Hard work pays off for undrafted Spitzbarth

August 6th, 2021

CINCINNATI -- pitched in relative obscurity during the summer of 2020, playing games in the independent Mid-Island Men’s League in his home borough of Staten Island, N.Y. It was an enjoyable time getting to reconnect competitively with friends from the area in a league made up of firemen, plumbers, college students -- you name it.

Still, one question lingered in his mind that summer: Why wasn’t he at the alternate training site? After a strong 2019 season with the Dodgers’ Double-A affiliate in Tulsa, he struggled in his second stint in the hitter-friendly Triple-A Pacific Coast League.

But shouldn’t a Triple-A arm be pitching with the team at the alternate site?

“I got two calls for the alternate site, like, 'Hey, there are rumors. Get ready,’” Spitzbarth said. “It didn't happen. I was pissed.”

It was a grind enough for Spitzbarth, now with the Pirates, to get to where he was in the Dodgers’ organization. He went undrafted in 2015, and the Dodgers took a chance on the right-hander out of Molloy College (N.Y.). As he approached a Major League opportunity, it felt like he was constantly being blocked out in an organization that has the resources to pick established, dominant pitchers.

Then, the Dodgers made the situation clear last offseason: Spitzbarth was left unprotected at the Triple-A level in the Rule 5 Draft. Even when the Pirates selected him, he didn’t know how much longer he wanted to keep pushing.

“Just going somewhere else and going to a team that wants me, and I told myself, 'I'll give it one more year, maybe one more year after that, and that's it.' I told myself, 'I'm going to make it the best effort possible.'”

Spitzbarth already had been brainstorming plans as for what to do beyond baseball. His dad and uncle are firemen, so public service was a favorite. In fact, last Saturday he was turned down in the Port Authority lottery for a position on their force as a backup plan.

But if what he did to begin the 2021 season is his best effort, it showed. Spitzbarth turned in a 1.41 ERA in his first 27 games with Triple-A Indianapolis, making what finally happened on Sunday seem inevitable.

In the seventh inning of the Indians’ game in St. Paul, Minn., manager Brian Esposito called to the bullpen. Spitzbarth figured this was a good spot for him to go into the game, but Esposito told him to grab his glove and head to the dugout.

“He has a smile on his face, and I just knew right there,” Spitzbarth recalled. “He gives me a big hug and says, 'You've got an 8 p.m. flight tomorrow to Milwaukee, so call your family.' I just started breaking down in the dugout.”

It was a moment Spitzbarth had dreamed of for a long time, and one that gave him butterflies, which was apparent to manager Derek Shelton early in his MLB debut on Sunday.

“After the first 4-5 pitches, he really calmed down and did a nice job,” Shelton said.

The first outing ended with 1 1/3 scoreless innings with one hit and a walk allowed. Then, he was thrust into a tight game on Wednesday, when he fired another scoreless inning with two hits afforded.

Spitzbarth’s first taste of the Majors only lasted for a short while, as the Pirates optioned him to Triple-A following Wednesday’s game to clear space for waiver claim Anthony Banda. Spitzbarth’s callup was on an injury basis, as Chad Kuhl was placed on the COVID-19 IL, so the rookie’s first tenure figured to be a stint and not a stay.

But it couldn’t defeat how special the accomplishment was for the undrafted reliever, who sits at a 0.00 ERA at the Major League level until further notice. It was a moment he attributed to the help of his friends, his teammates and “hard work.”

“I shouldn't be here,” Spitzbarth said. “This is impossible.”