OXFORD, Miss – “The damn baseball looks like a grapefruit out there to this guy.”
Those words from the grandstand were lobbed from a fan wearing a blue Gators cap. The platitude landed on Florida star Jac Caglianone as the player walked from the visiting Florida dugout to exit the Swayze Field playing surface.
Caglianone, listed at 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, just greeted the complement with a hint of a smile. With number 14 on his back, Caglianone resembled an NFL tight end with broad shoulders and a narrow waist. The twenty-year-old presented an imposing figure.
Then he approached wearing a disarming, easy smile. The hulking figure was exceedingly polite. Earlier that day, he had murdered several baseballs.
“He’s the biggest, strongest kid on the field,” Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said.
O’Sullivan had just watched that biggest, strongest kid smack three home runs in a Saturday doubleheader. Caglianone would hit another one the following day, giving him four home runs for the series and a national-best 17 for the season. And oh yeah, Caglianone also started that Sunday game as the pitcher, something he has done each weekend all season.
Recruited as a premium pitcher to Florida, Caglianone didn’t pitch last season as he recovered from Tommy John surgery. That injury hurt his draft stock out of high school and certainly contributed to his arrival as a collegian.
Caglianone was expected to sit out last season completely, and he did so as a pitcher. However, the Tampa native impressed enough with his bat to get a start at designated hitter in a series against the eventual SEC champion Tennessee. In the second at-bat of his first start, he homered. He became a lineup mainstay the rest of the way, finishing with a .288/.339/.528 slash line and seven home runs. He homered twice against Oklahoma at the Gainesville Regional and found his way onto the All-Regional team.
This season, healthy enough to pitch, he earned a job in the weekend rotation. In 29 innings, he has allowed only 15 hits and 11 runs. The sophomore southpaw has struck out 35 and walked 18. He’s 3-0 with a 3.41 ERA in his six starts.
That would be impressive enough as a pitcher. But there has been as much buzz from striking baseballs as striking out batters. Caglianone is batting .400/.462/.971 with 17 homers, seven doubles, and a triple while splitting time between first base and moving to designated hitter on days he pitches. He routinely has exit velocities over 110 mph. The ball just sounds different off his bat.
“My approach has always been to hit a ball hard,” Caglianone said. “So, yeah, my exit velo has been pretty high for a while. I’ve got 120 (mph) once this year and some 118s.”
“He’s just different,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ve had some really good hitters over the years. He’s right there with them. I’m so glad he’s only a sophomore so we still have him for another year.”
“This is the first time I’ve seen him,” Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco said after Saturday’s game. “He’s special. We watched him for 10 at-bats and still don’t know what to throw him. He hits everything. He hits fastballs, breaking balls. We only threw changeups because we’ve seen him hit enough home runs on changeups. And what a first base he plays (defensively).”
While his prowess as a two-way threat is fascinating from the outside, managing his workload is a big part of the story.
“It is definitely a lot tougher in college than I thought it would be,” Caglianone said of managing both pitching and hitting. “The coaches do a great job maintaining my arm.”
“We really take it easy on his throwing, especially with in and out,” O’Sullivan said. “On strike threes, we only throw to third (base) so he doesn’t touch the ball very much. He’s been doing it his whole life, so this is not something he’s never done.”
One person who can relate in some ways to what Caglianone is doing is former Ole Miss two-way standout Stephen Head. A star at Ole Miss from 2003-2005 and a professional player from 2005-2011, Head pitched and played first base for the Rebels well enough to be SEC Player of the Year in 2004.
“It’s hard not to notice what he’s doing,” said Head, who now works as a crosschecker for the Los Angeles Dodgers. “I mean, to be that talented on both sides of the ball.”
Head detailed some of the ways he protected his arm during his playing days, limiting throwing as an infielder in practice and in games, similar to how Florida does with Caglianone.
Head did feel there are some advantages two-way players have. One example is there are twice as many opportunities to experience pressure. If you handle it properly, that can be a benefit.
“If you are batting with two outs in the bottom of the ninth,” Head explained. “That’s no different than pitching in that situation. I think it’s a benefit because you are ready for any situation.”
When asked if he had any advice for a player following his path nearly twenty years later, he offered this retort.
“He doesn’t look like he needs much of my advice,” Head said with a laugh. “I’d say, just continue to do what he’s doing and be smart about it. You have to know how to take care of your body to be able to perform like that every time. It’s a pretty tough balance. There were days when I started a game on Sunday where I was gassed. You have to figure out that balance to do your job, be a college kid, and be a teammate. It’s a harder thing to balance than if you are just playing one side of the ball.”
And that’s the uncertainty as his career progresses after he completes his term as a Gator.
The 2024 draft is out there, and while the prevailing thought on Caglianone entering the season was a mound future thanks to his high-90s velocity, his power production is hard to ignore.
“Growing up I was always like a hitter who pitched,” Caglianone said. “Coming to college, I’ve become more like a pitcher who can hit. I guess that’s what I’d say right now.”
The velocity on the mound is eye-catching. And while there have been bouts with command—he walked eight Sunday—he also had a nine-strikeout, one-walk game. When he’s locating, this is a tantalizing pitching prospect. And remember, he is working his way back after surgery kept him out last season. There’s plenty of development left to happen.
Then you watch him hit. Or, in my case, you hear him hit. That thunderous impact when his bat smashed the ball stuck with me, and the mountainous exit velocities backed that up.
So where is his future? On the mound or at the plate?
“That’s the million-dollar question,” said a grinning O’Sullivan. “It will be nice to see how it all unfolds.”
But maybe he won’t have to choose. While no one should have to live up to Shohei Ohtani’s exalted status, at least now there’s a precedent that playing both is possible.
Even if he wanted to, Caglianone can’t escape the Ohtani comparisons.
“It’s hard not to (pattern his game over Ohtani),” he said. “In Gainesville, they’ve got the ‘Jactani’ thing going on. It’s surreal. I’m not rushing anything. Especially on the pitching aspect of things, coming off Tommy John.”
Caglianone paused and looked around the emptying ballpark. His focus quickly returned, and he smiled and blurted out the answer he had originally planned…
“I plan to do both as long as I can.”
And based on what we’ve seen thus far, that may just be a long time from now.
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