Brett Oberholtzer: The Up-and-Down Life of a Young Pitcher

When a kid is growing up and dreaming of playing in the big leagues, the dreams rarely include trips back to the minor leagues. But for most players who scale professional baseball’s Mount Everest, the pinnacle is actually reached repeatedly, with short trips down to Triple-A between them.

Houston Astros left-handed pitcher Brett Oberholtzer is living life on that yo-yo. In every season since 2013, Oberholtzer has spent time both in the major leagues and in Triple-A. He is currently in his third stint this season with the Fresno Grizzlies.

“Obviously the big leagues is a different lifestyle than Triple-A or any level of the minors,” Oberholtzer says, “but I think it’s mostly just the atmosphere and how the game is played. For me, the goal is to stay focused and throw up good lines, because the last thing you want to do is get down here and not perform to the best of your ability for whatever reason.”

Oberholtzer’s first stop in Fresno this season was a rehab assignment to recover from a finger injury. The second had a more inauspicious origin. On June 27, he was ejected from his start against the New York Yankees in the second inning after throwing a pitch inside to Alex Rodriguez. The pitch came immediately after Chris Young had hit a two-run home run to give the Yankees a 6-0 lead, and while it didn’t hit A-Rod, it was cause enough for home plate umpire Rob Drake to eject him.

Immediately after that game, Astros’ manager A.J. Hinch announced that Oberholtzer was being optioned back to Fresno. Oberholtzer’s early exit in that game had taxed the bullpen, so he was sent down to allow the team to bring in a fresh reliever. But Hinch hinted that there might have been a disciplinary angle to the demotion, too. When asked if the move was related to the ejection, Hinch said, “I think it’s a little bit of everything,” before explaining the need for fresh arms.

For Oberholtzer’s part, he says he was not throwing at Rodriguez. “I didn’t think my ejection was called for,” he says. “I didn’t hit Alex, nor did I throw behind him or at his head.” The pitch might have looked worse than it was because the catcher was set up outside and Oberholtzer “missed my spot pretty bad.” Despite being “shocked” to find out that his ejection had played a part in his being optioned, he says he took the demotion just like any other: as an opportunity to improve.

“There’s a bitterness that every player experiences when they get sent down,” he says. “But obviously, it’s not the end. I just have to continue to pitch, and in the meantime get better at my craft.”

Oberholtzer had an interesting curveball thrown at him during his current stint in Triple-A: the Astros traded for fellow left-handed starter Scott Kazmir.

“In the short term, today, yeah, it’s a little discouraging, I guess you could say,” Oberholtzer said a few hours after the trade. “But I know the big picture for me is just to have fun, get better, and just go about my business that way. Obviously, I’ve always admired how Kazmir pitched. I know he’s a Texas native, and he’s a great pitcher — he’s an elite pitcher who can probably help them out down the stretch and into the postseason. As far as how it affects me, I try not to look at it in that sense. I try to stay focused on the here and now and what I can do to get better.”

Talking to Oberholtzer, there is almost a zen-like peace about his role in the grand scheme of major league pitchers. He does not seem to get too high at the successes or too low at the setbacks that go with his job.

“I think every player sets out to have a good, long career,” he says, “but a lot of things can happen in that time. For me, the goal is to play the game for a long time. I look at a guy like Jamie Moyer, for example. I’ve always taken pride in how I work and how I prepare, as something that can take me deeper into my career. And ultimately, it’s still a game; you just go out there and compete.”

Jamie Moyer? Oberholtzer is currently more than 23 years younger than Moyer was when he threw his last pitch in the big leagues at age 49. Does he have designs on pitching until he’s nearly 50 like Moyer did?

“I don’t know if I can hold up until 50,” he says, “but why not? I’m not a big goal setter, because I like to try to seize the day. I think goals can be discouraging, especially in this game, where things don’t always happen in your favor, and sometimes you’re just the end result of something. But having success in the big leagues, being a lefty, I feel as if I can go out there and compete and help my team win.”

Oberholtzer was drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the 47th round of the 2007 draft out of high school, but he chose not to sign. Instead, he went to Seminole Community College in Sanford, Florida. Going the junior college route allowed him to be eligible for the draft again after his freshman year, and the Atlanta Braves took him in the eighth round in 2008. This time, he signed.

“Any player who gets drafted always weighs the options,” Oberholtzer says, “but the Braves’ scout did sell me pretty good on what the organization offered for a young lefty starter like me. He pretty much sold me with, ‘Hey, if you start now, you have plenty of time to move through the system,’ and obviously with the pride they take in the way they develop their pitchers. So being a top-10 rounder, I knew I was in good hands.”

Oberholtzer didn’t necessarily expect to only spend one year in college, but he knew it was a possibility.

“I always wanted to play baseball,” he says. “I wouldn’t say I couldn’t succeed in the academic area, but my focus and attention, even sitting in class in the tenth grade, my focus was always on baseball. So for me, I felt like the junior college route, I had a pretty good awareness even at that age that it was the best path to really carve out my career, because I realized that, hey, I got drafted already out of high school; if I go to a junior college and play for a year, I am eligible again. And then if I decide to stay for another year or go to a Division I school, that’s always on the plate as well. So the junior college route is a good route.”

Oberholtzer’s first career start came against the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards, about an hour from New Castle, Delaware, where he went to high school.

“I had about 50 people there,” he recalls. “It was a great start, and it was even better because my first big league start was in Baltimore so my family could watch. And obviously because we won that game, so it was just a great overall experience. I’ll probably remember that day for a long, long time.”

As a rookie with the Astros in 2013, Oberholtzer was part of an extremely young and inexperienced team that lost 111 games. The 2015 version of the team is still young, but they have a bit more experience and a bit more talent. One player who really sticks out to Oberholtzer is shortstop phenom Carlos Correa.

“Correa is obviously younger than me,” he says, “but I am a pretty aware baseball player, so when I come across a guy not only as talented as he is, but also very focused, very smart. He’s 20 years old, but he handles himself like he’s been around the game. He’s a student of the game, he loves to learn, so being around a guy like him, even though he just started his career — maybe one day when I have grandkids, I will look back and say I played with him. It’s hard to realize right now, being a teammate, but when I look back with my grandkids and tell them some of the things I did and some of the guys I played with, I think of him.”

For now, Oberholtzer is working hard in Fresno, knowing that his next shot in the big leagues could come at any time.

“The good thing about baseball is you always have tomorrow to shake it off and get back to work. Whether you have a good game or a bad game, you learn from it and take something from each start.”

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