Oklahoma head coach Skip Johnson is a baseball lifer.
He played the game in college for four seasons and has coached baseball since 1994, most recently as a long-time assistant at Texas from 2007-2016. Johnson arrived in Norman, Okla., in 2017 as the pitching coach and then took over the Sooners’ top spot in June of that year. He has worked with eventual major leaguers in the past, especially those who played high school baseball in Texas. So when he puts those players in the same sentence with right-hander Cade Cavalli, you take notice.
“I have been around Clayton Kershaw,” Johnson said during a Zoom video call Friday afternoon with assembled media. “I have been around Homer Bailey. I have been around a bunch of big leaguers. (Cavalli) throws as easy as any of those guys. Now is he going to be as good as any of those guys? Time’s only going to tell.”
Cavalli can pitch. That has been well documented. There were a lot of pitchers that can pitch in this draft. But the Nationals draft on makeup of a player too. It can help a pitcher to flourish in the organization for many years. Johnson offered a moving example of what sets Cavalli apart from others when one of the Sooners’ assistant coaches had to leave the team to be with his mother.
“We talk about intangibles,” Johnson said. “I tell this story to a lot of guys. Coach Clay Van Hook’s mom was diagnosed with cancer. I called him on a Wednesday and I said, ‘Coach Van Hook, it’s not an option, you are going to go see your mother today.’ When the team got to the field, I said ‘We are going to pray for Coach Van Hook’s mother, and Cade, will you lead us in prayer?’ He prayed and it was like he was reading it off a sheet. It was powerful. That’s a leadership quality that you can’t teach.”
Between the lines, Johnson believes the 21-year-old can go far in pro baseball. Cavalli has “the stuff,” so much of the stuff that the Nationals made him their first-round selection in the 2020 First-Year Player Draft.
“He can go 94 to 97 mph,” Johnson said. “He can spin the ball. He’s athletic. He is super charismatic. You are going to see what he sees. You are going to feel what he feels when he pitches. That’s the sign of somebody that’s really good. When (the late Miami starter) José Fernández pitched, you felt what he felt when he pitched. He put everything he had into what he pitched into the game. That’s what you are going to see with Cade.
“Cavalli is going to be really special. This guy just now started pitching. He hadn’t even logged 100 innings. That was a great draft pick by the (Nationals). Unbelievable.”
Cavalli arrived at Oklahoma as a two-way player, first base and pitcher. Johnson always makes a point to never force his players to choose which position they want to play. His philosophy was that when a player decides to focus on one spot on the field, that player will come and tell him. When Cavalli started playing with Team USA last summer he told Johnson he wanted to focus solely on pitching. Johnson explained to Cavalli how his pregame work day-to-day was about to change.
“I said ‘That’s great, man. Let’s start working on all the details, like holding runners.’ You are talking about a guy that was throwing one bullpen with one long toss, then going and hitting every day,” Johnson said. “(Then) to a bullpen one day, drills the next day, long toss the next day, rest today, drills again, bullpen, game. There’s a routine process that you have as a starting pitcher. He went through that process this year and you just see how much he grew.”
Johnson knew from day one that Cavalli was a talented player with the bat in hand, but was especially gifted with his arm. He just needed to hone that skill by playing games.
“The first year was a roller coaster,” Johnson said of 2018. “His first at-bat that spring, hit a home run. The next day he comes in and closes a game. We drop a foul ball in right field, he gets the loss. He’s throwing 93, 94 mph, kind of all over the place. But you could see how electric it was. Cade’s got like an 800-yard driver in his bag. It’s crazy.”
After seeing the potential in Cavalli’s work on the mound, Johnson decided the young hurler was ready to not only go full-time as a pitcher, but also carry the influence as the team’s No. 1 starter each weekend series.
“As that development process started, he goes out to the Cape (Cod League) and pitches a little bit,” Johnson recalled. “He comes back. We start the fall. We play him at first. We pitch him a little bit and then we decide, ‘You know what? If he’s going to be who we think he is, we are going to throw him on Friday night.’ “
Johnson said it was a tremendous amount of responsibility for Cavalli taking over the role as the Sooners’ No. 1. Even with some bumpy frames thrown in there, Cavalli showed toughness and never backed down when he encountered rough outings.
“If he is hot that day, he can pitch with anybody in the country,” Johnson said. “There was time there when he went to the fifth or sixth inning, battling, battling, battling, and he learned some valuable things. (I told him) ‘You are going to give us 15 outs tonight. You are going to stay out there and give us 15 outs.’ And he did that. I commended him for it.”
Cavalli is known for that fastball, the one clocked in the upper-90’s. But Nationals assistant general manager and vice president of scouting operations Kris Kline said the organization also wants to get Cavalli to a point where he can incorporate the changeup more to get big league hitters chasing. Johnson ran down Cavalli’s other pitches and his mentality as a “bulldog” on the mound.
“Cade can really spin the ball,” Johnson said. “He has the ability to throw fastball, curveball, slider, change. The curveball is going to be a better pitch for him. The more he gets the ball out in front, he could probably go a little slurvish-type deal.
“He’s got some toughness to him too. He was playing in a New England collegiate league and he called me and said he got suspended for four games. ‘You got suspended for four games?’ ‘Yeah, I hit a guy in the middle of the back coming in relief.’ I said, ‘That’s awesome, picking up your teammates.’ The guy’s got some makeup. He ain’t scared.”
When media was gathering for the Zoom call, Johnson asked a member of his family to change the background shown during the video call to show off deer trophies he has on a wall. He even joked that he had time to talk this early afternoon because the “fish don’t start biting until 5 p.m.” Johnson used a hunting analogy to describe the trust he has in Cavalli as a player on the baseball diamond.
“I would want to put him in a deer stand with me,” Johnson said. “If I’m fixing to give you a million dollars, (then) I’m finding out what’s in your heart, because that is more important. I’m telling you, Cade Cavalli’s got a big heart. He’s pretty special.”