The last Orioles minor leaguer to hit 20 home runs and steal 20 bases in a season — DJ Stewart in 2017 — wasn’t the most likely candidate to do that.
The next, Double-A Bowie outfielder Zach Watson, can’t kick the stigma that he’s too small to be a power hitter. After this year, it might not be wise to doubt him much longer.
Watson, the center fielder the Orioles took out of LSU in the third round of the 2019 draft, hit his 20th home run Sunday to become the organization’s second farmhand to notch a 20-20 season in the past 40 seasons.
In an impressive draft class that has already seen several of the Orioles’ top picks succeed in the high minors, including Adley Rutschman and Kyle Stowers, Watson can be talked about in that same conversation for, among other things, his pop.
“You look at him and the first thing you say is, ‘OK, this guy must just be a rabbit, he’s just running around everywhere, probably bunts,’” Bowie manager Buck Britton said of Watson, who is listed at 6-foot, 160 pounds. “But then he gets in there and he takes a big-boy swing. I think that’s just the way the game is going, and he does a really nice [job]. He’s got a lot of bat speed for a little guy. That’s how he generates his power. He moves really well. We talk about the sequence of the body moving, generating energy and stuff. I think he’s the prototypical little man who has power.”
Watson, who is batting .253 with a .769 OPS, 20 home runs and 23 steals between High-A Aberdeen and Bowie, acknowledges that’s a common perception, one he only has one way to combat: driving the ball over everyone’s heads.
“I’ve always had power,” Watson said last month at Bowie. “Ever since growing up, I’ve been a power hitter. But my size, everybody looks over it. They don’t see the power, but it’s always been there. It really has. I’ve showed it a lot more this year.”
Much of that, he says, comes down to the Orioles’ use of data and technology to improve hitters’ swing decisions, which allows them to focus only on pitches they can drive and lay off even the strikes that they can’t put a barrel on.
Watson said he struggled with chasing pitches at LSU, even as he hit .311 with an .857 OPS in three seasons there as an everyday player for the Tigers. He was drafted with a reputation for being a standout defender in center field who boasted top-level speed — an attractive, albeit traditional, skill set for a center fielder.
All that’s expected of such a player is to get on base and set the table for the guys who hit home runs. In the modern game, though, power is ubiquitous. Watson has been able to drive the ball like this for so long, he said, that teammates from high school will read stories or reports on him that downplay his power and say, “This dude has been hitting home runs since he was 8 years old.”
“He can really run, he plays a really good center field, but for a little guy like that to pack the punch he does, it’s impressive,” Britton said. “They’re not just wall-scrapers when he gets them. He gets ’em. Obviously, it’s power to the pull side. But he’s tough to beat on the inner half of the plate. There’s still some things, the breaking ball gives him trouble at times. But when he gets into a good hitter’s count, one thing he does is make sure he’s on time for a fastball if it’s out over the middle of the plate. It’s impressive.”
The same can be said for many members of Watson’s draft class this year, with Rutschman and Stowers already at Triple-A Norfolk, Gunnar Henderson finishing strong at Aberdeen and several others joining Watson in Bowie’s playoff push this month.
Watson has enjoyed being part of a group that means so much to the Orioles’ future.
“They want to get up to the big leagues,” he said. “They want to do what they can do to help out the big leagues. Hopefully one day I’m up there doing whatever they want me to do. Whether it’s center, right, DH, whatever it is. I just want to be there and hopefully I can put the bat on the ball as much as I can.”