Justin Watts is introduced on C’s Diamond Vision at Nat Bailey Stadium.
2018 Vancouver Canadians pitcher Justin Watts climbs the hill in this episode of C’s Chat.
Climbing the hill is something the 25 year-old Watts is still getting used to after getting a late introduction to pitching.
After lettering during his high school career in his hometown of Bryan, Ohio as a catcher and outfielder, Watts did not become a hurler until his freshman season in 2013 at Lincoln Trail College in Robinson, Illinois. A strong right throwing arm and a sudden growth support led Watts to a new beginning on the mound.
“In high school, I never pitched an inning. I went to junior college and I was short, a little pudgy kid. Within two months of right before Christmas break, in the first semester of college, I sprouted up to 6-3 out of nowhere. I was struggling hitting and they threw me on the mound one time and I guess I looked pretty good to them. Ever since then, nobody wanted me as a position player anymore, they wanted me to pitch.”
Watts would post a 1-1 record with a 5.84 earned run average and a save for the Statesmen but he would be sidelined with Tommy John surgery on his right elbow due to mechanical and arm care issues. That caused him to miss the entire 2014 season.
Justin Watts has made 35 appearances in relief in his two-year pro career.
Buckeye State To Bluegrass State
Northern Kentucky University was Watts’ next stop in his college career. He made 14 starts among his 31 appearances for the Norse during the 2015 and 2016 campaigns. Despite winning just three of his nine decisions with an ERA over six, Watts struck out 89 batters in 100 innings.
Something that helped Watts find his footing on the mound according to the linked story above from the Evansville Courier & Press was working out with former high school teammate and fellow Bryan, Ohio native Matt Wisler. The righthander spent parts of three years with the Atlanta Braves before being traded to the Cincinnati Reds organization last July 31.
Watts gained more experience on the hill by playing summer collegiate ball with the Madison Mallards of the Northwoods League in 2015 and 2016. Pitching in Wisconsin prepared him for what to expect with Vancouver.
“It’s kind of similar to here (Vancouver) actually. They had a great fan base. We played in front of like 7,000 (fans). Madison, Wisconsin is a beautiful place. Great people, great coach. Donnie Scott (former major league catcher with Texas, Seattle and Cincinnati) was an awesome manager out there. I couldn’t have asked for two better summers.”
Fly Like An Eagle
The 2017 season saw Watts transfer to the University of Southern Indiana, the same place where 2014-2015 C’s righthander Jon Wandling pitched. Rated as the number 13 prospect in Division II by Baseball America heading into 2017, everything came together for Watts in his senior season. He became the Screaming Eagles closer, saving seven games and winning five of eight decisions with a 3.93 ERA and a strikeout-walk total of 45-9 over 34-1/3 innings. Watts had one four-inning start and allowed just two hits and struck out six against Kentucky Wesleyan College.
“My best memory of Southern Indiana was probably the fact that I was only there for one year and the fact that those guys took me in like I played with them for four years. It was just a great group of guys. We had a great team. We ended up losing in the regional but we were regular season champs. The first couple of weeks we struggled and after that we went on an absolute streak of just winning and it was just fun to play with those guys.”
Northwest League hitters batted just .185 against Justin Watts in 2018.
Getting The Call
The Toronto Blue Jays would take Watts with their 37th round pick in the 2017 draft, something he called the realization of a childhood dream.
“It’s everything I worked for my whole entire life since I started playing at age five. It’s all I ever dreamed of was getting to play professional baseball. Going through high school, just getting an opportunity to play college baseball to the point where you find out that you’re actually pretty good enough to go on and advance to that, it was just like an amazing feeling.”
Also sharing in the joy of Watts’ draft selection was Bryan baseball coach Jeff Inselmann, telling The Bryan Times it was “one of my most satisfying moments of my coaching career.”
It was the head coach at Southern Indiana Tracy Archeluta who first told Watts he was drafted.
“I was actually working at a baseball camp and I got done. The draft was about to end. We were getting toward the last few rounds and stuff like that so I headed home and then I got a call from my coach and he said, ‘Hey, you just got drafted by the Blue Jays.’ And I was like, ‘Don’t play with me. I haven’t heard anything like that.’ Then my Mom was calling and my grandparents were calling and stuff like that. I didn’t even hear from the Blue Jays yet but I found out through all of them and finally they called me.”
Justin Watts has won seven of his 11 decisions with an of ERA of 3.00 in his two seasons as a pro.
The Gulf Coast League was the first stop for Watts in his professional career. He collected his first save in just his second appearance against the GCL Yankees West June 29 by walking one and striking out four over two shutout innings. Watts then earned his first win in his next outing with two perfect frames and three strikeouts against the GCL Braves July 6.
Other highlights for Watts included a five-strikeout performance against the GCL Pirates July 20 and his second pro win against the Braves August 8. His last three outings were in a starting role and they would skew his final numbers by raising his ERA to 3.62 but he struck out 34 batters and walked eight in 32-1/3 innings along with two saves.
Pitching in the GCL for Watts took some getting used to.
“I mean, it’s hot. I’m not going to lie but it’s a different experience. I’m from up north and I was in college up north so I was used to the cold. It was a good change.
It was a different type of game. It’s nothing like it is playing here (in Vancouver). You don’t play in front of many people and stuff like that but it was a good experience to really learn how to pitch. I just became a pitcher a few years ago so it was like my first turning point of learning how to pitch and not just throw so it was nice.”
The month of August saw Justin Watts put up a microscopic ERA of 0.60 in 15 innings.
Next Stop – Vancouver
The 2018 season saw Watts make his first trip to Canada and first trip anywhere outside of the U.S. when he was assigned to Vancouver. His first appearance with Monty’s Mounties was June 18 in Eugene when he struck out three over two scoreless innings. He rung up a career-high six batters over three shutout frames of one-hit ball against Salem-Keizer to collect his first win of the year July 2.
The month of July saw Watts pick up two more wins in relief but he hit a rough patch by coughing up runs in four of five outings. August saw him finish up strong by allowing just one run, finishing the year with 15-1/3 shutout innings. That dropped his ERA to 2.45 and along with a 5-0 record, he struck out 52 batters and walked just 10 over 36-2/3 innings.
Getting to pitch in front of the fans at Nat Bailey Stadium was something Watts enjoyed.
“It’s an unreal feeling. These fans are unbelievable. You couldn’t ask for better fans that like I’ve played in front of. They’re always behind you and like it just gives you a little bit of a satisfaction knowing that they got your back too.”
Pitching Repertoire & Style
When asked to break down his pitching arsenal, Watts rated his four-pitch mix in order.
“I have a fastball, slider, curveball, changeup. My slider is definitely my go-to pitch right behind the fastball. My fastball is my one, my slider is my two, my curveball is my three and my changeup is my fourth.”
His variations of the fastball include a sinker along with a four-seamer. He says he wants to improve his curve and change.
“Just being more in control of my curveball and just keep developing my changeup. It’s something I really want to have in my repertoire to be consistent.”
One thing Watts also focuses on is being aggressive on the hill.
“I just attack. I’m a guy that’ll just come right at you and see what you can do with it. Just try to get the ball in play and try to get through the inning quick. I wouldn’t compare myself to anyone yet but someone I loved to watch pitch would definitely have to be Justin Verlander.”
According to Watts, a number of coaches have helped him develop on the mound.
“Truly, honestly, it would be a few guys. My coaches back at Southern Jeremy Kuester (assistant coach) and Tracy Archuleta (head coach), they were both impacts in developing me as a pitcher. A couple of years (with the Jays organization), it’s been Adam Bernero and Cy (Jim Czajkowski), our pitching coach (in Vancouver). Bernero helped me with my mechanics and then Cy helped with the pitch repertoire like knowing what to pitch and helping me make those decisions after and stuff like that.”
In terms of starting or relieving, Watts does not have a preference.
“As long as I get to pitch, I don’t care, you know. I just want to keep pitching, just keep playing ball.”
Lansing, Michigan or Dunedin, Florida is where Watts is expected to play ball in 2019.
My thanks to Justin Watts for this latest edition of C’s Chat and to C’s Media Relations Assistant Sharlene Canning for arranging the interview.