FAYETTEVILLE — Jack Kenley was the University of Arkansas’ backup shortstop behind Jax Biggers last season, so it seemed logical he’d take over as the starter when Biggers moved on after being drafted by the Texas Rangers.
But Razorbacks coach Dave Van Horn moved sophomore Casey Martin from third base to shortstop and put Kenley — a junior — at second base in place of departing senior Carson Shaddy.
“I just felt like Kenley was going to have a good year and he would probably ended up being drafted and signing a professional contract,” Van Horn said. “Going into fall ball next year, I didn’t want to have to break in another shortstop. If I had a guy that had already played there, that would be great.”
Kenley being drafted hardly seemed like a safe bet considering he entered the season with a .190 career batting average (16 for 84) and 12 runs batted in without a home run in 77 games, including 22 starts.
But there’s a reason Van Horn has won 1,009 games as an NCAA Division I head coach and is taking a team to the College World Series for the eighth time.
The Detroit Tigers selected Kenley in the eighth round with the No. 232 pick of the Major League Baseball Draft.
Kenley went seven spots higher than Biggers, a two-year starter who was picked in the eighth round at No. 239 overall by the Rangers.
“We wanted to draft some position players, offensive bats, preferably with some experience,” Tigers General Manager Al Avila told reporters in Detroit. “We went heavy on college position players.”
The left-handed hitting Kenley fits the Tigers’ rebuilding plans because he’s batting .319 with 13 home runs and 53 runs batted in. Among his 73 hits are 10 doubles and 4 triples. He also has drawn 42 walks.
“I really like his tools,” Van Horn said of why he was confident Kenley would be drafted. “He can run, he can really throw and he’s got a really good glove.
“I knew if he hit — and I felt like he would, he hit in the fall against some good arms — it was his draft year. I know infielders that have all those tools are hard to find. He was ready.”
Kenley said it benefitted him to play behind Biggers and Shaddy his first two years.
“I wish I could have played earlier, obviously,” Kenley said. “But the fact that I was getting to be around guys that were making me better every day was a blessing. They were incredibly helpful to me in my development as a player.”
Kenley showed off his power early this season when he hit six home runs in the first 29 games.
“After Jack hadn’t hit any home runs coming into the season, it’s been unbelievable to watch him hit so many,” junior Dominic Fletcher said. “He’s also been playing a great defensive second base, which is huge.”
Kenley said his batting average and home runs haven’t surprised him.
“The hitting and power I feel has always been there,” he said. “Just more or less a rhythm kind of thing. Just trying to get some momentum.
“When I came in as a freshman I had some holes, some kinks in my swing. Steadily ironing those things out has been important, but also growing and maturing as a hitter has been part of my success.”
Starting 63 games and getting regular at-bats has helped.
“Coming off the bench cold, it’s incredibly difficult to hit,” Kenley said. “It’s a lot of fun getting to play every day.”
Junior pitcher Isaiah Campbell said it’s been exciting to see Kenley enjoy a breakout season.
“His first two years Jack didn’t have the seasons he wanted, but he just kept working hard and it’s shown,” Campbell said. “He’s had a really good season and got drafted. I’m absolutely proud of Jack and everything he’s done.”
Van Horn said Kenley’s hitting is a reflection of his patience at the plate.
“The reason he’s hitting .300 is because he doesn’t swing at a lot of bad pitches,” Van Horn said. “He’s got a little more advanced strike discipline than some of the guys.”
Kenley began his Arkansas career by going 0 for 19 before finally getting his first hit — an RBI double against Mississippi State as a freshman in the 2017 SEC Tournament.
“Kenley has been a great story, really, when you think about it — him kind of being a utility guy playing a little bit,” Van Horn said. “He didn’t even have a batting average (before the SEC Tournament two years ago).”
Kenley smiled when reminded it took him 20 at-bats to get his first hit.
“It was a bad stroke of luck, that’s all it was,” he said. “But it did feel good to get that first hit finally.”
Kenley is batting .400 in six NCAA Tournament games (8 of 20) with 5 RBI, including a three-run home run in the super regional opener against Ole Miss.
“He waited his time,” Van Horn said. “He got his shot this year and he’s really taken advantage of it. We wouldn’t be sitting right here right now if it wasn’t for him having the year he’s had. He’s been incredible.”
Kenley said he hasn’t paid a lot of attention to his statistics.
“I don’t think you ever want to play to numbers,” he said. “That’s not something you want to focus on.
“For me, it’s been a goal to produce in a way that’s effective towards winning ballgames. My success has been about driving the ball up the middle and getting runners over, getting runners in.
“If you do that, then the numbers will take care of themselves.”