Tuesday, July 31, 2012

An Interview with LHP Brett Oberholtzer

"This is Brett Oberholtzer ... with the Astros," came the voice on the answering machine. Yes Brett, I know who you are, I laughed to myself. It was a little difficult to get in touch with Brett, but it was definitely worth the trouble.

LHP Brett Oberholtzer came to the Houston organization, along with RHP Paul Clemens, CF Jordan Schafer and RHP Juan Abreu, in a July 31, 2011 trade with Atlanta for Michael Bourn. He is the first to admit that his season has been up and down, but he works to improve every day. In 13 starts with Corpus Christi this season, he was 5-3 with a 4.21 ERA and a 1.325 WHIP before his promotion to Oklahoma City where he is 4-3 with a 6.02 ERA and a 1.520 WHIP.

When I went to Corpus Christi in June, Brett Oberholtzer was the only one of the then Corpus Christi starters that I didn't get to see pitch in person. But I did get to see him prepare. No one on that field was working harder during pre-game workouts than Brett. No one worked harder during pitcher's fielding practice. And no one worked harder when no one was paying attention. But I was paying attention, and I was impressed. In the interview, Brett may come across as overconfident, even cocky at times, but that is not how I would describe him. I would describe him with two words - steely determination.

Here's what we talked about [edited for brevity (believe it or not) and clarity] ~

On his season so far: "Going in to the season, I'd repeated AA for the first half. When I was there [at Corpus], it was kind of up and down. I knew I could dominate at that level. I'd done it before with the Atlanta Braves, but I just wasn't having the start in AA which I was expecting. But I think around June, late May, I had a very good month, month and a half, and I got promoted. And I've been learning a lot here [at Oklahoma City], learning a lot about myself -- what I do well, what I need to do better, what I need to work on, and that's ultimately making me better so that's kind of where I'm at right now."

On what he still needs to work on: "Just consistency. That's just pretty much the story of my season so far. It's been up and down, up and down. Not so much with me, it's just making certain pitches here that maybe will have an effect on the outcome of the game. Maybe just that one inning in my six or seven innings that I pitch in one start may be factoring into the outcome of the game. So just really going from pitch one to maybe pitch 95 or pitch 100, whatever it may be, to the end of the game. Just taking each pitch, throwing it with conviction and really throwing with a purpose because there's not too much room for error from now [and on into] the big leagues. You can get away with it at the lower levels, even AA they don't hit mistakes, but here they do, so that's pretty much what I'm working on, making every pitch count."

On whether he considered the trade from Atlanta a step down or an opportunity: "Definitely not a step down, definitely a step towards a better future, I would say. I kind of explain it to [people who ask him about it] as a regular job. If you're working a 9 to 5 that has little room for improvement as far as climbing the ladder to the higher ranking, then you don't see the light. I did see the light with the Braves, but when I came over in the trade with Houston, it was definitely a lot better opportunity here to move up in the rankings. So I try to explain that to people as if it was a regular job.  It's a lot better opportunity here, but that also means I still have to perform to earn that job. But from the trade standpoint, me and Paul Clemens were roommates and the manager came in and gave us the thumb, told us we'd been traded. We were off to Houston, well Corpus Christi, but we were off to the Houston organization and I didn't know too much about Houston at the time, how they were doing, what they needed, but after a while, I kind of realized I was in good hands over here so the trade definitely worked out and hopefully I can be the guy to rely on for years to come down the road."

On playing in Corpus Christi and Oklahoma City: "Corpus was a nice town, great ballpark to play in, not so much to pitch in because the bay breeze, the ocean breeze, the winds tended to blow out straight to left field so it was a little tougher to pitch there at home than it would be on the road, but it was a nice town. Here in Oklahoma, it's also nice. We're in the city, downtown Oklahoma City and our field's right here very close. We get a good crowd, especially on the weekends. It's not a tourist city so we get a lot of good fans, fans that actually know the game, and that always makes it fun. They're more into it. But they're both great cities to play for. Hopefully, Houston as well."

On his pitch repertoire: "I throw a four-seam fastball. It's usually around 90 - 93. I throw a 2-seam every now and then. I throw a curveball, knuckle curve, spike curve which is more my strikeout pitch. Then I throw a changeup that's probably my best pitch, to keep guys off-balance. I use it also for a strikeout. And then I've been working on a cutter as of last year.  It's been coming around well. Like I said earlier, I just have to get it to be more consistent and I think I'll be in great shape there, I mean that's four pitches for a lefty, 90 - 93. Like I said, I've just got to keep making better pitches and being more consistent with them and everything will play out well."

On his workout regime: "It's a long season, I mean, in the off-season it's even more so, I wouldn't say strenuous, but my workouts are more strenuous mentally because I know I have to do them to be the best. It's tough in the off-season for me because I have to prepare for 160 games, excuse me, see I'm already thinking about 160 instead of 140 minor league games so you can already see where my mind is when I want to work out to prepare for the ultimate goal which is 160 games plus more, so for me it's just a mindset getting in the gym and being the strongest. I want to compete in the game so it takes a lot out of you when you pitch 7, 8 innings, 100, 110 pitches in 100-degree heat. People don't even like to walk in 100-degree heat let alone pitch all night in it.  My workouts definitely help. I'm a pretty strong guy. I take pride in my work ethic, especially like you said when no one else is out there on the field, I love to look around and see I'm the only one out here. I take pride in that. It's fulfilling. And ultimately, it's going to help my career so what can go wrong with putting in a little extra time in a weight room or running on the field? That's how we have to prepare."

On whose pitch he would steal: "Mickey Storey has some pretty good off-speed. His curveball, his arm action is good on it. The only reason why I wouldn't say that is because my curveball I think is pretty good too. I would say his slider, Mickey Storey's slider. And Jarred Cosart's fastball. If I had his fastball I think I wouldn't need any more money for the rest of my life.  If I had his fastball with the stuff I know ... I guess I would say those two."

On which hitter he would least like to face: "We have a lot of good hitters especially here in AAA. I would say Brandon Barnes right now. I haven't seen him in the last five years that he's been with the Astros but this year he's been unreal. Great kid. He gives it 110% every time he steps out on the field but he's also developing into a hitter now, knowing his weaknesses, his strengths, and he's trying to work on his weaknesses so I would say Brandon Barnes. [Pause] I would definitely strike him out but he's probably the least one I'd like to face."

On what he'd do if he couldn't play baseball: "[Long pause] See, I think that's what got me so far in baseball is because I never planned a Plan B. I would say go to school, maybe do something physical, be a police officer. I always liked the SWAT team, what they do. I think I would be very good at that. I don't know much about it, but if baseball ended today ... Yeah, those two things, police enforcement, the SWAT, depending on the education and all that. Something outside would also fit me really well. I don't think I could pinpoint it. I like to do a lot of things, but I'm sure baseball is the one that I'll be doing for a very long time."

On something most people don't know about him and might be surprised to hear: "I grew up a Phillies fan, being from Delaware, and a lot of people wouldn't like to hear that but I'm sure every baseball player had a team at one point they liked and they're not playing for. I don't know if [anyone would] be surprised but I love the beach. I love being outdoors. I love to fish. Definitely an outdoors guy. I had two boats growing up with my Dad. We went crabbing, fishing so we were outside a lot doing a lot of things on the bay, the ocean. Like I said, I don't know if [anyone would] be surprised at it but that's something I love to do in my spare time is fish and be outdoors. I picked up hunting. People ought to be surprised at that. I picked up hunting two years ago. If my career develops, [I'd like to] buy some land to be able to get back into it a little more, buy a boat and buy some property."


At this point, I thought I'd wind down the interview, asking for any last thoughts. I already knew that Brett was a highly regarded prospect with a good pitch repertoire that he mixes well with plus command and control. I had witnessed his work ethic firsthand, and everything I had heard from him so far had convinced me that, for Brett, failure was not only not an option but that the word failure didn't exist in his vocabulary. He really hadn't ever considered a life outside of baseball. And he was doing whatever he needed to do to get better.

So I asked about last words or thoughts for Houston fans, and we ended up talking for another 15 minutes about where Houston stood, what the plan was and how the fans felt about it all. Brett really wanted to know what we thought and how we were feeling. So I told him from my perspective. I told him that we were frustrated with the big league play, but that we understood that there was finally a plan in place and we were encouraged with the talent in the farm system. I told him that we were getting impatient to see the young players in Houston and get them on their road. I told him that I hoped the average fan would be patient with the learning curve, but that I doubted that would be the case.

We talked about the current Astros record and he uttered a stunned "Wow," when he found out that there were only ten road wins to 41 losses. He talked about being in the first wave of players coming in to turn things around, "We were the first wave of guys. From what I've seen, the fans were excited about that. Now this year we made a couple more trades. I would surely imagine they're excited for the next few years. I know we want to win as soon as possible. Hopefully next year we'll make a huge improvement and years to come.

"I truly believe history repeats itself. We have some good pitching like when Roger and Pettitte were here, when we had all those position players, Biggio and Bagwell doing work. I could see that being the future in the next five years with the team that they [the Astros] had 5 or 10 years ago.

"A lot of guys in AA, and here in AAA, feel like we could fill spots anytime so I hope they're not hesitant on  pulling the trigger. What more can you lose?"

Exactly, what more can we lose?

"This is Brett Oberholtzer ... with the Astros," came the voice on the answering machine. Yes Brett, I know who you are, and before too much longer, Astros fans all over will know who you are as well.

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