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With each start for the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings Minor League Baseball team, Nationals pitching prospect Cade Cavalli gains valuable experience. He learns how to game plan for each opponent and refine his secondary pitches. On Saturday, April 30, the Nationals top prospect put together his best start of the season, twirling 5 1/3 no-hit frames in a 3-0 win over the Syracuse Mets. The outing was his longest of the season and his first win of the year.
“When you give up no hits it’s always a good thing,” Cavalli tells City Paper. “I was getting a lot of early contact. I threw a ton of fastballs [on Saturday]. I was really trying to locate it and get a lot of weak contact … I am always hunting outs. It’s not just punch outs I am going after. I was really happy with getting a lot of early and a lot of weak contact.”
The Nationals have struggled out of the blocks this season and one major reason is because they do not have the starting pitching to challenge NL East hitters. Stephen Strasburg is still rehabbing in Florida, and though Josiah Gray has shown promise, Opening Day starter Patrick Corbin has struggled. As the No. 37 prospect in the MLBPipeline.com Top 100 list, Cavalli’s big league arrival is highly anticipated. The Nationals gained another year of control on Cavalli because he’s stayed in the minors for the first two weeks of the season. Despite a few solid outings, including his no-hit, shut-out start for Rochester, the big league club wants him to get more in-game experience in the minors.
Red Wings manager Matt LeCroy wants Cavalli to work on improving his off-speed pitches as he builds toward D.C. The 23-year-old has a well established fastball that sits at 96 to 97 mph and touches 98 mph, but recently Cavalli has been focusing on his changeup. If Cavalli can establish an above-average off-speed pitch like Strasburg uses, he will be able to take that next step.
“His stuff is electric,” LeCroy says. “When you got a fastball that plays at 97-98 mph and when it’s located the way he can locate [it, it’s impressive]. I think the changeup is a pitch that needs to come along for him to be dominant.”
LeCroy credits new Rochester pitching coach Rafael Chaves, who came to the Nats organization with extensive experience as a coach and coordinator with the Mariners, Yankees, Dodgers, and Phillies, for training Cavalli to throw “quality strikes.” Cavalli says Chaves has been invaluable in refining the changeup and when to use it.
“Whenever the game calls for a changeup, deliver it,” Cavalli says. “Working with Chavy on the changeup has been really good. It’s something I’ve been developing since I picked up a ball and started pitching around my sophomore year of college. It’s been a really good pitch for me in these last two years, and I am just ready to keep throwing it.”
The key is throwing the changeup so it looks the same as his fastball coming out of his hand. Cavalli and his coaches use high speed cameras to analyze how his pitches move according to different grips. The video analysis helps establish the muscle memory required to throw the pitch the same way every time.
“It’s a very tough pitch to throw,” Cavalli says. “It’s something that you almost have to throw every day and just keep the feel of it. The changeup is a big ‘feel pitch.’ I think that just throwing it with the right arm speed and not slowing your body down and delivering with fastball effort and just letting the grip play. You got to tinker with grips in order to find that movement profile that you want.”
Mastering the changeup began at the University or Oklahoma under well-regard coach Skip Johnson, who has an impressive track record for developing top prospect pitchers. Johnson says Cavalli came to him before his junior season and told him he wanted to move from being a two-way player to concentrating solely on pitching for the Sooners.
“We worked on his changeup a little bit,” Johnson says. “We worked on his breaking ball, his slider, his curveball, his delivery. Getting to repeat those things. He is an amazing athlete. But his humility is more amazing. That’s what people lose about Cade. His humility reminds me of [Clayton] Kershaw. You wouldn’t even think that he was that good by talking to him. That’s what I love about Cade.”
Cavalli attributes much of his repertoire of pitches to Johnson’s coaching.
“He’s been a huge part of my development in pitching,” Cavalli says. “I was obviously under his wing when I started pitching full-time. I spent a lot of time, a lot of hours, in the bullpen. A lot of hours in his office just trying to figure out how my body moves down the slope and how to become the best pitcher possible.”
Cavalli is open to listening and learning, and sees value in every coach he comes in contact with. He doesn’t act like he knows it all already. Cavalli knows it’s only been four starts at Rochester and is not looking ahead too far; his focus is on that next start.
“He’s coachable,” LeCroy says. “He’s learning about game planning with Chaves. Learning to look at guys’ weaknesses, take advantage of the information we get from our analytical department, from our scouting department, and be able to use it to his advantage.”
Even though the Nationals are living up to their projected potential at the bottom of the NL East, the summer of 2022 for Cavalli will be about building with each start, mastering the changeup, and deciding when to implement each pitch to keep hitters off balance. If Cavalli can continue this progression, he could get his shot at Nationals Park later this season.
“Cade is going to continue to compete and battle and develop,” LeCroy says. “If he stays healthy with all the stuff that he’s got, he’s got a chance to be a really good pitcher for us at the big league level.”