What's in a name? Hobie has Nats' attention

Righty reliever impresses Martinez by having plan, flooding zone with strikes

March 12th, 2023

JUPITER, Fla. -- Robert Harris was born on June 23, 1993. Before long, his first name was replaced with the nickname he has gone by for as long as he can remember. While  is synonymous with him as a baseball player, the moniker stems from another sport. 

“The name ‘Hobie’ comes from a sailboat,” Harris said. 

The Hobie Cat Company manufactures sailboats, kayaks, stand-up pedalboards, surfboards and more. Harris’ family had a boat when he was a child in Texas, and they sailed when Harris was younger until baseball eventually took up their time. 

“My dad and my grandfather grew up sailing,” Harris said. “My real name’s actually Robert, so I am named after my dad. … Being the first born, my dad was torn between the name Hobie and then giving me his namesake. … I’ve really never gone by Robert. I’ve gone by Hobie my entire life.”

This season, the 29-year-old righty reliever is hoping his name is known as a Major Leaguer. 

In pursuit of his big league debut, Harris signed a Minor League deal with the Nationals following a solid 2022 season with Milwaukee’s Triple-A affiliate -- during which he went 4-3 with a 2.04 ERA and eight saves across 53 innings in as many games. He was a 31st-round pick by the Yankees in the 2015 MLB Draft, and he also has played in the Blue Jays’ system.

“Camp’s great, I’ve taken a liking to this organization really quickly,” Harris said. “This being my fourth organization, I’ve learned the things that I like and don’t like. So far, it’s been a really good fit. … I knew I wanted to go somewhere where there was going to be a lot of opportunity, somewhere where the core guys may be a little younger so I could maybe establish myself a little quicker. With those two points in mind, I feel like we made the right decision here.”

On a team that covets bullpen depth and reliability, Harris has made a positive impression in camp. He has thrown four scoreless relief appearances, including tossing only 17 pitches (13 strikes) to cover 1 2/3 innings in the Nats’ 5-1 loss to the Cardinals on Sunday afternoon at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium.

Harris had not allowed a hit all spring until Nathan Church’s single in the fifth inning. 

“He has a game plan every day,” said manager Dave Martinez, who lauded Harris’ splitter. “I love the fact that he comes in there and pounds the strike zone. When you’re in the bullpen, I always tell them all the time, ‘Walks are not your friends. Those walks kind of beat you up.’ 

“But he goes after hitters, he knows who he is, and he came in ready and wanting to compete for a job. We’ve talked a lot about him so far, but we like what we’ve seen so far.”

Harris arrived at Spring Training with a renewed outlook from lessons learned last season. He had found that he was putting pressure on himself and thinking about potential roster decisions in Triple-A. While that didn’t impact his performance, he found that “mentally and emotionally, it was a little difficult to handle.” He shifted his focus to take the game one day at a time. 

“There was a stretch of a couple weeks there, where it got a little more difficult to go to the field because I was trying to think, ‘What else do I need to do?’” Harris said. “But being able to put it back into perspective, and with the help of my wife, she kind of got me back on track and said, ‘Control what you can control, don’t worry about what’s going on around you, just take care of your stuff,’ and we ended the season on a good note.”

The six-week calendar of Spring Training gives the Nationals an opportunity to see how players handle the game, and potentially how they would do so on the Major League level. Harris’ approach has been recognized. 

“Those are the things that I look for – does he fit in, will he fit with our bullpen, will he help our younger guys in the bullpen because that’s where we’re at right now,” Martinez said. “So far he’s been pretty good about that, and he’s also been performing really well.”

Harris will continue to try to make his name known in the remaining weeks of Spring Training. And for the record, it is pronounced "Ho-bie."

“[It is mispronounced] all the time,” Harris said with a laugh. “The biggest miss that I get is ‘Hobby.’ … I honestly get that about 90 percent of the time.”