Extra Innings: Seattle relief pitcher Riley O'Brien is pitching on "free time"
A baseball journey has many twists and turns, but few have as many as Seattle reliever Riley O'Brien. He is looking to break into the Mariners bullpen in a big way this season.
Those who follow the game closely know the journey of a prospect is rarely linear, and Riley O’Brien’s path has been anything but straight.
The goal of many young baseball players is to play Division I baseball, and ultimately get drafted and make it to the Major Leagues.
O’Brien describes the high school version of himself as “good, but not good enough for Division I.” He doesn’t describe the college version of Riley O’Brien with anywhere near the same sort of fondness, “I really struggled, especially my sophomore year.”
An attendee of Shorewood High School in Shoreline, Washington, O’Brien opted to stay close to home by enrolling at Everett Community College.
In two years of playing in the NWAC conference, O’Brien struggled mightily with control and confidence, in part due to mechanical changes he was attempting to make. He had every tool you would want in a young pitcher but became completely lost on the roster by his sophomore season.
Going weeks at a time without throwing can be a frustrating process, especially being relegated to only pitch in mid-week games. With conference games on the weekend, midweek games are typically used as a developmental time for players who do not receive regular playing time.
“I was in my head a lot. I wasn’t pitching, I was thinking about my mechanics and just not throwing any strikes,” O’Brien said.
Struggles like this can produce a very lonely feeling for a young college player. His experience in Everett was anything but a success. This caused the Shoreline native to re-think whether or not continuing to play was an option for him.
“I really thought baseball had run its course.”
Following his first two years, O’Brien really thought his baseball career was over. It would have been too if it weren’t for an opportunity provided to him by his coaches at Everett. They contacted Shawn Humberger, the head coach at the College of Idaho in Caldwell, Idaho. The small NAIA school was willing to take a chance on a talented kid who hadn’t yet put things together.
By this point in his life, O’Brien had done so much work on the mechanics of his delivery that he had lost what made him a good player in the first place. What he needed was a full reset, to just go back to square one and let his body work more naturally.
Upon arrival at the College of Idaho, O’Brien had a talk with the coaching staff and let them know what he needed to be successful.
“I told them I need to do what I need to do to throw a strike. I can’t worry about where my foot is or where my glove is” O’Brien says. “I need to look at the zone and throw a strike.”
The process of finding himself didn’t happen right away though according to teammates. “He wasn’t a dude right when he showed up, but his senior year he really dialed it in. He was always a great teammate and got along with everybody,” college teammate Jake Eddy said.
It turns out simplicity was the best thing for the six foot four inch right-hander, who rediscovered his mechanics over 36 appearances with the ‘Yotes. He posted a career ERA of 2.70 with 141 strikeouts, dominating NAIA hitters with his fastball and curveball.
Following his senior season he was selected in the 8th round of the 2017 MLB Draft by the Tampa Bay Rays. Not many NAIA players are selected every year, but O’Brien would be one of the few who would try to make the leap.