Cade Horton was throwing a bullpen session under the eyes of Oklahoma head coach Skip Johnson this spring, when a visitor stopped by the field. Former big leaguer Brett Eibner, rehabbing from an arm surgery, has worked with Johnson in the past and wanted to head over to campus to catch up.
“I hadn't seen him since I had surgery in January,” Eibner said. “Skip said, 'Hey, great, we've got bullpens.' I went up and Cade was throwing and they were working on some different grips and stuff.”
This was the first domino in an incredible late-season turnaround for Horton, who was selected with the No. 7 overall pick in the MLB Draft by the Cubs.
During that visit, Horton’s focus was on testing out a cutter to help balance an arsenal based around a fastball, curve and changeup. The righty had just allowed eight runs in 3 1/3 innings against Texas Tech to end the regular season, giving him a bloated 7.94 ERA on the year. Johnson had Eibner show Horton how he threw his cutter.
“I showed him my cutter grip,” Eibner said, “and told him, ‘Let the grip do its work and make sure you get full extension.’ So, he started throwing it and playing with it. And it helped his four-seam a lot, I think, too. But he ended up tweaking it a little bit and that's kind of the evolution of him getting his slider.”
Following that brief session with Eibner, Horton and teammate Ben Abram continued the process in a round of catch. They adjusted the grip some more and Horton concentrated on stiffening his wrist, per Abram’s feedback. The pitch did what Horton wanted and one more test off the mound gave him enough confidence to use it immediately in postseason outings.
It was a lightbulb moment for Horton, but it was no surprise to Johnson.
“I've been blessed to be around a lot of Major League pitchers and work with a lot of them,” Johnson said. “Not that I'm the best pitching coach in the world -- never claimed to be. But, the separator has always been, those guys can adapt and make an adjustment on the fly. With Cade, it was only a matter of time.”
Over his next five starts, Horton racked up 49 strikeouts in 31 innings with a 2.61 ERA. That culminated in a brilliant showing in the College World Series championship, in which he struck out 13, walked none and allowed two runs in 7 1/3 innings against Ole Miss. Johnson pulled Horton as his pitch count climbed near 110.
“He’s a kid that’s not going to give in,” Johnson said. “He was mad as hell at me for pulling him at 107 pitches, you know?” I mean, it's the national championship. But the game, to me, is still not more important than the kid.”