NORMAN, Okla. — The athleticism that led Cade Cavalli to become one of the best two-way players in college baseball a year ago was a key asset for Oklahoma.
But one day during an intersquad scrimmage, when a fastball up and in from Zach Matthews whizzed into Cavalli’s right forearm at the plate, his pitching was affected.
Those were the type of costs the Sooners had to weigh.
“We kind of started seeing some of those things that were hindering his performance,” OU coach Skip Johnson said.
Cavalli has decided to channel his talent into one silo.
Not only will he focus solely on pitching this season, an idea he went to Johnson with on his own during the offseason, but the junior has been given the green light to call his own pitches.
Johnson hasn’t done that in 29 years of coaching, he said. But with veteran catchers behind the plate and Cavalli — a Team USA selection and potentially high draft pick — peaking in terms of collegiate experience, it made sense on different levels.
“I was actually a catcher for a lot of my life and I called my own games behind the plate,” Cavalli said. “And I was at shortstop too, you know, always reading pitches, reading batters' swings. It's the same thing whenever you get up on the mound.
“It's been good. I'm learning a lot. I feel like it's an advantage for me.”
Johnson called Cavalli’s move to full-time pitching unrelated, but it is symbolic of the Sooners embracing the idea that this year’s team is built on starting pitching and defense.
OU returns its strongest pitching corps in some time, with two proven starters in Cavalli and left-hander Levi Prater, and six relievers who totaled 154 appearances in 2019.
They're why the Sooners are listed in D1baseball.com and Baseball America's preseason Top 25 polls, and could be a darkhorse in the Big 12.
Among the closers is senior Jason Ruffcorn, who turned down a Major League contract after leading the Big 12 with 11 saves in 2019.
“It’s everything you probably imagined it would be,” shortstop Brandon Zaragoza said of facing OU’s pitchers in the fall. “Those guys, with a guy like Skip, he’s kind of the guru of the pitching staff so when he passes that knowledge down to these guys that we have up here, it’s a nightmare when we have to go up against those guys.”
OU averaged 5.5 runs and averaged .266 at the plate last season, and reinforcements aren’t on the way in 2020. In terms of power, the Sooners have mostly the same lineup, led by first baseman Tyler Hardman.
But a more efficient offense and aggressive base-running approach might be all Johnson needs to get OU back into the NCAA postseason after missing out in 2019.
Eighteen of the 25 pitching victories earned last season were by players who are back this spring.
That’s one reason Ruffcorn chose to return to school.
“There was something here. A little bit unfinished business,” Ruffcorn said. “I mean, we have definitely looked at it [as a motivator].”
Cavalli draws the most attention. A returning All-Big 12 talent, he was picked as the Big 12’s preseason pitcher of the year.
When it came to allowing him to call his own game, Johnson said he just had a good feeling about it. But the coach also loosened his philosophy on the matter, too, saying Prater might also eventually call his own pitches.
“We can call a pitch and make a suggestion and they can shake it off, and nine times out of 10 they shake it off and they can call themselves, and they're going to have conviction in that pitch,” Johnson said. “They're gonna live with it.”
That speaks to the confidence OU has in its pitchers.
“We’ve got the staff that I think is the top one or two in the country,” Cavalli said. “It’s truly ridiculous.”
OU weekly schedule
• Game: OU vs. Virginia
• Time: 6 p.m.
• Pitchers: OU RHP Cade Cavalli (3.28 ERA, 5-3 in 2019) vs. UVA RHP Griff McGarry (4.56, 3-5 in 2019)
• Place: Pensacola, Fla. | Blue Wahoos Stadium
• Radio: KREF 1400 am | 99.3 FM
• TV/Stream: Cox Sports TV/Yurview
• Saturday: vs. Virginia, 4 p.m.; TV: None; at Blue Wahoos Stadium; OU LHP Levi Prater (3.26 ERA, 7-4 2019) vs. UVA RHP Chesdin Harrington (3.49 ERA, 5-1 2019)
• Sunday: vs. Virginia, 11 a.m.; TV: None; at Blue Wahoos Stadium; (OU RHP Dane Acker (N/A); vs. UVA RHP Mike Vasil (5.93 ERA, 2-6 2019)