Spring scrimmages have ended and the calendar reads mid-February. Around Greenville, North Carolina, that means baseball season for East Carolina University is right around the corner.
In less than a week, head coach Cliff Godwin’s Pirates will take on The College of William & Mary, kicking off the coach’s sixth season at the helm of the program. Four trips to the NCAA Regionals in five years marks Godwin’s success at ECU, but a trip to the College World Series still looms as a goal yet to be obtained.
With much flux to the roster after seven Pirates were selected by major league franchises last summer, preseason scrimmages have perhaps never been more important for the coaching staff and players alike.
⚾️ coming 🔜 pic.twitter.com/OhMc3MRtXU— ECU Baseball (@ECUBaseball) February 9, 2020
“It’s been a unique year, just with 18 new guys, 18 returners,” Godwin said. “Just getting everybody on the same page I would say is where we’ve had the most growth.”
Roughly half the roster being new and a number of reserves from last year expected to be key contributors, leadership among the players is critical. As the roster is currently constructed, the Pirates have 11 upperclassmen who chipped in to help last year’s team with 47 games and advance to a Super Regional.
Names like Bryant Packard, Spencer Brickhouse and Jake Agnos are gone, and have been replaced with guys like junior left-handed pitcher/first baseman Alec Burleson and junior outfielders Christian Smallwood and Bryson Worrell.
“With eighteen newcomers that we have, obviously there’s a lot more teaching going on,” Godwin said during his team’s media day. “I thought coach (Jeff) Palumbo, coach (Jason) Dietrich, coach (Austin) Knight, the entire coaching staff did a really good job getting the new guys acclimated to our system and understanding the fundamentals of what we need to do to be successful.”
While it is on the coaching staff to teach the fundamentals, it is also left up to the older guys like Burleson, Smallwood and Worrell to instruct and make the younger guys aware of the culture that exists within Pirate baseball.
During fall and spring scrimmages, there have been plenty of coachable moments for the newcomers. Whether it be a missed sign or a botched ground ball, the older guys are never too far away to lift up and encourage that player for his next opportunity.
One of those upperclassmen, junior catcher Seth Caddell, has been tasked with showing the ropes to two junior colleges additions behind the plate. Juniors Ben Newton and Matt James, as well as freshman Justin Wilcoxen, have rotated catching duties behind Caddell this spring. All three have also racked up time in the outfielder, with Newton holding down second base during Saturday’s scrimmage.
“I think Seth has done a really good job of understanding what it takes to be consistent at this level and he’s grown up a whole lot and continued to grow,” Godwin said. “Ben Newton and Matt James are two JC guys. Give you different things but they’ve done a really good job of getting better.”
As a reserve behind Jake Washer for two seasons, Caddell only earned limited playing time. Nevertheless, he will enter the 2020 season with 41 starts and 159 career at-bats under his belt and the distinction as the only catcher on the roster with Division I experience.
While his .239 career batting average doesn’t necessarily jump off the page, he does have seven home runs and 26 RBI to his credit, along with five doubles and a triple.
During fall and spring scrimmages, however, Caddell has looked more under control at the plate. Taking 40 career strikeouts in less than 160 career at-bats into his junior campaign, Caddell is quickly becoming a tough out at the dish.
Facing sophomore right-handed pitcher Garrett Saylor in scrimmages on Saturday, Cadell fouled off a number of breaking balls and off-speed offerings after getting to two strikes. Having been taught to stay late and stay back on non-fastballs, Caddell spoiled sliders and changeups from Saylor before eventually grounding out.
While the end result was not necessarily positive, good at-bats like that showcase growth and maturity at the plate that only comes with experience.
Catchers, however, have a deeper responsibility than making an impact offensively. Of course, good catchers are ones who can hit home runs and be a consistent force in the middle of a lineup, but great backstops are ones who build and maintain a relationship with their pitching staff.
“That was a big thing for me, just being behind (Jake) Wash(er) for two years and just seeing how he would lead the pitching staff and what I needed to do once he left,” Caddell said.
Washer, who is now in the Chicago Cubs organization, caught a pitching staff that posted a 3.96 ERA (second in AAC) last season while pitching the most innings (577.2) in the league. ECU also led the conference in strikeouts (595), strikeouts looking (205) and wins (47) while issuing the least amount of free passes (213).
With Washer gone, it is now up to Caddell to get to know and guide a pitching staff that features upwards of 20 arms.
“If I’ve caught somebody multiple times, I’ll make sure I’ll switch and make sure I know how everybody is throwing,” Caddell said. “What their strengths and what their weaknesses is. How to talk to a certain pitcher, if he’s doubting himself or he’s up, just keeping him calm. It’s been different just having so many of them but I like it just so I can get to know everybody a lot better.”
Likely to get the nod on Opening Day and serve as the Pirates’ primary catcher, Caddell will have a lot on his plate in 2020.
Still up in the air with less than a week remaining before the season is who Caddell will catch on Opening Day. Both junior right-handed pitcher Gavin Williams and junior left-handed pitcher Jake Kuchmaner are dealing with injuries as the season approaches.
Williams, who is dealing with a finger injury, will miss opening weekend altogether, while Kuchmaner will be on a pitch count after suffering shoulder soreness for much of the spring.
In response, Godwin has confirmed Burleson will likely start at some point during the weekend, as will senior right-handed pitcher Tyler Smith and Kuchmaner.
Even with Williams battling injury and set to miss some time, the Pirates still boast one of the best rotations in the conference. With their pure talent and Caddell’s experience and leadership behind the plate, 2020 could be a special season in Clark-LeClair Stadium for ECU.