It all ran through Spenser Watkins’ mind, one thought leaping to the next in a spiral that did more harm than good. The count and what the batter did last time and the scouting report and the runners on base and how a missed pitch here might mean he can’t pitch three innings from now and —
It was all too much.
“A lot of clouded thoughts,” Watkins said.
For the Orioles right-hander to rediscover the form he displayed in Triple-A and during the early part of his season with the big league club, Watkins first needed to tackle what he describes as his “mental loop.” When that loop — the pre-pitch thoughts that flow through his mind — grows too large, his attention shatters. And when his attention shatters, his performance often dips.
Watkins could feel that loop growing larger and larger in May. He allowed a season-high seven runs against the St. Louis Cardinals, then lasted four innings against the New York Yankees before he gave up three runs without recording an out against the Tampa Bay Rays. In that final outing, a comebacker left a contusion on his right arm and forced him onto the injured list.
“It was totally a reset,” Watkins said. “It was a blessing in disguise.”
He suddenly had time away from the mound, and he put it to good use through meetings with Jess Mohler, a part-time mental skills coach for the Orioles and the Naval Academy. In those sessions, Watkins realized the difference between his starts at Triple-A Norfolk and with Baltimore, he homed in on his mental loop, and he vowed to simplify his approach while pitching.
To simplify meant less thinking. And less thinking meant better results.
After Michael Poole came to Camden Yards to watch Watkins complete the longest start of his season, allowing one run in 6 2/3 innings against the Texas Rangers last week, he sent Watkins a text. As Watkins’ pitching coach with Driveline Baseball, a performance training center in Kent, Washington, he’s seen the variability of Watkins’ starts.
He could tell when the loop began spinning all too fast. But after a leadoff double in the second inning July 6, Watkins “didn’t flinch at all.”
“I think that’s the difference now compared to the beginning of the year,” Poole said, noting how Watkins would bundle the pressure on himself by attempting to make the perfect pitch.
“In the back of his mind, it was like, ‘Don’t miss here,’” Poole said. “If you tell yourself don’t fail, don’t hit this spot, what’re you going to do? You’re naturally going to throw it toward that spot.”
It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more Watkins thought about the prospect of failure, the more likely it became that he’d miss a spot. And with each missed spot the mental loop would grow larger.
Then came the injured list stint, a much-needed break from the cycle. During that time, Watkins met with Mohler for the first time, and her perspective opened his eyes on how to combat an opponent inside his own head.
“Right before the injury, I was like, ‘OK, what’s causing all this stuff?” Watkins said. “And then once I got hurt, I was able to go, ‘OK, let’s really sit down and attack this.’ I had a span of a couple days where I could go over some stuff and figure out what’s going on.”
There’s a positive and negative to all the advanced analytics available at the major league level. It helps Watkins get batters out, understanding hot zones and deficiencies against certain pitches. But it also gives him more to think about it all.
“It’s so much. It’s awesome — it is,” Poole said. “But it can hurt guys, also, in the sense of a mental standpoint.”
Poole, who began working with Watkins this offseason in Arizona, focused more on the physical side of Watkins’ game at Driveline. Watkins’ velocity ticked higher, and his cutter now has more backspin. He developed his changeup and introduced a slider to his repertoire.
That pitch mix has helped Watkins claim a space in the Orioles’ rotation. But the mental work has played an even larger role in maintaining it: In his past four starts, including the one run on four hits he allowed in Wednesday’s 7-1 win over the Chicago Cubs, Watkins has conceded three earned runs.
“He was trying to be too perfect before he went to the injured list,” catcher Robinson Chirinos said. “Now you can tell he has a commitment behind every pitch he throws. He was like that before the injured list, but it wasn’t consistent. Now it’s every pitch.”
In the third inning Wednesday, after two Cubs reached second and third with one out, Watkins might’ve overthought the situation earlier this season. Instead, he steadied himself, hurling three fastballs past All-Star catcher Willson Contreras for the first strikeout before winning an eight-pitch at-bat against Ian Happ for the second.
In a way, that inning proved Watkins right. The swirling thoughts that could’ve derailed him were controlled. And that — maybe more so than anything else — is a win.
“Just simplifying everything as a whole to where I don’t have to worry so much about, ‘I have to be so fine here,’” Watkins said. “It’s: let my stuff work, simplify it, and throw the [crap] out of it.”