Ocker’s pro baseball career with Cleveland Indians on hold as 2015 MAHS grad at home during pandemic
Nathan Ocker is trying to make the most of his time back in the Middletown area as he waits out the coronavirus pandemic. But the 2015 Middletown Area High School graduate would much rather be spending today in Geneva, Illinois. Or, if things were going really well, he might have spent part of this week in Frederick, Maryland.
It’s not sightseeing that would take him to these far-flung spots tucked away across America. It’s part of his life as a professional baseball player trying to work his way up through the minor leagues in the Cleveland Indians organization.
But for now, Ocker’s professional baseball career is on hold. In mid-March, he and all the other players in the Indians organization were sent home from spring training in Arizona to await further instruction. And while many rumors have circulated about when the Major League Baseball games might restart, he is still waiting to hear definitive plans — including whether there will be a minor-league season at all.
His goal was to start the season in mid-April for the Indians Class A team, based in Lake County, Ohio, northeast of Cleveland. The Captains were scheduled to play against the Kane County Cougars in Geneva today.
If Ocker had really excelled in the last few weeks of spring training, he might have made it to the Indians’ Advanced Class A team, which is based in Lynchburg, Virginia. The Hillcats were to play just a short drive from Middletown today, against the Keys in Frederick, Maryland.
Instead, he’s at home, doing his best to stay in shape physically and mentally, keeping to a throwing routine so his arm ready for a return.
He talks to someone from the Indians organization several times a week. They check in to make sure he is feeling good and that he hasn’t been around anyone who has been exposed to the coronavirus, and to make sure his family is feeling well and if he needs anything.
He throws five days a week, trying to keep his arm in shape. Sometimes it’s with his dad or his girlfriend’s dad. When he wants to pitch off the mound, he asks a catcher from the Blue Raider baseball team.
As for working out, “they encourage us to be creative, use whatever you can around the house, and just try to get the most out of the workouts that they send us,” he said.
He might grab a bucket of paint to lift and do squats with, or grab free weights he has laying around the house.
It’s the first time he’s been back in the spring since he graduated from Middletown Area High School in 2015.
“It's weird,” he said. “I've been trying to make the best of it, get my work in. I hate sitting around the house, so a lot of the time I just take my boat out on the river and fish all day long. I'm trying to figure out stuff to do away from people, so going out on the river is my therapy. Taking bike rides up in the mountains and stuff like that, it helps me get away and just relax a little bit,” he said.
Quick trip home
It was in January when Ocker said players at the Indians’ spring training facility in Goodyear, Arizona, just west of Phoenix, started hearing about the coronavirus. He said a student at Arizona State had it.
“We had a couple of meetings, just going over how to wash your hands and no more fist-bumps or high-fives after a big hit and things like that,” he said.
By mid-March, however, things had changed.
He was scheduled to pitch Friday, March 13. On March 12, everything was shut down.
“We weren't sure if we were going to be quarantined out there or if they were going to send everyone home,” he said.
When final decisions were made about sending players home, it was “very, very short notice,” he said.
“We were basically waiting for an answer from the commissioner about what they wanted us to do with the spring training facilities. We had an off day, and I was actually on a hike up in the mountains in Arizona. I got a text message that said, ‘Hey, can you make the bus to the airport for your flight tonight at 6:30?’ It was like 5 o'clock. I was like, yeah, I can make it. So we started sprinting down the mountain.”
Major League Baseball didn't really have a choice at that point, he said, since all the players from every level of the Indians organization were at spring training.
“If they keep everyone there and one person gets sick, that's the risk of everyone in the organization getting sick,” he said. “If you send everyone home, you keep in contact with everyone, you can isolate that one or two people out if someone would get it.”
Ocker was already used to the routine of being in Arizona. He went out before Halloween, and except for a short break, was there until the season was put on hold. He attended camps to prepare for his first spring training as a professional player, working on his arm path for pitching, his lower body mechanics and training velocity.
His typical day started with breakfast, then a full camp meeting with all Indians minor-leaguers. There might be video work, or time in the weight room, “just warming up your body, doing different stretches and mobility exercises, getting on the elliptical or treadmill.”
At about noon, it was time to start his throwing program and defensive work, fielding practice, and team fundamentals, whether that be bunt defense, pop-fly communication or many other activities.
“At that point it's been five months since some of these guys went over bunt defenses that the organization has, so we’re basically knocking the rust off of all that,” he said.
After the practice outside is done, he would start post-throwing activities in in the training room or weight room.
“It's pretty much left up to you. If you have a lift that day, you get your lift in. Eat lunch, and you're out for the day. So it's quick, you're out before dinnertime, but your whole day is filled with something you can be doing. There's not much off-time unless you make off-time for yourself. A lot of them in their off-time they are in the training room, getting stretched, in the video room watching film, or in the weight room just trying to get that one step ahead,” he said.
He would see Cleveland Indians players around the complex, although their training schedules didn’t always mesh because they get their work in a little bit earlier.
“I go to chapel there. We have a chaplain come in, and there are some big-league guys in there. So we interacted in that sense, being in the same setting. One thing that is cool about baseball is that everyone starts at the same spot, pretty much. They understand where you are, especially with the Indians. They're all pretty cool ... in the weight room, giving you a head-nod, saying what's up. It's not like they're just going to blow you off,” he said.
Pitching different in pros
The 2015 Middletown Area High School graduate had a standout pitching career at the College of Charleston before being taken with the 880th selection in the 29th round of the Major League Baseball draft June 5, 2019. He is the son of Jodi and Keith Ocker.
Ocker, who is 6 feet tall and weighs 190 pounds, ended his career at the South Carolina college ranked second all-time in saves (26), WHIP (0.97) and appearances (92). He ranks third all-time in strikeouts per nine innings (10.24), sixth in strikeouts (215) and seventh in earned run average (3.00), and is second in Colonial Athletic Association history in saves. He had a 15-10 career record and has held opposing batters to a .213 batting average in 189 innings pitched.
Ocker was a 2019 All-CAA Second Team selection as a senior, with 12 saves, a 2.45 ERA and 54 strikeouts in 47.2 innings. He ranked 22nd in the nation in saves.
Despite the solid college background, playing professionally is different.
“There are guys that are 18 years old and throw 100 miles an hour. Then there are guys who don't throw that hard and throw low 90s and can just get guys out,” he said. “So every single person has their craft and why they're there. But there are guys, you look around, and you're like, ‘That guy is legit.’”
“I think it's just keeping your head straight and knowing you're there for a reason. Every single person got there for a reason. It's just knowing that each person has something that stands out in someone's eyes. If you work on that, you have the opportunity to make something in that organization. It's pretty cool seeing everyone in the levels up from you, been drafted two or three years ago, and pick their brain about their delivery, their pitches, their grips, just how professional baseball is in general, how they balance life and baseball,” he said.
Despite his college success, Indians’ coaches have helped him make changes to his pitching delivery. His arm path is different than it was in college.
“It's a lot shorter and compact and more powerful. Even my lower body is changing, where my back knee sits when I'm striding down the mound, rotating off the rubber instead of pushing. It's constantly evolving, daily,” he said.
“The main thing is health. My arm feels 100 percent healthier with the new arm path that the coaching staff and I worked on. Velocity, too. I feel more powerful. The ball is coming out of my hand better,” he said.
But pitching professionally is a much bigger mental adjustment than physical, he said.
“One thing that is different about pro ball is that you are basically pitching your own game. In college, the pitching coach calls what you're going to be pitching. In pro ball, you have to learn how to read hitters' swings, when to throw this in what count. It brings a whole new mental game to pitching,” he said. “Pitching is already mental, keeping your head on straight. You can't psyche yourself up too much. You can't talk yourself down. [But] I learned a lot, just like how to look at a hitter and know what to throw, or how to read their swing and know what pitch they can't hit, what pitch they can hit, and where not to throw.”
After being drafted, he spent last summer with the Arizona League Indians Blue Team, for rookie players mostly coming out of college. He led the team with 5 saves, and they made it to the Arizona League finals before falling to a team of Texas Rangers minor-leaguers.
Ocker had an 0-1 record with a stellar ERA of 1.50 in 14 games and 18 innings pitched.
One website called him “a nice reliever out of College of Charleston” who had “a good chance of skipping short season” and advancing to Class A this season.
He says baseball is a job, but he realizes it’s supposed to be fun.
“Since I was 5 or 6. I've had fun with it, and that's really what got me there. If I'm not having fun with something that I'm doing, I'm not going to go and work out during my down time. If I didn't have fun with it and didn't want to be good, I would have just hung out with my friends and not take it as seriously as I do,” he said. “It's like everyone else says in life. If you have fun at your job and you enjoy what you do, you're not going to work a day in your life. I'm just fortunate enough that I get to play a childhood game that everyone grew up watching at some point.”
What does future hold?
While Lake County, Ohio isn’t exactly next door (it’s about a five-hour drive), it still would be the closest he has regularly played to home in awhile. Charleston is a 10-hour drive, and last year’s summer was spent in Arizona.
“Being close to home, that's definitely going to be nice, hopefully have friends and family make road trips out to see some games. It should be fun,” he said.
If he were to excel in Class A and move up to Class AA with the Indians, that would put him on the Akron Rubber Ducks in Ohio. They play in the Eastern League with the Harrisburg Senators, meaning a return home would be likely.
“That would be awesome. I remember participating in the Pitch Hit & Run (competition for youths) on City Island and playing in the Big 26 game there, so it would be a very cool story as a kid who grew up 5 miles away to come back home and play a series there, especially with all the support I have back home here,” he said.
He knows playing in the Major Leagues is a longshot. But it won’t be for a lack of effort, he said.
“Obviously the odds of playing college baseball are small. Then making it professionally are extremely small. Then making it to the show (the Major Leagues) is even smaller. So I don’t even like to think of myself as a statistic in those terms. I determine my future, and how I do that is stay on top of my work in the weight room, training room and the ball field. At the end of the day, if I don’t make it, I know I gave it my all. If I do make it, I know I made it because of the work I put in on and off the field,” he said.