Junior right-handed pitcher Gavin Williams is no stranger to the cheers from the crowd when the scoreboard located in the centerfield of Clark-LeClair Stadium flashes 97 or 98 MPH after his fastball pops the catcher’s mitt.
For three years, Williams has been displaying his mid- to upper-90s fastball velocity in East Carolina University purple and gold. A product of Cape Fear High School in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Williams rode his electric fastball to post a 3.74 ERA in 65 innings during his first two seasons at ECU, a number that included a 1.15 mark in 15.2 frames as a freshman.
With hefty strikeout numbers during that time (65), the right-hander has struggled in the free pass department as he has allowed 30 in his first two years as a Pirate, a number that prompts work in that area.
“He’s got a really good arm,” ECU head baseball coach Cliff Godwin said. “The thing that he’s improved the most is his fastball command. We got to see it as a coaching staff in the fall and Gavin and his teammates got to see it. His fastball command this year was way better than it’s ever been.”
Unfortunately for Williams, he did not get to showcase that improved command in what figures to be his final collegiate season before beginning his professional baseball career. Needing a solid season to cement his draft stock in the eyes of major league franchises, Williams instead missed the majority of a shortened 2020 season after suffering a finger injury during intra-squad spring scrimmages.
Limited to just three innings of work as a junior, he struck out five batters while walking two, giving up two hits and failing to allow an earned run. Despite that small sample size during game action, Williams’ progress as a pitcher did not go unnoticed by his coaching staff as he worked back from injury.
“If he was trying to go away, he was throwing the ball away,” Godwin said in relation to Williams’ command improvements. “If he was trying to go in, he was throwing the ball in and still throwing the baseball in the mid- to upper-90s and obviously can hit 100 (MPH). He was able to throw the ball where he wanted to which is a huge asset to his great arm.”
Baseball America has the 6’6” Williams at No. 81 in their top 500 draft prospects list less than a month before the shortened five round event is to take place. The highest rank of any draft eligible Pirate, the scouting report on Williams identifies concerns over his pitch command with runners on base.
To combat the mental toll having runners on base in critical situations can cause, Williams, and the entire ECU pitching staff, participates in shadow bullpens which take place without a baseball being thrown.
“Put yourself into a game-like situation if you can do it mentally,” Godwin said. “That’s what we do with all of our guys from our pitching staff. They do shadow pens 3-4 times a week, just putting themselves in a positive rhythm and then also into maybe an adverse situation where there’s bases loaded no outs, one out, and then see themselves menatally being able to actually get through those jams.”
Despite Williams’ limited action in 2020, Godwin said the right-hander’s secondary offerings were looking sharp. Baseball America touts the junior’s ability to spin a breaking ball but questions the consistency of the offering while describing his changeup as above average.
Williams’ curveball was much more consistent this year as he worked to throw it harder and more consistently in the strike zone, according to Godwin. Aside from the curveball and changeup, however, Williams worked to develop another pitch with pitching coach Jason Dietrich.
“He was developing a new pitch with coach Dietrich which was a work in progress, but he showed flashes of it being really good which was a slider/cutter,” Godwin said. “Gavin Williams’ best days are definitely in front of him. I think he’s just tapping the surface on how good he can be.”
Tapping into that potential comes with off-the-field things as well. Quiet by nature according to Godwin, Williams had started to get comfortable in the role of mentor for the younger pitchers on the Pirates’ staff.
Having started ECU’s regional clinching game over Campbell University last year, Williams can offer his fellow members of the pitching staff advice that can often be hard to come by.
“He talks to his teammates and the thing that he did better this year than he ever had done before was really helping younger players, and talking with them about his experiences that he’s had in the past, what went well, what didn’t go well,” Godwin said. “When you’re 6’6”, 250 pounds and throw the ball that hard, obviously people want to listen because they want to do some of the things that you can do.”
Williams’ physical stature and live arm has placed him in a position to be drafted by a major league franchise on either June 10 or 11. While some teams may be scared away by his meger 68 career innings at ECU, there is a strong chance a club likes him enough to add him to the Pirates in the Draft page of the ECU baseball media guide.
With two potentially plus pitches in his fastball and curveball, Williams remaining a starter at the next level will hinge on the development of a third and possibly fourth offering.
“His goal is to be a starter,” Godwin said. “Well, to be a starter he needs to have at least three pitches. So he needs to continue to be consistent with three to four pitches so he can put himself in the situation to be able to start games.”