Released by the Tigers, Spenser Watkins Learned How to Pitch as an Oriole

Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

It looked like Spenser Watkins‘s career might be over when he was released by the Detroit Tigers in July 2020. Six years had passed since he was drafted in the 30th round out of Western Oregon University, and at no point over that span was he viewed as more than a fringe prospect. Possessing neither plus velocity nor a difference-making secondary, the right-hander was coming off a minor league season where he’d logged a 6.07 ERA. That the only offers Watkins was receiving were for non-playing roles wasn’t exactly a surprise.

Then the Orioles came calling. That opportunity, fueled by an education in pitching that he never received with the Tigers, ultimately catapulted him to the big leagues. On July 2, 2021 — nearly a year to the day after Detroit gave up on him — Watkins walked onto a mound in a Baltimore Orioles uniform. A year and half later, the Scottsdale native has 39 major league appearances comprising 160 innings under his belt by him. Moreover, unlike in his Tigers days, he knows how his arsenal plays.

Watkins discussed his education-driven evolution as a pitcher late in the 2022 season.

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David Laurila: Two years ago, you were a career minor leaguer who’d been let go by the Tigers. How did you go from there to where you are now?

Spenser Watkins: “I was released during the COVID season, so I wasn’t playing; I didn’t go to the alt site, or anything like that. Basically, it was ‘OK, let’s see what the free agent market has to bring.’ Come December, that became, ‘OK, I’ve got to figure out what the next step is; I’ve got to figure out a way to provide for my family.’

“Some options for coaching were made available to me, but luckily the Orioles called in late December or early January. From there, I pretty much came into the organization with the idea that I would keep trying to get better. I hadn’t pitched for a year at the time, but I had worked on stuff throughout COVID.

“When I got here, what was really great about the staff — and I had phone calls before I even showed up — was that they were really interested in maximizing who I was a pitcher. That’s something I had no concept of, because with the Tigers it was very old-school. They didn’t have the analytics part of it yet, so I didn’t really understand what would make me good.”

Laurila: The Tigers hadn’t revamped their pitching program yet…

Watkins: “Exactly. The Tigers started implementing all the analytics stuff after that, so I’d never really been able to get that sort of information. When I got here, the Orioles told me I had a good spin rate, and that I spun the ball really efficiently, so I needed to throw more four-seams at the top of the zone. That, along with developing other pitches. I was already bringing the cutter with me; that’s something I’d been working on before they signed me.

“Again, the staff here really maximized who I am as a pitcher. I’m not a guy who throws 95 to 100 [mph] — I have to hit corners and keep guys off balance with speed changes — so along with throwing my four-seam up in the zone, we upped my off-speed usage.”

Laurila: Fastballs up in the zone weren’t something the Tigers wanted from you…

Watkins: “Correct. Detroit made me a sinker/slider guy. But I spin the ball right on the 12 o’clock axis, so I get good carry, good ride — ‘hop’ is what they call it. The Tigers said, ‘Oh, no. You’re a high three-quarters slot guy; let’s throw a sinker so that you have more depth,’ when in reality, that was just making my good four-seam less good. So yeah, with the Tigers it was completely different. Once I got here, they said ‘Four-seams, only at the top.’”

Laurila: What were you throwing when you got to pro ball?

Watkins: “I was throwing both, actually. I mean, that long ago, I had no clue what analytics were. I really had no concept of which was better, whether it was the two-seam or the four-seam. I just threw both and hopefully got out.”

Laurila: Looking back objectively, which of the two was better?

Watkins: “In my Tigers years, I’d say that my two-seam was better in the sense that throwing down in the zone gave me more success. As a guy who has that vertical climb, it’s hard for me to throw a fastball down in the zone consistently, because it’s going to start climbing up into the hitting zone.”

Laurila: Even with a two-seam?

Watkins: “Yes. Say you’ve got a guy who is n’t as efficient with his spin di lui — not as close to that 12 o’clock axis — his two-seams di lui are going to have more depth. My two-seam is going to have some depth, but at the same time, it’s still going to have a little bit of ride on it. It’s not going to be like a Dillon Tate heavy sinking fastball. Arm slot is part of that as well, or the approach angle.”

Laurila: What can you tell me about your approach angle?

Watkins: “Not a ton, but that was part of getting over here and understanding what made me good, and why I needed to throw the ball up at the top of the zone. They explained how your approach angle influences the perception of the hitter, and how where you’re throwing from makes it easier or harder for him to get on top of the ball.”

Laurila: That’s another thing you didn’t know before coming to Baltimore…

Watkins: “Yes, and I actually got a call from [Orioles pitching coach] Chris Holt right after I signed. He already knew my arsenal, what we were going to be working on, and what our plan of attack was going to be. That was pretty cool, to have a big league pitching coach give me a call and show that he’d already put in the work to learn about me. I haven’t even met the guy. He’s a huge piece of why we’ve been so successful, his proactiveness for all of us.”

Laurila: Usage aside, what have you done to improve your pitches?

Watkins: “The four-seam is the same other than location. We’ve added the slider — a sweeper — and have tweaked some things with the cutter. We’ve also tweaked the curveball; it was a normal grip when I came in, and now it’s a spike. We’re also continuing to work on the changeup, which has always been a work in progress.”

Laurila: What is the story behind the sweeper?

Watkins: “It’s kind of funny. We were in Baltimore, and it was right before my start in Oakland early in 2022. I was throwing a bullpen and Chris Holt came up and said, ‘For the last five, let’s throw a slider.’ I hadn’t thrown a slider since probably 2019. He said, ‘Let’s try this grip.’ I said, ‘OK.’ I threw a few that went straight to the backstop, but then I started to get a feel for the line of it out of my hand. Three days later, I was throwing it in a game against the A’s.

“It’s become a consistent piece in my arsenal. I’m kind of a reverse-splits guy — I have better numbers against lefties — and the slider gives me an opportunity to kind of equalize versus righties. When I’d thrown one before, I was trying to get something a little bit tighter, with sharp vertical downward action. This one, we’re looking for as much horizontal as we can get.”

Laurila: How much horizontal are you getting?

Watkins: “Early on, I would climb up to 18 or 20 [inches], but I found that my sweet spot was around 15-17. That and maybe about -4 or -5 vertical. That seems to be when the pitch plays the best for me. It’s kind of been my honey zone.”

Laurila: You mentioned not having thrown a slider since 2019. I’m guessing you stopped throwing one when you added a cutter?

Watkins: “Exactly. I had always battled with my curveball and my slider either morphing into one, or I could never have both at the same time. What I did after the 2019 season — this was going into the 2020 COVID year — was scrap the slider and work on a cutter. Basically, I shifted the grip to be way more different than my curveball. The feeling in my hand… my brain had never wanted to tell me whether it needed to be more end-over-end or more on the side, so the slider and curveball would start morphing into one. Flipping the grip to be more like my fastball is what allowed the cutter to play. Then, when we added the slider back in, it was a completely different grip from my curveball, so I haven’t had any issues there.”

Laurila: Any final thoughts?

Watkins: “Something that’s big, especially at this level, is how pitchers read swings, and how pitchers analyze what the hitter is trying to do. Stuff is stuff. Stuff is good, right? But these hitters are getting paid to hit that stuff, so the ability to keep guys off balance… it’s about using certain pitches, and using certain pitches in sequence, to throw guys off and open up certain parts of the plate. That’s been a big piece I’ve learned this year. We always try to learn as much as we can about the art of pitching, and this year I’ve really learned how my arsenal can be used — how certain pitches match with each other, especially how they tunnel out of my hand. That’s something I had no clue about before I got here to Baltimore.”

Laurila: Do you ever wonder what might have happened had the Tigers not released you? By all accounts, their pitching department is a good bit better now than it was when they let you go.

Watkins: “That’s a really good question. I still stay in contact with a lot of my old teammates from the Tigers, and they’ve said nothing but great things about the analytics side that they’ve brought to the club. I’d like to think that I’d be in a similar position as I am here, but in all reality, I’m so grateful for the coaching staff we have here. Holt, Darren Holmes… I’m a big believer in ‘everything happens for a reason,’ and I was brought here to work with those guys. We’ve meshed entirely. Not that I wouldn’t have messed with everybody over with the Tigers, but I think the guys we have here are second to none.”

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