It’s been a good month for slow-throwing Orioles prospects making their MLB starter debuts. On Wednesday, Alexander Wells pitched a credible 5 2/3 innings against Tampa Bay to build on Spenser Watkins’ impressive July 6th debut in which the righty kept the Blue Jays, one of the AL’s best offenses, in check with five innings of one-run baseball.
Like Wells, Watkins’ turn in the rotation is almost entirely the result of a talent-starved starting rotation’s being plagued by injury and ineffectiveness. Watkins was called up from Triple-A the day Travis Lakins Sr. was put on the 10-day IL with a lat strain, then shoved into the rotation the day it was announced that Lakins’ injury would knock him out for the season. It was easy to assume that the dark horse Watkins, a starter-by-necessity, would be yet another in a disappointing series of young Orioles arms who’ve been hit hard in 2021.
That day and since, Watkins has not exactly defied expectations so much as smashed them to smithereens. In four appearances, he’s 2-0 with a 1.65 ERA. Opponents are batting .204 against him. His WHIP of 1.16 is somewhere between “Great” and “Above Average” according to Fangraphs, and he’s commanding his stuff impressively. Watkins has struck out 13 hitters in 16.1 innings with stuff that ranks in MLB’s bottom-five percent in velocity. This wasn’t the Arizona Diamondbacks he did this against, either: his three starts have come against Chicago, Toronto, and Tampa Bay: the AL’s second-, fourth- and fifth-best offenses in runs scored this year.
There are many questions to ask about Watkins, still a complete unknown to the Orioles fanbase, but here’s just two: How did he go totally unnoticed for six years in the minors when he shows the command he does? And can he have some success in the MLB?
One obvious answer to the first question is Watkins’ absolute lack of a baseball pedigree. To say the guy faced long odds to make it to the MLB is an enormous understatement. Watkins hails from a Division II school that has produced only three MLB alums. He was the 910th pick in the 2014 draft, falling to the Detroit Tigers in Round 30, a round that no longer exists. After five seasons toiling in Detroit’s farm system, Watkins was cut by the team in July 2020, at which point he famously (“famously,” that is, as far as player human-interest stories in the Orioles fanbase go) toyed with the idea of hanging up his cleats and becoming a high school coach. The Orioles plucked him off the waiver wire and signed him to a minor-league deal in February 2021. And he might not have gotten a call-up at all if this starting rotation weren’t the disaster it is.
The second reason for Watkins’ total obscurity is that his college and minor-league stats are pedestrian, to say the least. A career minor league ERA of 3.86 to go with a 7.61 SO/9 rate and 3.05 BB/9 rate doesn’t exactly scream “Future Ace.” Worse, Watkins struggled consistently at Double-A and above. Between 2014 and 2016, the righty worked his way up to Double-A Erie, where his numbers ballooned (6.75 ERA, 5.3% K rate) earning him a demotion to Low-A soon after. In 2019, his last season in Triple-A with Detroit’s Toledo Mud Hens, Watkins appeared in 16 games, going 5-6 with a 7.98 ERA.
However, one Easter egg in the righty’s otherwise underwhelming minors stats (and probably what got him a minor-league contract with the Orioles) was that from 2018-2019 his K rate ticked up consistently, to about 20%, while his walk rate stayed at 8% or lower. This coincides with the time Watkins developed a cutter, a pitch that’s now his second-preferred putaway pitch, and which MLB’s Joe Trezza says is “fueling his improbable run.”
Now, with Watkins all of three starts into his career in the majors, it’s too soon to start busting out the hardware, but what kind of upside can pitching-starved O’s fans hope for from the soft-throwing righty? Maybe more than on first glance, especially if the cutter keeps improving. On Tuesday, opposing manager Kevin Cash described the pitch as “a unique cutter that creates a little carry and just kept us off-balance.”
When it comes to a sustainable track record, Watkins has averaged a mid-3 ERA at the last two levels he’s pitched at, and that would be a great ceiling for him to shoot for, if it’s attainable. So far, it’s good to see the Western Oregon product continue to put up good strikeout numbers in his short time at the big-league level (though his walks have risen a little). Meanwhile, he’s also been working on a changeup to increase his effectiveness against righties. He threw just four against the Rays, but he drew a whiff rate of 67% on them, so I’d say there’s more where that came from.
I, for one, desperately hope Watkins’ success continues. With an average fastball velocity of 89.9 mph that puts him in Corey Kluber and Wade Miley territory, for Watkins to do well in the big leagues would be the ultimate triumph of command over stuff. Plus it would be a nice thing for such a hugely likable underdog type, whose misty-eyed interview after getting his call-up after seven years in the minors was one of the nicer stories Orioles fans have gotten in this tough season. The guy also happens to give some of the best player interviews I’ve ever heard. (Here is Watkins talking pitch selection, scouting reports, and developing a changeup with former O’s hurler and MASN announcer Ben McDonald after his strong start against Toronto. I loved nerding out on this conversation.)
For now, Watkins’ short run has been nothing but good news for Orioles player development, whose “incredible” ability to “maximize who I am as a pitcher and upgrade me, in a sense,” Watkins praised after Tuesday’s start. For O’s fans, so far, he’s been a sight for sore eyes and a pleasure to watch, which for the 2021 Orioles is high praise indeed. For now, the O’s are going to keep letting Watkins start instead of riding the Norfolk shuttle. He’s done everything he needed to to earn that right.