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Watson's stock keeps on rising

Sports

Watson's stock keeps on rising

Somewhere in the Boston suburbs, Theo Epstein sits hunched over his laptop crunching baseball numbers deep into the night in search of those key indicators the Red Sox have developed for player evaluations.

During these hypothetical jam sessions looking to uncover the subtle nuances of success in this game through fresh analysis developed to separate the very best from the rest, the Red Sox whiz kid has no doubt moused over the name of a certain player from Portland taking his swings just a few miles down the road when looking ahead at 2012.

Matt Watson, 19, the former Deering and current Boston College star, though already selected by the Houston Astros in the 28th round of the 2009 Major League Baseball Draft out of Pompano Beach High School (Fla.), has the complete list of variables that light up modern baseball execs like Epstein’s pop-up blocker. Watson, a catcher by trade and a powerful left-handed hitter, chose wisely not to sign with the Astros and put his name right back on the radar of all 30 Major League franchises.

The concept was really quite simple. By electing not to sign that so tantalizing offer sheet, Watson instead reported to the Heights with three seasons ahead to improve his stock for the next time he’s eligible for the draft in June of his junior season. It’s started to look more and more like a great decision for Watson.

After helping Deering win back-to-back state titles in 2007 and again as a junior in ’08, Watson transferred to Pompano Beach High just outside Tampa and continued to pile up big numbers at the plate in an all-star senior season and the move to accept the scholarship waiting for him at Boston College has so far gone according to plan, as Watson went out and put together a monstrous season as a true freshman.

Interestingly enough, Watson’s decision to not sign with the Astros was in large part fueled by those next generation computer software programs used by Major League teams to break down every possible statistic and scenario. The spreadsheets have kicked out certain data that’s led to most clubs leaning far more toward selecting positional players from the college ranks. Back in the day, a high school catcher like Watson that hits left with power to all fields would never make it to the middle rounds.

And while on the surface it seems like a bad thing for Watson, these very same formulas will soon return and shine quite favorably on him when his time comes to re-enter the draft. Not only does Watson fill up the stat sheet with more traditional numbers like all good hitters, any closer inspection of his line reveals certain trends that could pop a lens off the glasses of any Epstein-like cyber puma.

In his first season for the Eagles, Watson impressed from the jump and continued to produce at the plate with remarkable consistency. It’s becoming more and more obvious that when it comes to hitting, Watson’s numbers are always going to be there. Not many freshmen step right in at BC and became one of seven regulars to start all 58 games. And rarer still, Watson was used almost exclusively as the Eagles' designated hitter. He got off to a white-hot start and finished with a .259 batting average, 7 homers and 34 RBI in 189 at-bats. He led the team in three offensive categories and finished fourth in slugging percentage at .434. That’s big time.

His early production certainly bodes well for Watson’s future, and it landed him a wooden bat gig this summer with the Dennis-Yarmouth Red Sox in the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League for the top future prospects playing in college. Watson, living with a host family and working three days a week with five-year olds at the Dennis-Yarmouth summer camp, spends his nights and weekends matching up with the best pitchers in the country in a seemingly endless parade of aces.

“In the Cape league hitting .250 is great and .300 is considered phenomenal,” said Watson. “Every time out we’re facing one of the top aces in the country. Lots of hitters that had great years for their schools struggle here using the wooden bat. But it’s a great learning opportunity and a good test to see how a player responds to failure. Guys figure out if they love the game or just love the success. If you’re only having fun two out of every 10 times then you shouldn’t be playing here.”

The better news for Watson is that buried in his numbers are plenty of quantifiable reasons that explain his success at the plate, ones that happen to be precisely the kind the game has come to rely on heavily in the modern era. Watson led Boston College in walks with 35 and was hit 19 times to top that category. Factor these numbers in with his 49 hits and what you get is a team-high .422 on-base percentage. That’s just plain nasty for a first-year player and numbers that tend to grab the attention of Epstein and other advanced scouts around the league. These days, salary caps and luxury taxes have squeezed most teams into finding ways to score runs with players that might not bomb 40 but do other little things like lead the team in on-base percentage.

There will never be a replacement for the big three baseball card statistics, but players like Watson with numbers further down the line bring additional value and help instill confidence for teams come draft time.

In addition to a high-degree of discipline at the plate, Watson has a skilled combination of great hands, technique and approach that he trusts enough to stand in there and battle day in and day out. That and he works tirelessly at improving. Watson’s passion for the game is something he shares with another former Deering great in Ken Joyce, the current hitting instructor for Triple-A Fresno, the minor league affiliate of the San Francisco Giants in the Pacific Coast League. Joyce returns to Maine each offseason to work with players like Watson and yet another former Rams’ star and 2009 MLB draftee Regan Flaherty, now in the SEC at Vanderbilt, and likes what he sees.

“Matt has exceptional hand-eye coordination he maximizes by using his lower half in his swing,” said Joyce. “He triggers with his back hip and that’s what allows his hands to work correctly. It creates a swing path that stays through the hitting zone for a longer period of time. With his bat on the right plane in the zone he has more margin for error. If he’s early or late he can still square balls up and drive them. Hitters who start with their hands end up taking inconsistent paths to the ball and have more of a tendency to roll over or pop up.”

Flaherty like Watson also hits left-handed and decided to spend his summer close to home with the Sanford Mainers of the NECBL. The two have one long and impressive history together in baseball that continues to link them now while they both chase their dreams of being selected once again in the 2012 MLB draft.

“Matt’s a great hitter and always has been,” said Flaherty. “He was a big part of our success as kids and then of course at Deering for the first two state championships. He loves the game and has always worked really hard at it. It’s crazy sometimes to think about playing together growing up and seeing where we both are now. I’m definitely following along and wishing him the best.”

It’s important to point out that while Watson was technically taken out of Pompano Beach High, had mitigating circumstances not led to his transfer, one high school team from Portland would have had the first two positional players drafted straight out of high school from Maine come from the same neighborhood in the same year.

This little fact is still just a minor technicality all things considered and either way it’s going to be something special to watch as Watson continues to belie both his age and level in the game at the plate. His first college campaign more than proved he’s well on his way, especially with new-age baseball execs like Epstein taking a closer look at the host of reasons behind his success.

Imagine that, Matt Watson from North Deering digging his spikes in at Fenway Park in home whites someday. Better start believing. As of right now it looks like there’s a one out of 30 chance of becoming reality.

And you gotta like those odds.