How former UH pitcher Fred Villarreal has adapted to 2020
In a time of uncertainty, former Houston baseball pitcher Fred Villarreal’s path to professional baseball has gone through the wringer the last few months.
After spending three years at UH, Villareal has been through a roller coaster of a journey, and like many, it has largely been due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Back in March, before the coronavirus began sweeping across the nation and forcing cancellations left and right, the Brownsville native was set to pitch in his first MLB spring training game against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Instead, he quickly found himself returning home in a matter of days.
“It all happened so fast and then boom,” Villarreal told The Cougar in a Zoom interview. “They flew me back to Brownsville the day after.”
For the 5-foot-11-inch right-hander, the cancellations were only the beginning of how COVID-19 impacted him.
Villarreal’s family soon contracted the virus and he was forced to be away from his loved ones for an extended period of time.
“I spent two months at South Padre Island with a close friend because I couldn’t be around my family, and that was pretty rough,” Villarreal said.
Fortunately, Villarreal’s family was able to overcome the virus.
For Villarreal, overcoming the obstacles brought upon by the coronavirus was one of many that he has had to get past since he joined the Cougars in 2016.
When he first stepped foot on campus, Villarreal was a bit immature, he said.
“I had a lot of growing up to do (when first arriving at UH), and I’m glad I went through that type of obstacle,” Villarreal said. “You have to perform well at everything, and I was not used to that. … You have to change yourself to be a successful athlete in college.”
One thing that Villarreal never had problems with was his passion for the sport of baseball, Mark Ottolino, one of Villarreal’s former catchers, said.
“I played competitively with him and against him. … He was the type of guy who would leave baseball practice and play more baseball,” Ottolino said. “He was dedicated to the game and to perfecting his craft.”
“The grind did not stop and there wasn’t a day where there wasn’t a baseball on his hand,” Ottolino added.
Villarreal had 14 appearances his incoming freshman year with the Cougars. He made three starts. Villareal described that year as “huge” for him even though he was the last freshman to pitch.
“My first college semester was horrible, I couldn’t put the ball wherever I wanted it, but as soon as they gave me a shot as a freshman, that’s when I flipped the switch,” Villarreal said. “(Former assistant coach)Frank Anderson trusted me, and I ended up pitching the most as a freshman.”
The hardship, however, continued in Villarreal’s sophomore year when he suffered a rare injury of his serratus anterior muscle near his ribs.
The healing process caused him to be sidelined for half the season.
“I had the velocity, I had the speed … the movement, but I couldn’t put it for a strike,” Villarreal said. “But I’m glad I had that year. … It was a little obstacle that I had to go through in order to bring it to draft year.”
Once his junior season rolled around, Villarreal recorded a 2.29 ERA and 44 strikeouts across 59 innings pitched and was named to the American Athletic Conference Second Team.
The highlight game that year for Villarreal was closing out the game at home against No. 7 Texas A&M.
“I got that last strikeout, and I just remember I’m yelling because I’m tired of seeing A&M stuff at Academy,” Villareal said. “Where’s the UH stuff at?”
That same year in 2019, Villareal was drafted No. 756 overall by the Seattle Mariners.
A feeling that he will never forget and an accomplishment he attributes to his former UH coaching staff, primarily coaches Todd Whitting and Terry Rooney.
“Those guys always trusted me and always saw something in me,” Villareal said. “I’m just happy I had a chance to perform at UH in order to get where I was supposed to get … (UH) meant everything to me.”
Once leaving the Cougars, it did not take long for Villarreal to make an impact within the Seattle Mariners organization. He quickly made appearances for Seattle’s minor league affiliates, the Everett AquaSox and AZL Mariners, just months removed from his season at UH, which took its toll.
“When I hopped on that mound, I felt great,” Villarreal said. “(But) it caused a lot of wear and tear on my arm. I’m happy to be healthy.”
Taking advantage of the shutdowns
During this COVID-19 pandemic, Villarreal has had a lot of free time to better himself as a baseball player.
His main focus during the downtime has been to gain weight and strength, Villarreal said. He knows in the MLB, complacency is a killer.
“The most important thing is to keep at it, improve your game … and launch baseballs,” Villarreal said.
In his journey to continue a baseball dream, Villarreal fuels it with motivations both for himself and those that are growing up in a similar situation as he was, particularly those in Brownsville.
Outside of reaching the majors, Villarreal hopes that he can one day give back to the Brownsville community that he was raised in.
Looking back at his time in Brownsville playing for Veterans Memorial High School, Villarreal has reflected on where he was then and where he is now in the baseball world.
“It’s a lot of learning about yourself during these past few years,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking clearly as a kid, and I’m just happy to see that growth and that mindset of trying to prove people wrong.”