This story was excerpted from Brian McTaggart’s Astros Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.
Ocampo, the Astros’ international crosschecker, and scouts Roman Ocumarez and Leocadio Guevara spearheaded the signing of Javier out of the Dominican Republic a week before his 18th birthday in 2015. Guevara was the area scout in La Victoria, where Javier lived, and had known him since he was a kid. Ocumarez scouted Javier as well, and he sent videos to Ocampo, who decided the Astros should sign him. The signing bonus? $10,000.
Talk about your bargains.
Javier’s deceptive fastball and sweeping slider enabled him to move up through the Astros’ system steadily through the years, and he was one of a handful of young pitchers to make his Major League debut in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. Javier was on everyone’s radar by this point after being named the team’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year in ‘19, and he has been a key member of the big league club since.
“He had attributes that really stood out,” Ocampo said of watching Javier as a youngster in the Dominican Republic. “Obviously, the fastball is what stood out as a swing-and-miss pitch, and it had riding action. He also had a really good curveball back then, as well. He was an elite mover. His delivery was really good, really good movement patterns and really good mechanics.”
In fact, early in Javier’s terrific outing against the Yankees on Saturday, Ocampo pulled his phone out and took some video of Javier’s delivery from the side. He was struck by how similar Javier’s mechanics — his arm actions and movements — compared to when he was a young amateur.
“I was kind of floored by the fact that what we were seeing in the big leagues in Yankee Stadium against the Yankees, it was very similar to the delivery that we saw when he originally signed,” Ocampo said. “That really stood out, along with the overall repertoire of just fastball, curveball that were swing-and-miss pitches.”
Javier’s fastball was only 84-86 mph when the Astros signed him, but it had increased to 88-89 mph in his later outings in the Dominican Academy. He was never considered a high prospect until the completion of the 2019 season. The Astros also loved Javier’s calm demeanor, which earned him the nickname “El Reptile.”
“The fact that nothing really rattles him or fazes him, he always maintains the same level of calm and control on the mound, that always stood out,” Ocampo said. “If you look at sort of all the attributes across the board — the physical, mechanics, the repertoire, the pitchability and the overall makeup and heart — he checked all the boxes for us. It’s incredible that we were able to sign him the way we did, because he‘s a guy that really checked all the boxes for us across the board.”
Ocampo, 38, began working for Major League Baseball in the Dominican Republic in 2004 and attended scout school at the same time. He worked for the Cardinals under Jeff Luhnow from ‘05-09, then worked for MLB for two years. He joined the Astros in ‘12, helping to oversee international scouting, player development, operations and analytics. He left Houston early in ‘20 but returned in March to an organization for which he has made a huge impact.
In addition to Javier, some of the players signed and developed under Ocampo are starting first baseman Yuli Gurriel and starting pitchers Framber Valdez and Luis Garcia. Like Javier, Valdez and Garcia were unheralded signings. Garcia signed for $20,000 in 2017 at age 20, Valdez for $10,000 in ‘15 at age 21.
“These guys, they inspire our international group, our development group and myself, the thing that they do at the highest levels,” Ocampo said. “To be able to have seen that from the very early stages to where they are now, and to see how much they’ve grown from being a kid in the Dominican Summer League to Major League players that are performing at the highest level and are tremendous human beings as well, it’s a source of pride that’s hard for me to even describe. It’s an amazing feeling.”
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