Q+A with Arkansas Pitching Coach Matt Hobbs

It could have been a down year for the Diamond Hogs.

Arkansas came agonizingly close to their first NCAA baseball championship in program history last June, watching the title slip away to Oregon State despite having the Beavers down to their final strike. Sure, they had some fantastic young players who could comprise the core of a championship team moving forward, but the Razorbacks had a lot to replace. Two-thirds of their weekend rotation and six members of their starting lineup graduated or matriculated to pro ball. Things got worse in November when the Twins hired their well-regarded pitching coach, Wes Johnson, to fill the same position, a potentially precedent setting jump from the college to the pro ranks.

Yet the Hogs continued plugging away, undaunted. They replaced Johnson with Wake Forest pitching coach Matt Hobbs, an up-and-comer in the pitching ranks who took a winding path to Fayetteville. A pitcher at the University of Missouri at the turn of the millennium, Hobbs worked his way through the JUCO and D-II ranks to return to his alma mater in 2011. A former pitcher equally comfortable relating to players and breaking down mechanics and Trackman data, Hobbs might one day be a candidate to follow Johnson’s footsteps to a big league staff. Not yet, though. For now, he’s content helping mold future big leaguers. Five Razorback arms were selected in this year’s draft, four in the top ten rounds.

Near the close of the regular season, prior to the 2019 MLB draft, Hobbs talked with Prospects Live via phone call to discuss the program’s success, the use of analytics and high-speed video in pitch design, and his own career path. His answers have been edited slightly for clarity.

The best place to start is probably with the staff ace. What have you seen from (Mariners second-round draft choice) Isaiah Campbell in your first year in Fayetteville?

The first thing that shows up for him is the ability to separate his breaking balls. I’m just going off video and what people have told me, but in the past, those pitches kind of blended together. There wasn’t really a defined usage for either one of them…. I don’t know if he was in between (with his grips), or if the usage was in between, but he’s got defined purpose for those two pitches now.

The development of his splitter has been a real game-changer for him, because he’s got something to get left-handed hitters off his fastball. He no longer allows left-handed hitters to sit on soft stuff moving into the barrel, like he did in the past with just a curveball and a cutter. Now, he’s got something that moves down-and-away from lefties, or just down, or just away, depending on how he’s trying to shape the pitch.

His ability to pitch inside- he’s done a really good job of that, throwing in against both lefties and righties to open up his secondary stuff…. He pitches inside to open up the outer half of the plate, where he can get guys out with his secondary stuff.

It really comes down to his work ethic. His work between starts is some of the best I’ve ever seen. His bullpen sessions look like a guy from Triple-A. He’s got that good a feel for pitching.

As a coach, when you see that a pitcher has trouble differentiating two pitches, how do you attack that? Do you alter grips and arm angle, or is it mostly about mentality?

You have to show him first. You show him the difference between the two pitches on Rapsodo. We’ve got some really good high-speed cameras we use to show (pitchers) what the ball’s doing out of the hand. You can (virtually) overlay those two pitches on top of one another to show, ‘OK, if you pair these two together, here’s what a hitter sees.’ You can use the cameras, throw in home plate, put (simulated hitters) in the right and left-handed batters’ boxes and show them what the pitches are doing. A lot of guys are visual learners.

We pair that video with our Rapsodo and Trackman data. We can tell the pitcher, ‘your curveball spins with this type of efficiency, your cutter spins with this type of efficiency.’ If we can separate these pitches and get them spinning on different axes- (the curveball) with a little more topspin, (the cutter) with a little more gyro spin (spin which aligns with the trajectory of the ball, causing the pitch to have less depth), it helps him separate the pitches. We can show the pitcher what it actually does when you throw these pitches together. That helps guys see differences, and I think that’s helped Campbell, too.

It’s another year to get more mature, too. He’s been a starter in the program for a couple years. Some guys just need a little more time than others to settle into a role. He’s been great since I’ve been here, pitching on Fridays and in big spots. He’s been absolutely fantastic.

You lauded Campbell’s feel. How important is ‘feel for pitching’ at the amateur level and how do you tease that out as a coach?

You either have to have ridiculous stuff or feel for pitching. (Campbell) has a combination of the two. At this level, with guys who still have projection on their bodies, if they also have feel, you’ve got something really special. (Rockies’ eighth-round pick) Jacob Kostyshock, for example, has feel for what he’s doing and a ton of projection left on the body. You can grow into more stuff…. A lot of guys have really good stuff but have trouble (getting results) because they don’t have feel.

When I say ‘feel,’ I’m talking about using your fastball to both sides of the plate. Using four quadrants, manipulating your breaking ball — that’s how I would characterize feel for pitching.

We’ll transition away from Campbell to touch on a few other guys. A theme with the Arkansas teams of the past couple years, both on the position player side and the pitching side, has been the success of newcomers, especially freshmen. (Last season, infielder Casey Martin and outfielder Heston Kjerstad were each named Freshman All-America. This season, freshman left fielder Christian Franklin has started 56 games and hit .263/.354/.402, while first-year arms Connor Noland and Patrick Wicklander have joined Campbell in the Hogs’ weekend rotation). Is there something particularly special about this program to help guys settle in from Day One? Anyone can play freshmen, but not everyone can get this level of performance from players so young.

It comes from the top. Coach Dave Van Horn brings guys in to be ready to go. He’ll play (freshmen) if they earn it. He’s not afraid to put guys out there in big spots. Wick and Connor have pitched really well.

We didn’t see Connor (until late) because of football. His first pitch in an intersquad game was his first live pitch against a hitter in about nine months. It’s just about letting them earn it and not trying to protect them from big spots. Coach Van Horn trusts the people who recruit the players and wants to get them on the field as soon as possible. He understands that those are the guys who will take you to Omaha in a couple years. If they can help you now, that’s great, too, but those are the guys who have to be at the forefront of your team (as upperclassmen). If you just keep protecting them as young players, it stunts their development. He’s not afraid to run freshmen out there. I think it’s great.

Does Connor Noland’s quarterback background impact him as a pitcher at all? (Noland also plays football for the Razorbacks, going 21-42 for 255 passing yards as a freshman QB last fall).

I have pitchers throw footballs around all the time. It helps guys get to the most supinated position. It can help your feel for spin. Some guys just like to throw a football. I don’t think it affects him much, honestly.

If anything affects Connor, it’s the workload, playing two sports as a freshman. That’s just the reality. That kind of workload is going to affect you. Our football program has done a great job understanding what he’s doing for us. I think we’ve understood what he was doing for them.

That said, the two-sport workload will affect anybody, no matter what. As the season’s gone on, we’ve tamped down his bullpen sessions midweek, emphasizing quality over quantity.

With a young pitcher, you typically want to work them really hard in their midweek bullpen sessions (to build arm strength and endurance). They need to work. For him, we’ve been very specific about not overworking him.

(Closer and Nationals’ fourth-round pick) Matt Cronin had a bit of a rough patch in the middle of the season, issuing a few too many walks. Was he out-of-whack mechanically?

When you’ve got a high-octane guy like Matt, he’s better in save situations. That’s a real thing for closers, especially guys who have been in the same role for the better part of two years. Sometimes, guys stumble a bit in different types of outings. When we’ve needed Matt to be Matt, he’s been really good.

The stuff is there; he’s touching 96-97 MPH. He did stub his toe a bit against Vanderbilt, once in a midweek game against Northwestern State. Outings where he’s coming in without the lead or to put out the fire- things he just hasn’t done before- he’s struggled. I think that’s the reason more than anything else.

Mechanically, everything’s (the same). He’s got a super high-effort delivery. He keeps his foot on the gas pedal the entire time. When he has to come in and pace himself, that throws him out of whack. So, I think it was our usage of him more than anything. We needed him to do things he isn’t all that comfortable doing.

The great thing about Matt is he always takes the ball. He’s going to take the ball and pitch whenever you need him to. That guy’s going to be a big-league set-up man or closer soon.

I want to wrap up by talking about your career a bit. What are the differences you’ve noticed in how the programs where you’ve coached have handled their players?

I’ve coached at every type of program: JUCO, D-II, D-III, smaller D-I schools, Big 12, SEC. The SEC is what I’ve wanted to get to. The SEC’s just way deeper. The best example I can think of is Kentucky. They finished in last place. They’ve got the second-best lefty in the draft (Zack Thompson, later selected by the Cardinals 19th overall) in their rotation. We faced that guy in Game 3, and he’s 91-95 MPH with one of the best breaking ball-changeup combinations in the country. He’s got feel to pitch.

That type of guy exists on a lot of teams in the SEC. There’s no break in this conference. You think you’re going well, and then you run into Zack Thompson. All of a sudden, you’re not going very well. Nobody can get anything going against guys like that.

The depth top to bottom in the league (stands out). There’s no breaks or soft weekends. Not that there’s off weekends in the ACC…but it’s different here. People care about baseball at a high level here, which you can’t say about every league I’ve coached in. Top to bottom, everybody cares about baseball in this league.

At Wake Forest, Missouri, even the University of San Francisco (other places Hobbs has coached), people really care about baseball. I’ve been incredibly fortunate. They gave us everything we needed to be successful. I looked around at times in the Big 12 and the ACC, though, and it was clear that some people in the conference didn’t have what they need to be successful. That doesn’t happen in the SEC.

People have resources, facilities, support. Obviously, the fan bases are what they are. Playing at our stadium is no fun for visitors. I think our fans are the best in the country. You just don’t see that kind of commitment everywhere in the country.