ASHEVILLE, N.C. (May 26, 2019) – Tourists’ right-handed reliever Derrik Watson was hardly a lock to stick in professional baseball beyond a cursory look after being selected in the 25th round of the 2017 MLB Draft by the Colorado Rockies. His college numbers were at best underwhelming.
As a senior at Murray State (Ky.) in 2017, he had a 9.89 ERA with a 1-3 record in 21 appearances out of the bullpen, but did strike out 38 of the 105 batters he faced in 23.2 innings of work. Watson arrived at Murray State after spending two seasons pitching for Southwestern Illinois, a junior college twenty miles east of his hometown of St. Louis.
After the draft, Watson spent the remainder of 2017 at Grand Junction (Colo.) and his numbers improved slightly against better opponents, going 1-1 with an 8.15 ERA in 14 relief appearances.
Colorado saw enough in his potential to promote him, and Watson spent a full season here in Asheville in 2018. He ratcheted his ERA down to 4.93 while pitching 34 innings, and again splitting two decisions.
This year, he is improved in nearly every important category. His 11 appearances put him ahead of last year’s pace and he’s lowered his ERA to 2.70. He’s struck out 19 batters in 13.1 innings (1.45 per inning) and it wasn’t until his eighth appearance this season that he yielded an earned run. Hitters are batting .191 against him in 2019, after last year hitting at a healthy .281 clip.
With the promotion of Nick Kennedy in early May, Watson is now behind only Riley Pint as the longest-tenured Tourists pitcher on the current roster. Fieldhouse spoke with Watson recently on pitching in Asheville, adding velocity to his fastball, and staying consistent while working in relief. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Fieldhouse: You’re coming from a hitter’s park in Grand Junction and you’ve got one here in Asheville. As a pitcher with the Rockies, you’re going to see a lot of them right up to Coors Field. Does that impact your approach?
Watson: The biggest thing is just getting ahead in the count, honestly. You can make a perfect pitch and it can still go. I don’t think the park makes that much of a difference; I just try to make hitters use a bigger part of the park if I can. Like trying to make a righty use left-center here.
Fieldhouse: Is there something you’ve done to improve this year, especially in your early outings?
Watson: The biggest thing is trusting all the work that I’ve put in. I put in a lot of time in the offseason so I’ve really trusted that. Last year I had some question marks, so I needed to really prepare for this season. And that’s led me to pitch a little differently.
The year before (2018) I didn’t really do any specific training program. Now I’m getting back into it and learning new things along the way as far as slider spin, change-ups, and other things. That’s all coming into play.
(Note: Watson ascribes to Driveline Baseball, a baseball development program that, for pitchers, relies heavily on utilizing weighted baseballs coordinated with a regimen of drills to increase velocity. He began using it in junior college and recommitted to it during this offseason.)
Fieldhouse: Coming out of the pen, if you’re not starting the inning, you typically come into a situation with runners on base. What are you most confident in throwing this year, especially with runners on?
Watson: Right now, I’m confident in both my fastball and my slider. I can throw those in any count. I think that’s the key – just being able to throw any pitch in any count for a strike. When there are guys on base and I come into a game, as far as I’m concerned those are my runs and they can’t score. Whatever happens after that is just pitch-by-pitch.
Fieldhouse: You talked about going back to using weighted baseballs during the offseason. When did you first get the idea of using them?
Watson: At Southwestern Illinois College, I didn’t pitch much and when I did pitch, it wasn’t very good. I was throwing around 83. After that season, my first season there, I said, “I want to do something different.” So that’s when I started using the weighted balls. My velocity went up and I started getting better.
Fieldhouse: What are you topping out on your fastball now?
Watson: Just depends on the day, but about 94-95.
Fieldhouse: Lastly, talk about what you see in this year’s team in Asheville.
Watson: We’ve got a lot of talent. We’re just trying to piece some things together right now and we’ll see where it goes but we’re going to take it day-by-day and then we’ll start to make a push.
The Tourists (19-29) are currently on the road facing the Rome Braves (25-24) in a four-game set. They return home on Thursday to host the West Virginia Power (23-25) at 7:05 p.m. Asheville is currently in fifth-place behind the Greenville Drive (21-28) in the South Atlantic League’s Southern Division.