The Indians have been known for their tremendous pitching development, however the club hasn’t seen a lot of hard-throwing starters come up through its system. That’s about to change.
On Sunday night, the Indians selected right-hander Gavin Williams out of East Carolina University in the first round (23rd overall) of the 2021 MLB Draft, and Cleveland director of amateur scouting Scott Barnsby is confident the team will sign him in the near future.
“Pete Loizzo, our scout in the Carolinas, has done an incredible job getting to know Gavin,” Barnsby said. “And as we've continued, just like we do on any player, to do our best to know them as well as possible. Pete and the rest of our organization have certainly done that, spent a lot of time talking to the people around Gavin that know him best, and [they had] really impressive things to say about him in terms of the competitor he is, the work ethic, the drive that he has. Really excited to add him to the organization.”
The Indians’ history with Williams dates back to his time at Cape Fear High School in Fayetteville, N.C., as they watched him grow to become a 6-foot-6 flamethrower, who comfortably sits in the upper-to-mid 90s and has routinely hit 100 mph. At East Carolina, Williams never found a regular rotation spot in his first three seasons, and it didn’t help that the pandemic-shortened 2020 season was cut even shorter for him due to a finger injury that limited him to just three frames in relief.
It got to the point that a once hopeful starter was being labeled a hard-throwing reliever who lacked a feel for spin. But that all changed when Williams took the 2021 season by storm, earning American Athletic Conference Pitcher of the Year honors, placement on six All-America teams and being selected as a finalist for both the Dick Howser Award and the Golden Spikes Award.
“We had a recent conversation with him, and he shared a few examples of where he always wants to be the best player on the field,” Barnsby said. “He always wants to compete against the best. Just talking to him, you can tell there's that inner drive there. I think it speaks to the person he is, but then also that work ethic in terms of maintaining his throwing program, maintaining his workouts, maintaining hits routines in-between starts. He's done a great job with that all season.”
Williams was able to claim his spot in East Carolina’s rotation in his senior season, and he went 10-1 with a 1.88 ERA and 130 strikeouts in 81 1/3 frames. He finished among 2021 NCAA leaders in strikeouts per nine innings (fifth, 14.39), ERA (11th), strikeouts (11th) and wins (11th). There’s no doubt that his heater is his best weapon, but his breaking pitches took a huge step forward this season. Williams' upper-70s curve has more power and more consistent shape, while his mid-80s slider has started to show potential of becoming his third-best offering. His pitch mix gets even deeper with a solid mid-80s changeup, and that arsenal is the reason Cleveland believes he’ll be able to remain a starter long term.
“Just a physical right-hander, power arm, up to 100 miles per hour,” Barnsby said. “He's held his velocity all spring. Two different breaking balls, both power breaking balls. We feel like he's gonna get swing and miss with his fastball, his curveball and his slider. Hasn't had to use the change as much, but we feel like there's gonna be a feel there as well.”
Williams ended his college career on a strong note, going toe-to-toe with Vanderbilt starter Kumar Rocker, who was selected 10th overall on Sunday night by the Mets, in a Super Regional matchup. Williams gave up two runs and had 13 strikeouts through 7 1/3 frames while maintaining his 97-mph fastball velocity, according to Barnsby.
But the 21-year-old is still raw, as it took him until his senior year to truly shine and home in on his best skills. For an Indians system that’s now taken on the label of the “Cleveland Pitching Factory,” this could be a perfect match. The Indians have shown time and time again that they have an exceptional ability to develop above-average pitching talent, and someone who boasts the skills and potential that Williams has shown over the past year could be the organization’s next success story.
“The fact that he was there and we were able to select him, we were excited,” Barnsby said. “If you guys had the opportunity to see the room and see how our scouts reacted to adding Gavin, that tells you how we feel about him.”
The Indians’ next pick will come Monday in the second round (58th overall), and Rounds 2-10 of the Draft will begin at 1 p.m. ET on MLB Network, ESPN and MLB.com.