SEC DH.
So they made Wallace a right fielder. He’s played it without error, “He jumped on it at the end of fall baseball and worked on playing the outfield over the holidays,” Van Horn said. “He spent pretty much 95 percent of the time with the outfielders and he got better quick.”
Quicker than Van Horn believed Wallace would? “He’s become a better defender a lot sooner than I thought he would,” Van Horn replied. “He’s a really good athlete. He can run, really run and he can throw. He works hard and he wanted to play.” Van Horn sure wanted to play him and surely glad he has.