Ochoa gives Astros power, average, speed combo

July 11th, 2023

HOUSTON -- James Turrubiartes will never forget the first time he laid eyes on Nehomar Ochoa Jr. The Galena Park High School baseball coach was in his press box watching a summer league game when a 13-year-old standing 6-foot-2 and his hulking father walked through the door.

“They asked if I was the head baseball coach at Galena Park,” Turrubiartes said. “I said, ‘Yes sir,’ and he said, ‘OK, well, I'll be coming to school next year, and I want to find out about the baseball program.’ Needless to say, you know how I felt watching him walk through the door.”

Turrubiartes put Ochoa through a workout on the field to decide which team to place him on -- freshman, junior varsity or varsity. It didn’t take long to decide he’d be on varsity, where he played outfield and pitched for four years. As a senior, he batted .602 with a .685 on-base percentage, 11 home runs, 27 steals and 50 RBIs. On Tuesday, his hometown Astros picked him in the 11th round of the MLB Draft.

“Ever since they won the 2017 World Series, we just became huge fans of the Astros, and plus, we’re here in the hometown,” said Ochoa, who’s now 6-foot-4. “We fell in love with the team and [Jose] Altuve, who’s a big part of the Venezuelan community.”

The Astros started scouting Ochoa Jr. last summer, when he played in a few showcase events, including a Texas Scouts Association game at Constellation Field in Sugar Land, home of Houston’s Triple-A affiliate, where he pitched and hit.

“We were impressed with the physical abilities,” Astros scouting director Kris Gross said. “He’s up to 95 [mph] on the bump, but we drafted him as a hitter. He runs, he’s got a big arm in the outfield, he came to our workout [at Minute Maid Park] and showed huge power and dominated the spring. The total package jumps off the page, and we’re excited to keep another local boy here in Houston.”

Ochoa, 17, was born in Venezuela and came to the U.S. when he was 10 years old. His father, Nehomar Ochoa, was a pitcher who played parts of three seasons (2003-05) in the Expos/Nationals system. His career was cut short when he fell off a horse and injured his shoulder. He now works for a tire company.

“Hopefully with the bonus money that I will get from the Astros, I’ll give him money to start a [baseball] academy,” Ochoa Jr. said. “That would have been his dream.”

In the beginning, life in the United States wasn’t easy for Ochoa Jr. He said he was bullied in school when he was younger because he couldn’t speak English.

“But I’ve always been a person who doesn’t pay attention to any problems that come my way,” he said. “I try to fix them the best way I can. I basically learned English in one year. I started hanging around with American people. I was taking down notes. Every day I was learning three, four new words. I was basically forced into it because I was tired of people making fun of me for not learning English.”

Being an immigrant growing up in Galena Park, a blue-collar community that sits along the Houston Ship Channel, brought other challenges as well. Ochoa’s family didn’t have enough money to send him to elite summer tournaments, limiting his exposure to scouts.

“Ever since I heard the scouts telling me I needed to attend the big events in order to be seen, I’ve been playing with a chip on my shoulder,” he said.

Gabriel Rivera, who will be a senior on the Galena Park team next season, said Ochoa was a team leader and a role model. He was the player the guys rallied around.

“For his age and his size, I think he’s a pretty good addition to what [general manager] Dana Brown needs in the Minor Leagues for the Astros,” Rivera said. “I’d compare him to somebody like Jorge Soler. He hits for power. He hits for average, as well. He’s got speed, he’s agile, he’s got power. Whatever you need in a player, he’s got all the tools.”

Ochoa Jr. plans to sign with the Astros and forgo his commitment to the University of Houston. He said he'll leave Saturday for the team’s complex in West Palm Beach, Fla., where he’ll undergo a physical before hitting the field.

“That’s my main dream, just touching the big league field,” he said. “As a kid, I always wanted to play in the big leagues, no matter what it takes.”