Cade Horton didn’t make his first pitching appearance for Oklahoma in 2022 — not to mention his first appearance collegiately — until late March.
“I think what we started to see towards the end with his performance in Omaha in the College World Series was indicative of the Cade Horton that we’re going to see in the future,” Cubs VP of scouting Dan Kantrovitz said.
“I also don't think we've seen the best of him.”
Horton, who turns 21 next month, missed his entire 2021 freshman season after undergoing Tommy John surgery and began 2022 a two-way player.
He opened in the bullpen as the Sooners slow-played his return coming off his surgery, and eventually ascended into the rotation.
In nine regular season appearances, he posted a 7.94 ERA in 22 2/3 innings.
“If you would have asked me two months ago if Cade Horton was going to be a top target on the roadmap, I might have been a little skeptical,” Kantrovitz said.
“But then fast forward and just witness the trajectory.”
In his final regular season appearance, Horton gave up eight runs in 3 1/3 innings against Texas Tech. He knew he had to do something different.
“Even before Texas Tech,” Horton said, “I felt like guys were really getting to the fastball and sitting on one pitch, either the breaking ball or the fastball, and once they got it, they were just hammering it.”
Horton was throwing a bullpen session after that Texas Tech start attended by Sooners head coach Skip Johnson and former MLB player Brett Eibner, when he learned a new slider/cutter pitch grip.
Before the Sooners went to play Texas in the Big 12 baseball tournament, Horton worked with teammate Ben Abram to further develop the pitch.
Originally, Abram — who advised Horton to “lock out” his wrist — was going to teach him a cutter. It evolved into a slider and “looked really good” in a bullpen session, Horton said.
He threw the slider for the first time in his start against the Longhorns, and in that outing allowed one run and two hits in 5 1/3 innings, striking out nine.
That kick-started Horton’s dominant run during postseason play. In five starts, he went 3-0 with a 2.61 ERA and 49 strikeouts (six walks) in 31 innings.
That includes a pair of dominant College World Series starts. Horton threw six innings of two-run ball against Notre Dame, striking out 11, and 7 1/3 innings of two-run ball against Ole Miss, striking out 13.
“With Cade, I think he was on that upward trajectory all season,” Kantrovitz said. “If you isolate, show the last few starts, it’s consistent with somebody that learned a new pitch. In his case, it was a wipeout slider.
“We saw he had the feel for that," Kantrovitz added. "We saw a little bit more giddy up in his fastball at the same time, and some improved control — which is consistent, again, with somebody that was sort of rehabbing initially and then really coming into his own.
"It’s indicative of a situation where I think you want to just make sure you're taking everything into account and waiting as long as you can to make a decision."
Kantrovitz said the Cubs are excited about Horton’s slider as a “swing-and-miss weapon.” It’s part of an arsenal that includes a changeup and “plus” mid-to-upper 90s fastball.
“Once he gets a little bit more life and harnesses the command of that,” Kantrovitz said, “I think it's just going to end up being a pretty complete repertoire.”
Kantrovitz, who said Horton was the Cubs’ “prime target” in the first round, saw one of Horton’s College World Series starts. A handful of Cubs scouts also saw him pitch this year.
But as much as he popped down the stretch with the Sooners, Horton crossed the Cubs’ radar long before this past spring.
Kantrovitz and area scout Ty Nichols did an in-home visit with Horton two years ago, when he was debating going to Oklahoma or entering the 2020 draft.
When Kantrovitz called Horton Sunday night to congratulate him, he asked if he remembered that visit.
“He said of course he did,” Kantrovitz said, smiling. “It was nice to hear that and to have that connection remain intact.
“That’s something that, just building the history of the player like that, gave us confidence that we had a pretty good handle on his makeup as well.”