Ryan Watson didn’t seek out a trainer during the offseason to decrease his chances of being injured. It was more about eliminating some mobility issues, concentrating on hip work and “becoming very aware of his body because he’s so tall,” said Theo Aasen, a strength and conditioning coach who owns Optimal Athlete Kollective in Tampa.
Never did the 6-foot-5 Watson imagine that he’d rise above others in the Orioles organization to be named its minor league Pitcher of the Year. An unexpected byproduct of the many improvements that included a sharper slider and an uptick in fastball velocity.
Watson often worked in the 89-91 mph range last year in his first professional season. He climbed to 93-95 mph this summer and was able to reach 96-97.
Watson’s representative, Francis Marquez of The MAS+ Agency, suggested that the right-hander meet with Aasen.
“He’s never really lifted in a style that I train, so we taught him how to lift properly and use a full range of strength,” said Aasen, who also worked with Austin Hays, changing the outfielder’s weightlifting routine to get his body more in baseball shape, with improved flexibility, rather than just bulking up. Hays avoided the injured list this year.
“Two weeks later, Ryan was like, ’Hey, my velo’s up. Everything just feels good.’ I’ll never forget that,” Aasen said.
“He really dove into what we’re doing here with movement, the mobility work, and just becoming stronger. By the end of the offseason before he left, he was very strong.
“We touched base through my app throughout the season. He was mostly focused on mobility this year and really improving himself, which was really cool.”
Aasen had the same mindset with Watson as he did with Hays, even if the programs and player motivations weren’t identical.
“It was keeping him able to do his job every day, to be a baseball player,” Aasen said. “In the end, these guys, they’re not gym athletes, they’re baseball players. They just need their strength and their movement and their body to feel good every day. That’s what I help out with, recovery and keeping the body feeling good. And they’re always game ready.
“It doesn’t take long to change a body, but it’s all the intent, if the person wants to change.”
The Orioles signed Watson in 2020 as an undrafted free agent out of Auburn University. He went 7-5 with a 3.41 ERA and 1.07 WHIP in 20 appearances this year with Double-A Bowie, moving from bulk relief to the rotation after two perfect four-inning outings. A promotion to Triple-A Norfolk followed on Aug. 16 and he registered a 3.65 ERA and .174 batting average against over seven appearances out of the bullpen.
The final tally was a 3.44 ERA and 1.099 WHIP with 108 strikeouts in 107 1/3 innings in his first year above High-A ball.
Watson ranked second in ERA among Orioles minor leaguers with a minimum of 80 innings. And he was given the Jim Palmer Award over some higher-profile members of the system.
“We felt like with Ryan, his development from last year to this year and his performance in Double-A is really what won him this,” said director of player development Matt Blood. “The amount of strikeouts there and the low walks and he just dominated Double-A in his second professional season. And the development he showed, he really improved his slider and his fastball velocity and came out and threw over 100 innings. That was really impressive.”
“I knew it was going to happen,” said Aasen, who worked with Watson for about 3 ½ months.
“Right before he left, he threw some live at-bats with some big league guys like Gary Sánchez and a couple other guys here, and everybody was like, ‘That kid’s going to be in the big leagues.’ So, I was like, ‘Hey Ryan, this is a big year for you.’ I knew right away, right then and there.
“As soon as he climbed up, I was like, ‘I knew this was going to happen.’ Francis knew, too. Seeing him on the mound those days and the reaction of the big league players, it really hit that you knew he was going to go far.”
Watson was his usual modest self while accepting the award, saying he just wanted to give his team a chance to win each night that he pitched. And he doled out so much credit to others that he barely left any for himself.
“I love him, he’s a great guy,” Aasen said.
“I think his personality and who he is as a person also is going to carry him really far. He’s very humble, very humble. He’s one guy who doesn’t know how to take a compliment.”