At the Sooners’ introductory press conference a week prior to the start of the 2020 season, head coach Skip Johnson announced his vision for a game plan he said he probably hasn’t pursued in almost 30 years of coaching: give his pitcher the reins to call his own pitches.
Of course, not every one of Johnson’s pitchers will have such liberty. It will likely only be juniors Cade Cavalli and Levi Prater, the top two starters in OU’s rotation.
Johnson specified his plan with Cavalli when he takes the hill on opening day. “I’ll make a suggestion on which pitches to call but he’s gonna call his own pitches," he said.
“He has conviction in what he does.”
This new responsibility may serve as evidence of the growth Cavalli has experienced between years two and three on the team. The recent offseason saw the junior right-hander earn a spot on the USA Collegiate Baseball National Team and soon after he decided he would relinquish the two-way role to focus only on pitching. While his status as “Friday-night starter” carries over from 2019, his value may only be enhanced with the loss of dependable starter Nathan Wiles to the MLB.
Sooner fans will certainly miss the bat. Cavalli had only 72 at-bats in 2019 — more than 100 fewer than he had as a freshman in 2018 — but he managed to hit four home runs and hit .319.
The decline in at-bats compared to the amount of innings logged on the mound last season made it clear where Cavalli seemed to be headed. The switch to full-time pitching has allowed Cavalli to put more emphasis on pitching-related details, from rehab to lifts and exercises before and after sessions, Johnson said.
“Working on holding runners, working on understanding pitch-ability from pitch to pitch, understanding going from a high fastball to a breaking ball,” Johnson said. “Those things are things that he’s gonna continue to grow in even as he goes from game to game this year and understanding more about what he’s gonna do versus what they’re gonna do to him and the strength that he has.”
It may seem odd to some that Johnson is giving Cavalli such a responsibility after only one full season as a primary starter. Cavalli only pitched 17.1 innings as a freshman and admitted he came to OU without much pitching experience. Although he may never have called games on the rubber, Cavalli said he has called his own games behind the plate as a catcher. Even when he used to play shortstop he said he would read pitches and closely monitor batters’ swings.
“I think Cade’s a baseball player,” Johnson said. “Not only is he a good athlete but … he’s also a baseball player and a guy that’s not afraid to play when it’s cold or not afraid to get his nose in there and get after it, grind it out. It’s not always about how he looks, it’s about the product of what he does and that’s huge for what he’s gonna do this year.”
Moments before first pitch in the Sooners’ opening game against Virginia on Feb. 14, Cavalli and the starting catcher — likely either Brady Lindsly or Justin Mitchell — will talk about the game plan. From there, the process will be about learning and adapting throughout the game and, long term, throughout the entire season.
“I’m just learning,” Cavalli said. “It’s all about the process and I’m learning about pitching and I have a great mind in Skip that I get to learn from. It’s been fun and I’m ready to keep learning.
“(Skip) has full trust in us.”