FORT MYERS, Fla. — Each time Spenser Watkins finds both seams of the baseball this spring, aligns his fingers just off the edges of them and then fires toward the catcher, it’s a learning experience.
The Orioles right-handed pitcher began throwing that modified two-seam fastball in October, at the very end of last season. It became his offseason focus during his time training at Driveline Baseball in Kent, Washington, this offseason.
And it’s that two-seam fastball that — despite being used only a few times each outing — gives Watkins a new dimension to his arsenal, a new way to deceive hitters and, he hopes, force his way into Baltimore’s pitching staff come opening day.
The margins between a Triple-A starter and a major league starter are slim, as Watkins has learned. At 30, he has made 30 starts for Baltimore, with many of them coming as an injury replacement to a more established rotation option. But Watkins envisions a place with the Orioles — so much so he’ll learn how to use a new pitch to distinguish himself as more than a replacement.
“Coming in, I don’t think there was any sort of sense of: ‘I hope what happens, happens,’” Watkins said. “I want to make this team as much as possible.”
But before the two-seamer becomes a standard part of his arsenal, there are the trials and errors. One such error came Tuesday, although it was low-cost. Despite running the two-seamer in on the hands of Minnesota Twins outfielder Michael A. Taylor, a right-handed hitter, Watkins left it belt-high, giving Taylor just enough of a chance to fist the ball into the outfield for a single.
If Watkins had placed it lower, catcher Anthony Bemboom said, he likely forces a ground ball.
“If I can stay under barrels, that’s kind of my goal there,” Watkins said. “Kind of learning as we go with how new it is, where to throw it, where I can’t throw it.”
The early verdict, however, is positive. Watkins noted how his main pitches feature mainly vertical movement, from his curveball to a four-seam fastball that has “hop,” a term for a pitch that stays on the same plane out of the hand, giving the perception that it rises. His other pitches have horizontal run away from a right-handed hitter, such as his cutter and slider.
His two-seamer, though, is unique. And it’s that uniqueness that Watkins hopes brings out another level for him.
“I started getting an idea that this was something I could maximize my abilities, my arsenal, with,” Watkins said — and his catchers have noticed the change, too.
“It just adds another dimension and another plane to what he already has,” Bemboom said. “He has a lot of weapons right now, but just being able to add that extra plane, especially against a right-hander, it might help him, get them a little uncomfortable so he can go back to his other weapons outside.”
Watkins threw a two-seamer when he was a member of the Detroit Tigers organization, but the grip he used then made the offering more of a sinker. (Sinkers and two-seamers can be similar, and in some cases, interchangeable descriptions for the same pitch. But some versions of the pitch do as the name suggests, while others have more horizontal movement.)
His previous sinker was passable, but he had “no idea what I was doing with it back then.”
The Orioles had an idea of what it could become, though.
With Orioles pitching coach Chris Holt, Watkins found a new grip for his two-seamer, a way to add arm-side run to jam a right-handed hitter. He experimented with it at the end of last season, throwing it all of 27 times across his 105 1/3 innings for Baltimore.
Watkins threw seven of them on Tuesday out of his 50 pitches, part of his increased trust in a pitch that he feels will complicate a hitter’s decision making.
“Even just getting a small usage, maybe a 5 or 6% usage, is going to put it in their mind that he has it, he will throw it, he will show it to me at some point throughout an at-bat,” Watkins said. “That just makes that split-second decision they have to make a little bit harder. And that little bit harder is the difference between a swing and a miss, a flyout or a home run.”
When Watkins took the mound Tuesday, he pitched after right-hander Grayson Rodriguez. One is the Orioles’ top pitching prospect who hurls fastballs that approach triple digits, and the other is a former 30th-round pick in the 2014 draft who did not make his MLB debut until 2021, at the age of 28.
But amid a competition for a rotation place, Watkins has pitched as well — if not better — than Rodriguez and many of Baltimore’s other options. In his two appearances, Watkins has allowed just one run in five innings without a walk; each of the other 11 rotation options have allowed at least one run or more, as well.
And at 30, he carries the determination of making his time in the major leagues last season more permanent.
“What Spenser did for us last season, it needs to be recognized, because he did a great job of filling a rotation spot for us and really keeping us in almost every game he started,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “That was a huge step for him last year. He’s put himself in the same position this year, he’s battling for a rotation spot, and a lot of things can happen.”
Whatever does happen once camp breaks at the end of this month, Watkins will have that newfound two-seam fastball. With it, he hopes, will be a reinvigorated deception that warrants a place in Baltimore.