When South Carolina baseball staffers delivered Noah Campbell for summer assignment, they made sure the talented rising sophomore arrived on the Cape with directions.
“We need him to learn to play the infield.”
“I guess he played shortstop in high school,” Picker said, “but they wanted him to be a second baseman.”
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Pickler, who spends his springs in charge of Cypress College in California, has been coaching in the prestigious Cape Cod League for over two decades. It’s a 10-team organization rich in tradition that has hosted numerous future professional stars such as Jacoby Ellsbury, Chris Sale and Kris Bryant.
Player development is a main focus across all summer college baseball leagues, but on the Cape it’s got competition.
“The town of Yarmouth-Dennis wants me to win,” Picker said of a tiny area in central Massachusetts. “It’s a unique thing. The town wants you to win, the (college) coaches want you to make their guys better.
“I had a first baseman last year from Texas who played one inning of first base, and they wanted me to play him at first base. And he got better, but it wasn’t to the point where I could play him at first base. I just can’t do that. There’s other leagues where they can learn to do that.”
In other words, despite the request from Current and Couch, Campbell was never guaranteed to be the everyday Red Sox second baseman. He had to show to Pickler that he could play the position well enough for the Red Sox to benefit.
On a team that finished with a league-best 27 regular season wins, Campbell started 17 of Y-D’s final 24 games at second base. He finished with a .964 fielding percentage, .364 batting average, had six home runs and was a starter for the league’s all-star game.
“We didn’t pull any punches,” Pickler said. “I said, ‘Where did you play last year?’ He said, ‘I DH’d and played left left field.’ I said, ‘I think your best position, if you get to pro ball, is going to be in the infield and playing second base.’
“And he bought in.”
Campbell, according to USC coach Mark Kingston, had a “solid” first season with the Gamecocks. The highly touted recruit hit .270 with three home runs and 13 RBIs. He started 42 games, but only three at second base.
With that spot opening in 2019 due to Justin Row’s departure, Campbell likely didn’t need his USC coaches to urge his summer ball skipper about where he most needed reps.
“I used the opportunity to get better on defense,” Campbell said.
After a while, Pickler got used to coming to the ballpark and spotting Campbell well into a practice routine.
“He realized he had some shortcomings and wanted to get better,” Pickler said. “I’ve done this for 22 years up there and I don’t think I’ve ever had a kid that came in as many days as he did, early in the morning, to work on something.
“Working on infield plays isn’t glamorous. Everyone wants to hit. But he knew what part of his game had to get better.”
Campbell, upwards of five times a week with a Red Sox assistant, would spend 30-45 minutes strictly on defensive drills before heading to the batting cages.
“It was a lot more than hitting ground balls,” Pickler said. “It was throwing from different angles, it was charging the ball, it was getting some rhythm. It didn’t come easy for him at first. You think he’s such a good athlete, but playing in the infield compared to the outfield’s a whole different ballgame.”
“When he went back (to USC), Trip Couch called me, Mike Current called me,” Pickler said. “They told me, ‘He’s gotten so much better.’
“And I told them, ‘It wasn’t us. It was all him.’ ”