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JuCo to the Show: Owen Holt’s Unorthodox Journey to Professional Baseball

Owen Holt delivers a pitch in Harvard's 2020 loss to Alabama. He threw five scoreless innings in that start and will look to replicate that success as a member of the Reds organization.
Owen Holt delivers a pitch in Harvard's 2020 loss to Alabama. He threw five scoreless innings in that start and will look to replicate that success as a member of the Reds organization. By Courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications
By Griffin Wong, Crimson Staff Writer

“I might be the first one in history to do that,” senior Owen Holt told assorted media after an MLB pre-draft workout at Minute Maid Park in Houston on July 1. He was referring to his unorthodox journey to professional baseball, which took him on a winding path from Lamar High School in his native Houston to two years of football with Harvard before he ended up dual-enrolled at Harvard and Alvin Community College in Alvin, Texas, playing baseball for the Dolphins and taking a full schedule of classes at both schools.

During his senior season in 2017, Holt served as the captain of Lamar, a school with a rich history of producing professional baseball players, including Los Angeles Angels superstar third baseman Anthony Rendon. The team went on to finish that season ranked fourth nationally by MaxPreps, and Holt was named to the all-district first team in both his junior and senior seasons. He also starred as the quarterback and team captain for the football team his senior year.

After matriculating at Harvard, he decided to focus on football, spending two years playing quarterback for coach Tim Murphy’s program. While in spring practices, Holt recalled watching baseball practices on the nearby training field and paying particular attention to the pitchers. He only saw action in one football game for the Crimson, against Yale in 2018 at Fenway Park, and ultimately made the transition to baseball prior to the start of the 2020 season. Despite recording no stats in his collegiate football career, he expressed gratitude for the lessons in preparation that playing football had taught him.

“Constant improvement is the key. [In football], every single week, you just have one game and one opponent. And so every week, the game plan’s a little different. You want to stick to your strengths, but hey, what are the other team's weaknesses?” he said. “And so each day had a goal. Being a starting pitcher in college is pretty similar too, so you'll get a start on Saturday or Friday. And so it's [batting practice] Monday, this is what we're doing Tuesday, it was all regimented and stacking good days.”

Still, the right-hander was a relatively raw pitching prospect when he joined the team. Despite his relative inexperience, he started Harvard’s second game of the 2020 season, on the road against the University of Alabama. The Crimson Tide entered the game with a 10-0 record, and by the time the Southeastern Conference (SEC) suspended its season, it had amassed a 16-1 record, matching Florida and Ole Miss atop the conference. Holt recalled his nerves facing such a formidable opponent in his first collegiate appearance, but the mental fortitude he had built up throughout his sports career allowed him to thrive.

“But you know, there were a ton of people there. I remember [it] being pregame and I just finished warming up in the bullpen,” he said. “And I'm sitting in the dugout, and my heart [was] just beating and I'm like, 'Oh man, I'm gonna have a heart attack here.' So I was like, just focus on breathing. And let's go out there and see what happens. So it was just really fun, you know.”

Although Alabama ultimately emerged victorious, 10-5, Holt’s talent shone. He pitched five scoreless innings and struck out three Crimson Tide batters on an efficient 75 pitches, allowing just three walks and four hits. Although his next start, on March 7 against Ohio State, did not go so smoothly he yielded 7 runs in three innings against the Buckeyes he took a lot of positives out of his brief Harvard career.

Holt made just two starts for Harvard, but the two-sport college athlete feels that his time with the Crimson was crucial to his development.
Holt made just two starts for Harvard, but the two-sport college athlete feels that his time with the Crimson was crucial to his development. By Courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications

Despite being saddled with the loss against Ohio State after his brilliant debut, Holt exhibited many improvements throughout the abbreviated season. Harvard’s baseball program relies largely on the help of Trackman and Rapsodo technologies, which allow its pitchers to understand the spin rates on all of their pitches. Head coach Bill Decker and assistant coach Brady Kirkpatrick emphasized placing certain pitches in certain areas of the strike zone to set batters up in certain ways. Holt credited both the analytical approach and his teammates for helping him fulfill some of his immense potential.

“Coach Kirkpatrick does a great job, but the pitchers up there and Coach Decker are great,” Holt said. “And, you know, not to mention the other guys. That's another thing. You know, you're gonna learn a lot from the coaches, but you're going to learn even more from your teammates, about life, and just about pitching, like, how do you grip your slider, that sort of thing. So I learned a ton from those guys.”

However, after his shortened season, he had amassed just eight college innings at the age of 21. Despite his high school accomplishments, raw talent, and his strong debut against Alabama, Holt was hardly on the MLB radar. Throughout the fall semester, he stayed at home and trained in Houston, while still enrolled in classes. As the semester progressed, however, he realized that if he were to get on the mound the next season, it would not be for Harvard.

The only solution in which he would be able to play baseball without sacrificing his Harvard education was to enroll in junior college. Because junior colleges are not part of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) bracket, he was eligible to compete immediately for a community college without having to sit out a season, which he would have had to do had he transferred to another four-year school.

Thus, after consulting with his dean and NCAA eligibility representative at Harvard, as well as Decker, he committed to play for Alvin Community College in Alvin, Texas, about a 45-minute drive away from his house in central Houston. The Dolphins, managed by coach Jason Schreiber, were coming off a 32-24 (.571) season in 2019.

Throughout the season, Holt had to manage an intense workload. He lived at home, so he had to commute every day for classes and baseball practice, in addition to taking a full load of classes at both Alvin and Harvard. The economics concentrator took three classes at Harvard in addition to the minimum four required to play for the Dolphins. In order to manage his workload, Holt sometimes had to make sacrifices. Often, while his teammates would watch movies together after practice, he would drive home to study for an economics test, hoping to avoid worrying about his academics on game day.

“You know, there were a lot of times where it was pretty overwhelming,” he said. “And on nights before games, I'd be knocking out part of an essay or, like, on these long bus trips, I'd have my hotspot on and do a little work on the side, and all the guys would be like, ‘Oh, the Harvard guy.’ So I definitely had to be on top of it.”

Throughout the season, Holt gained valuable collegiate baseball experience and flashed some of his lofty potential. He appeared in 14 games, including 12 starts, finishing third on the team with 57 innings pitched. He exhibited his power in those innings, fanning 65 batters at a rate of 10.26 strikeouts per nine innings, good for second among the Dolphins’ regular starters. Schreiber’s eye-test based approach complemented Decker’s data-driven coaching style and allowed him to add secondary pitches to his repertoire.

“When I first saw Owen, he already had a big fastball: 92-95 [miles per hour]. I think the biggest improvement was with his secondary pitches. He added a slider that made it a lot easier to get outs,” explained Schreiber in an email to The Crimson.

Despite his 5.68 ERA, he consistently made positive contributions, earning a 7-3 win-loss record. Holt’s success on the mound helped the Dolphins amass a winning record, finishing the season 29-23 (.558). Schreiber noted that his work ethic and positive attitude rubbed off on the team and impacted its success.

“Owen brought a special leadership quality; the other players followed his lead,” he wrote. “I saw his work ethic carry over to the other players on the team. His love for life is special. My favorite moment was before every game I would ask him how he was feeling warming up in the bullpen, [and] he would always say, ‘I feel dangerous today, coach.’”

Holt must have felt dangerous in the first game of his Alvin career, against McLennan Community College, when he pitched four innings, giving up two runs, striking out six batters, walking none, and earning the win. Although McLennan, the fourth-ranked junior college team in the country at the time, would go on to win the NJCAA (National Junior College Athletic Association) National Championship that season, Holt’s Dolphins emerged with an 11-6 victory.

“They were ranked number four in the country at that time,” Holt recalled. “And I ended up giving up a two-run homer in the fourth inning. But I threw three scoreless before that, and we ended up winning that game, it was like 11 to six. And that was my first ‘welcome to junior college’ game and that was definitely pretty fun.”

After the season, he initially committed to continue his career at Texas Chrisitan University. However, he left his options open as he debated the merits of playing an extra year of college baseball. Ultimately, he decided that, as he was already 22 years old, relatively old for MLB draftees, it would be more beneficial to declare for the draft and spend the next year in a minor league system instead.

After declaring, he joined the MLB Draft League, jointly run by Major League Baseball and Prep Baseball Report, a wide-ranging amateur baseball database. Together with other draft-eligible prospects from all around the country, he spent much of the late spring and early summer in Williamsport, Pa., playing for the MLB Draft League’s Crosscutters. Despite the Crosscutters’ lack of success, finishing fifth of six teams with a 25-32-3 (.433) record, he described it as a valuable experience in his preparation for the majors.

“I just love the baseball guys. I have so much fun with them,” he said. “And speaking of people, baseball does a great job … of bringing people together from literally all over the world. I guess these were all the draft-eligible guys, but they were from all over the place. And so that was just really fun. It was a lot of baseball but the coaching staff up there and the guys made it really fun and all the guys were kind of working towards the same goal. So that was pretty neat.”

In addition to the MLB Draft League, Holt flew back to Houston for local workouts with all 30 MLB teams. He specifically referenced a particularly special workout with the Houston Astros, in which he got to throw in Minute Maid Park, the 2017 World Series champions’ stadium.

“That was pretty cool,” said Holt with a laugh. “They had us warming up in the bullpen. And I thought about sprinting from the bullpen to the mound just because I was so excited. But I decided to hold back on that.”

As he continued to gain pitching experience and participate in showcases, MLB teams eventually started to take notice. In traditional draft scouting, teams will approach players with a projection for what round they might be drafted in and how much money they might make. During the 20-round draft, teams tend to deliberate more over their early-round selections than the players they target with later picks. On draft day, surrounded by family and friends, Holt was pretty confident that he was going to be selected.

His hard work paid off when the Cincinnati Reds decided to pick him with their 16th round pick, 480th overall. Holt became the fourth Crosscutter to be drafted, including the second by the Reds. When he heard his name called, he was filled with relief and elation, and his unorthodox journey to professional baseball was complete.

Ultimately, despite being drafted, he aims to complete his degree and is hopeful that, having succeeded with his intense schedule in the spring, he will be able to enroll in his last semester of coursework while simultaneously chasing his baseball dreams. For now, he hopes to “keep stacking good days” and make his way through the Reds’ system.

To make the major leagues, though, he will need to put in a lot more work. He spent the summer at the Reds’ spring training facility in Arizona, spending his afternoons in meetings, workouts, and throwing bullpen sessions. He currently pitches for the Arizona League Reds, participating in games against other rookies at various spring training complexes throughout the state. In four games, including one start, he currently sports a 7.71 ERA while striking out 11 batters in seven total innings. In those games, he has compiled a 2-1 win-loss record.

“I can hit an inside fastball right there. But can [I] do it consistently? Can [I] throw a breaking ball first strike on a 2-0 count? And then, on a 1-2 count, can [I] throw the same pitch, but in the dirt, and get them chasing? And can [I] do that consistently? And can [I] match [my] same energy levels every single day? I think that's what separates the guys that really make it to the big leagues and the guys that don't,” he explained.

As he continues his journey to the Show, he knows that he will always have at least one valuable supporter in his corner: Schreiber.

The coach wrote, “I was very excited to hear he was drafted by the Reds; I know how hard he worked for this moment. There is no doubt Owen will thrive in professional baseball.”

— Staff writer Griffin Wong can be reached at griffin.wong@thecrimson.com

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