The Rome Braves’ huge second half surge led them to their first South Atlantic League title in 13 years. The achievements of their heralded young pitching staff and the tremendous second half Austin Riley had with the bat have been well documented over the past few months. While Ray-Patrick Didder and Patrick Weigel made some waves as two of the Atlanta Braves’ breakout prospects, closer Devan Watts quietly slid under the radar and played a huge role in Rome’s SAL Championship.
Watts hails from the small Division II college of Tusculum in Tennessee. He transferred to the school for the 2015 season from Milligan College with the desire to become a pitcher. Up until that point in his life, aside from a few experimental innings here and there, Watts had been a star shortstop.
“I’d been a middle infielder basically my whole life,” Watts said.”I played shortstop all throughout high school. I got to throw a little bit my senior year, and I enjoyed it a lot. I got up to [Milligan College] that year, and they wanted me to be their shortstop. But I wasn’t exactly happy where I was. That summer I played summer league and we had a little scrimmage. The coach told me he had an inning if I wanted to throw, so I did that and I ended up closing for that summer league team. I’d play shortstop and then close the game out.”
That summer changed Watts’ direction in baseball. His heart was on the mound instead of behind it, and Tusculum would give him that opportunity. His first season as a full-time pitcher, closing out games for the Pioneers was a success. He went 4-3, converting eight saves behind a 1.79 ERA and a 10.55 strikeout-per-nine rate, simply remarkable for a player one year removed from being a full-time position player.
His senior season, he closed out games for one of the strongest pitching staff’s in DII. Teamed with starter Placido Torres — who led the nation in both ERA and strikeouts — Watts had another fine run, recording six saves, a 3.10 ERA and an even better 11.31 strikeouts per nine. Tusculum made a run through the Regionals and garnered national attention. It would see two Pioneers go in the same draft — Torres in the eighth to the Mets and Watts in the 17th to the Braves — for the first time in program history.
“He went on the second day, so we talked a little bit before,” Watts said of Torres. “Just wondering what is going to happen. Leading up to the draft, we were just like we have to keep being ourselves. We don’t need to worry about what’s going to happen in the future, just keep being us.
“I texted him on the night that he got drafted. I know he was happy. He’s from New York and got to go to the Mets. He goes to the Mets and then I go to the Atlanta Braves. Ever since I knew who the Braves were, since I was five years old, I’ve liked the Braves.”
Watts signed on June 15, and by June 23 he had made his professional debut in the Appy League with the Danville Braves. He hurled a one-two-three inning, striking out the first two batters he faced in his career. His stay in Danville would be short. He made four hitless and scoreless appearances, recording his first career save before a promotion was looming. The Rome Braves were surging and that electric rotation needed a closer. On July 9, he became that closer.
“My roommate Corbin Clouse, he had a heck of a year, too,” Watts said of his bullpen-mate who was promoted the same day as him. “Coming up with him, that was really neat. There were four of us that came up. To be able to contribute on a championship team, that’s something you just dream about. Honestly, it was a blessing.”
Simply put, Watts was electric. He was 3-1 in Rome, converting eight of his nine save attempts behind a 23-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 19.2 innings. Both baserunners and runs came at a premium when the 6-foot, 205-pound right-hander took the mound; he posted a microscopic 0.92 ERA and a 0.86 WHIP.
“I’m becoming more comfortable, but the competitor in me, there is just so much more I can improve on,” Watts said of his professional debut.
“There is always a lot to improve on, but there is a lot to learn, too. It’s more than just feeling good out there, it’s knowing the game, understanding situations, commanding your pitches. I feel I have a lot of work to do, but I feel like I’ve started well. It’s all about repeating things. Every time I go out there, I need to prove I belong there and that’s the situation I want to be in. I want to be on that mound and I want to be competing.”
Watts is looking to expand his arsenal this offseason as well. As most young relievers often do, Watts made it through his rookie campaign on the strength of two pitches. He knows if he wants to be successful as he continues up the ladder, he needs to continue to add more to that arsenal.
“For this first professional season, I was basically a fastball-slider guy,” Watts said. “Those were the only two pitches I really needed to throw. I’ve been working on a changeup. That’s got a lot of work ahead. I’ve always been told that getting that third pitch is key. Two is good, but three is better. So, I’m trying to get the changeup down, mixing it in a little bit in warmups before the game.”
For more on Watts, head on over to Today’s Knuckleball for the full interview by clicking on the link below: