The Washington Post
Since high school, pitchers Cavalli and Bennett have followed the same path
When Cade Cavalli was a junior at Bixby High in Oklahoma in 2016, he noticed a left-handed freshman at one of the first varsity practices. The pitcher was tall, sure, but Cavalli thought he had a “soft body” and kind of looked like a “big immature kid.” Then Cavalli saw Jake Bennett throw.
“I got home that night and I remember telling my dad, ‘We got this freshman on the team who I think is going to be really good,’ ” Cavalli recalled this week at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. “I was drawn to how smooth his arm action was and how the ball came out of his hand. With Jake, you could see it right away.”
Three years later, the Washington Nationals drafted Bennett in the 39th round, but he opted to join Cavalli at the University of Oklahoma. And some four years after that, Bennett was drafted by the Nationals again this summer, this time in the second round, staying on Cavalli’s exact path.
Cavalli, who recently turned 24, made his major league debut in August and is recovering from shoulder inflammation. Bennett, who turns 22 in December, is shut down for the season after shouldering a heavy workload as a senior for the Sooners. They made it to the College World Series finals, ultimately falling to Mississippi. Bennett pitched 117 innings, attracting Washington with sharp command, a plus change-up and a low-to-mid-90s fastball out of a three-quarters slot. His slider needs improvement, which he and the Nationals’ top scouts acknowledged after he was selected in July. Baseball America called him a “mature arm who’s made the proper adjustments during his time in college.”
No matter how advanced he is, it is unfair to expect Bennett to race through Washington’s system as Cavalli did over the past two seasons. But if he eventually joins Cavalli at the highest level, completing the same route as his friend’s journey, the Nationals could have another piece of their rebuilding puzzle.
“I don’t think in the game of baseball you can clone guys,” said Clay Overcash, Oklahoma’s pitching coach. “I think you got to let those guys have some freedom to find their delivery and those type of things. But you do have similar timing and balance points through the delivery, and as long as they’re getting to those . . .
“You got Cade, who’s righthanded obviously, 6-foot-4. And you got Bennett, who’s [6-6] and left-handed. And so you got two completely different body types, and you take those things into account when they come to us with success. You just build upon tightening the screws, if you will.”
In recent years, the Nationals have trusted that Oklahoma does that as well as any college program. Skip Johnson, the Sooners’ head coach, is the biggest reason beyond how the individual pitchers grade.
Johnson, 55, is widely credited with helping a young Clayton Kershaw figure it out. And while his staffs have long churned out draft picks, including 11 this July, Washington has been particularly attracted to Johnson’s pitchers. First it was Jake Irvin, a fourthround pick in 2018. Then it was Cavalli, a first-rounder in 2020, then Bennett, the second-rounder this year after the Nationals selected high school outfielder Elijah Green.
But as for when the organization initially saw Cavalli and Bennett — and if the team stumbled upon one while scouting the other — the details are fuzzy. Kris Kline, Washington’s assistant general manager for amateur scouting, figured they were on Bennett before Cavalli, even though he’s two years behind. Cavalli was a two-way player until he focused on pitching as a junior at Oklahoma. When he was drafted out of Bixby in 2017, a few teams were split on whether he was a shortstop or a future starting pitcher. Bennett, by contrast, was a surefire pitcher who only moonlighted as a first baseman. Pete Hughes is the expert on their origin stories.
“You hear about them independently, but it was kind of nice because I could go watch Jake pitch and then check on the progress of Cade his senior year,” said Hughes, who recruited both pitchers for Oklahoma and is now the coach at Kansas State. “When you’re that good, honestly, you don’t bump into that kind of talent. Those guys, their name and their ability, they’re out there. ... It helped us in our recruiting process that Cade had committed to Oklahoma. It helped us out with Jake because he looked up to Cade.”
Some things never change, then.
Bennett’s professional career will begin with instructional work at the Nationals’ facility in West Palm Beach, Fla. Cavalli’s took off during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, so he went to the alternate site in Fredericksburg and faced the same hitters on a loop. Asked Monday for his advice to Bennett, whom he has texted but not seen since the draft, Cavalli’s eyes grew wide. When he was promoted last month, he became a player who could steer others toward the ultimate dream.
“You have to be grounded in who you are as a pitcher while at the same time knowing there is always something to get better at,” Cavalli said. “You have to find that balance and not lose yourself. There are going to be a lot of people — and I’m not talking about in this organization but just in general, like when you go home in the offseason — who want to tell you how to do this, how to do that. But who you are and the vision of what pitcher you want to be, no one should take that away.”