Jeff Passan, ESPNJun 16, 2023, 07:18 AM ET
- ESPN MLB insider
Author of “The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports”
JAC CAGLIANONE WAS a freshman in high school in 2018 when Shohei Ohtani arrived in Major League Baseball. Like so many, the 15-year-old Caglianone marveled at Ohtani’s ability to hit tape-measure home runs on the same day he threw 100 mph fastballs. His fascination went beyond just gawking, though. Caglianone aspired to be Ohtani.
“I just thought it was the coolest thing ever,” he said. “I’d always done both, and it was something that I planned to do in college, and seeing the way his game grew and keeping a pretty close eye on him and studying all that he did — that was exactly who I wanted to be.”
Caglianone is 20 now and primed to make his Men’s College World Series debut (Friday, 7 p.m. ET on ESPN) as a sophomore for a strong Florida Gators team. In a bracket loaded with future MLB stars, Caglianone might be the most fascinating. Of all the players in the past five years to attempt playing both ways, to embrace the mental and physical burden — to have the gall to think he can imitate Ohtani — none has done it as well as Caglianone in 2023.
In his first college season as a two-way player — Caglianone didn’t pitch his freshman year as he recovered from Tommy John surgery — the 6-foot-5, 245-pound left-hander led the country with 31 home runs as a first baseman and regularly hit 99 mph with a fastball that carried him to a 3.78 ERA over 16 starts. While college baseball is populated with far more two-way players than pro ball, almost all of them leave behind such aspirations eventually, focusing on whichever position will best set them up to play professional baseball. Paul Skenes, the best two-way player in the country last year, ditched hitting after he transferred to LSU, where he flourished into the best pitcher in college baseball and a certain top-5 pick.
Caglianone has no such plans. Being the next great two-way player, he said, is his future.
“I don’t really see me really stopping unless a team flat-out tells me down the road that I’ve got to pick one or makes the decision for me,” Caglianone said. “I have no interest in stopping whatsoever.”
Which means the player who gladly wears the nickname “Jactani” — given to him by Nick De La Torre, a writer who covers Florida — will introduce himself to the country on college baseball’s grandest stage this weekend. And if he lives up to expectations, it will undoubtedly force teams to continue asking themselves the same question they’ve been asking all year.
Can he do it in the big leagues?
FOR THE PAST three years, Ohtani has been so much better than everyone else in MLB that it’s easy to take him for granted. In almost every way, Ohtani is an accident, a glitch in the matrix, a confluence of physical qualities and skills that simply don’t overlap in human beings who choose to play baseball.
The size, the power, the athleticism — it is abundant in Caglianone, too. Caglianone (pronounced CAG-lee-own) grew up in Tampa and blossomed at Plant High, the baseball factory that also produced Pete Alonso and Kyle Tucker. His father, Jeff — Jac is actually an acronym for Jeffrey Alan Caglianone, his given name — played baseball at Stetson and encouraged the young Caglianone to take advantage of all his skills.
Florida recruited him and planned to use him as a pitcher only, but that plan changed after Caglianone blew out his elbow a week before arriving on campus in August 2021. To stay busy during the yearlong rehab, he lifted weights and swung the bat. The loud cracks did not take long to notice. Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan soon thereafter asked if Caglianone might consider burning his planned redshirt season so he could join the lineup. He agreed, homered in his third college at-bat, whacked seven total over 115 plate appearances and looked the part of a promising hitter. Caglianone, said Jarrett Schweim, the athletic trainer for Florida’s baseball team, was “a 6-5, 235-pound freshman who can lift a house. Cags is a little bit of an anomaly when it comes to college baseball bodies and physical abilities.”
Schweim knows outliers well. When he was the athletic trainer for the UCF basketball program, a 7-foot-6 center named Tacko Fall was playing for the team. Schweim wanted to know how to keep him healthy, and he knew he needed help. He placed a phone call to the training staff of the Houston Rockets, hoping that the Rockets’ experience with Yao Ming, their 7-foot-6 Hall of Fame center, might offer some insight. (Don’t skimp on orthotics, he was told.)
“The biggest thing is managing a body,” Schweim said, and that sounds so much simpler than it is. In order to play both ways, Caglianone needs to do nearly twice the work of his teammates. The games are actually the easy part. It’s the work in between, the maintenance, the discipline — the recognition that health is more important than performance because performance can’t exist without health.
As Caglianone began his return to pitching this offseason, it became clear that this would be no ordinary rehab. Planning a return from Tommy John surgery is tough enough. Doing so for a pitcher who also plays first base full time is madness. So Schweim and Florida’s strength and conditioning coaches vowed to be even more hands-on — literally and figuratively.
They monitor Caglianone’s sleep patterns through a Whoop band and ensure he gets at least 5,000 calories a day to stave off the weight loss that normally comes during a season. They did almost daily maintenance on his body: massages Monday, acupuncture or dry needling Tuesdays, soft tissue work on his fascia throughout the week. They stayed on him about keeping his left arm hearty with lower-weight exercises that strengthened the flexor mass (forearm), rotator cuff (shoulder) and everywhere in between.
By the time the first game of a series rolled around Friday, Caglianone was ready to play first base. He would arrive at the stadium well over three hours before first pitch and climb into Normatec boots, which almost go from foot to hip and use compression to get blood circulating. As long as he felt good, the plan was the same Saturday, though if ever the staff felt Caglianone needed a breather, he could take it easy on drills and throws.
When Sunday rolled around, Caglianone would show up to the stadium around 7:30 a.m. for the noon game, hop into the hot tub for 10 or 15 minutes, do his arm exercises afterward, warm up and try to match his prodigious offensive output on the mound. Perhaps no other team in the country would use a player with Caglianone’s stuff as their No. 3 starter, but having right-handers Hurston Waldrep and Brandon Sproat — the former an expected top-15 pick, the latter projected to go in the first round — is a luxury that affords it.
Next season, Caglianone figures the script will be flipped. Instead of playing nine innings at first Friday and Saturday before starting Sunday afternoon, he’ll be in line to be Florida’s Friday night starter and will have to manage any lethargy in the field Saturday and Sunday. It doesn’t concern him.
“The biggest thing that goes overlooked is the recovery,” he said. “I’m not going to sit here and say that I don’t feel fatigued at all. But I feel I could do this all year, honestly.”
OTHERS HAVE TRIED this audacious act and run into the harsh reality that dominance in college does not necessarily translate. Most of the great ones — from John Olerud, after whom the college award for the best two-way player is named, to Nick Markakis, who was a two-way juco legend — don’t bother trying. Like Caglianone, Kent State’s John Van Benschoten hit 31 home runs to lead the country in 2001. The Pittsburgh Pirates preferred his right arm to his bat. Van Benschoten’s career ended with the single worst ERA of the 5,544 pitchers with at least 90 major league innings (9.20) — and one home run hit.
The closest to Ohtani that the college system has produced is Brendan McKay, the fourth overall pick in the 2017 draft out of Louisville. He debuted for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2019 with 49 forgettable innings, homered once in 11 plate appearances, and has been hurt pretty much ever since. There are pitchers who become hitters (Rick Ankiel and Adam Loewen) and hitters who become pitchers (Kenley Jansen and Sean Doolittle, a two-way star at Virginia) and they are rightly celebrated for their skills, because it takes most players a lifetime of focus, of uber-specialization, to even sniff the big leagues. To be that good at both — even if not simultaneously — is an incredible feat.
For all the sanguine appraisals that Ohtani’s success would pave the way for an influx of two-way players into MLB, multiple executives now say it might actually have the opposite effect. Said one longtime general manager: “If you have to be the most talented player in the world to do it, then it’s probably too hard for anyone else to do.” Only players with off-the-charts tools on both sides are likely to even get the chance. San Francisco took left-hander Reggie Crawford — he of the 100 mph fastball and batted ball — with the 30th pick in last year’s draft.
Caglianone’s aspirations are greater. If he can refine his control — “I need to cut down on walks,” he said, acknowledging that 49 in 69 innings won’t play — perhaps more teams will regard him long term as someone who could start on the mound. In addition to the big fastball, he throws a slider that flashes as an above-average pitch and a work-in-progress changeup. Even though his batting numbers this season (.336/.402/.766 with 31 home runs and 84 RBIs) were enough to place him with Skenes and his LSU teammate Dylan Crews as the finalists for the Golden Spikes Award — the college baseball Heisman — scouts said Caglianone needs to tighten his swing decisions next year if he wants to join UNC’s Vance Honeycutt in the discussion for the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.
For all the chasing Caglianone might do, he hits the ball with the force of few in the world. His home runs regularly went more than 450 feet. His opposite-field shots rose with the majesty only truly elite power hitters produce. His peak batted-ball numbers — in the 118 mph range — put him in a cohort with the best sluggers in the world: Aaron Judge, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Giancarlo Stanton … and Ohtani. And even Ohtani doesn’t test his limits by playing in the field daily, something on which Caglianone prides himself.
“I always was a hitter who could pitch,” Caglianone said. “Then in high school, when the velo started ticking up, I became a pitcher who could hit. But now it’s shifted to which one’s going better for me at the moment.”
Florida hopes the answer to that question is: both. This week, O’Sullivan could turn to Caglianone in a fireman role, perhaps a preview of what an Ohtani-adjacent big league career could look like: everyday player in the field, high-velocity arm out of the bullpen. Or maybe the Gators stumble in their first game against a dangerous Virginia lineup, win their second game and turn to Caglianone to start their third to avoid elimination.
Whatever his role is, it will include hitting and pitching. The Jac Caglianone experience is coming to the Men’s College World Series, and it will serve as a reminder, to fans and all 30 front offices watching, that as cool as Ohtani is, Jactani is an excellent imitation.