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Spenser Watkins improved significantly in 2022, but not quite enough

The second-year right-hander worked hard to refine his pitch mix and his mental skills, becoming a competent if unspectacular big league hurler.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Baltimore Orioles Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

As far as baseball success stories go, Spenser Watkins already had a heck of a tale to spin in 2021. This year, he one-upped himself.

Watkins was on his way out of professional baseball a year ago, ready to accept a full-time job as a high school coach after languishing for seven seasons in the Detroit Tigers’ organization. But at the last minute — literally after Watkins had already begun practices with his JV team — the Orioles came calling, giving him one more shot. Remarkably, in 2021, Watkins finally achieved his dream of becoming a big leaguer.

It was a heartwarming story. What happened on the field once Watkins got there, though, was less so. He made 10 starts (along with six relief appearances) and was torched for an 8.07 ERA, giving up 14 homers in his 54.2 innings and posting a 1.701 WHIP. Despite the long journey to get there, Watkins seemed destined to land in the dustbin of baseball history, joining a decades-long parade of not-good-enough O’s hurlers who failed in a brief major league opportunity and were never heard from again.

Still, the Birds saw some untapped potential in Watkins, despite his ugly 2021 stats, and re-signed him to a minor league deal last November. “[Mike Elias] gave me a good, kind of, ‘Hey, we like what we saw, we’re going to stay in touch the next couple days, looking to bring you back,’” Watkins told MASN’s Roch Kubatko.

What the Orioles liked, perhaps, was the version of Watkins who allowed just one earned run in each of his first three big league starts before posting a 10.80 ERA the rest of the way. Watkins did his part to earn his second chance, working out with Driveline Baseball over the winter to hone a new pitch — a slider — that he hoped would transform his arsenal.

It didn’t take long for the Orioles to require Watkins’ services again, purchasing his contract just four days into the 2022 season when expected fifth starter Dean Kremer went on the injured list. Watkins, who hadn’t had even one minor league appearance to work on his new slider, was immediately thrust into the big league rotation. Expectations weren’t high, and indeed, his first eight starts — a 6.00 ERA and .910 OPS against — very much resembled his forgettable 2021 campaign. Adding injury to insult, he took a Ji-Man Choi line drive off his arm in the last of those outings, sending him to the IL. Watkins’ second chance had taken a sour turn.

The time away from the field, as it turned out, might have been the best thing to happen to Watkins, who described it as a “blessing in disguise.” During his IL stint, Watkins met with the Orioles’ mental skills coach, Jess Mohler, to help him learn how to clear his mind and stop putting undue pressure on himself while pitching. Instead of trying to make the perfect pitch, Watkins learned how to, in his words, “let my stuff work, simplify it, and throw the [crap] out of it.”

Armed with his newfound confidence and his improving slider, Watkins pitched like a man possessed when he rejoined the Orioles in late June. In his first start back, he held the White Sox to just an unearned run in five innings. In his next outing, he gave up one run in six frames. The one after that, he worked a career-high 6.2 innings and again gave up just one run. Watkins became a mainstay in an O’s rotation that at various times lost Kremer, Tyler Wells, and John Means to injuries. As late as Aug. 24, Watkins carried a sub-4 season ERA (3.96).

His offseason Driveline work clearly had paid dividends. Watkins’ newly learned pitch was also his most effective; batters hit just .185 with a .346 SLG against the slider, which he threw roughly 18 percent of the time. His fastball velocity also ticked up, averaging 91.4 this season as opposed to 90.8 the year before. This wasn’t your older brother’s Spenser Watkins.

Baseball, though, is tough sledding for a pitcher with a less-than-stellar overall arsenal. Ultimately, regression hit Watkins again, though not nearly as quickly or severely as in 2021. He was tagged for nine runs and 15 hits in back-to-back outings against the Guardians and Athletics, at which point the Orioles optioned him back to Triple-A Norfolk to make roster room for the returning Wells. Watkins returned late in September but made just three more appearances, giving up four runs apiece in two of them, to close out the season.

Digging into the season stats, it’s fair to wonder whether Watkins will ever be anything more than a fringy fifth starter/long relief type. His ERA+ of 85 was well below league-average, and his Baseball Savant page lists a whole lot of blue (that is, poor metrics). Watkins rated in the bottom 2 percent of all MLB pitchers in strikeout rate (averaging just 5.4 K/9), and the .285 xBA and .485 xSLG against him ranked in the worst 3 percent and 10 percent, respectively. Essentially, he doesn’t strike out nearly enough guys — and gives up too much quality contact — to have much long-term success. At age 30, that likely won’t change.

Still, give Spenser Watkins plenty of credit. Through hard work and dedication, he transformed himself from a pitcher who didn’t belong anywhere near an MLB mound in 2021 into a workmanlike, competitive Orioles hurler in 2022. He served a useful role on this memorable O’s team, which the front office may not soon forget. Even if Watkins doesn’t keep his place on the 40-man roster this winter, his time in the organization may not be over just yet.

Previous 2022 Orioles player reviews: Bruce Zimmermann, Robinson Chirinos, Joey Krehbiel, Tyler Nevin, Nick Vespi/Logan Gillaspie

Tomorrow: Rougned Odor