Tony Watson of the Pittsburgh Pirates is proving to be more than just a serviceable closer in his first full season positioned in the role.
With a fastball that sits at well under 90 mph, according to fangraphs.com, Bucs closer Tony Watson hasn’t even used his four-seamer since the 2015 season. Still, the 31-year-old is getting by more than fine pitching in the latter frames of ball games. Pittsburgh Pirates fans should be aware of some of the reasons why Watson is one of the more underrated relief pitchers in all of the NL Central, if not more broadly.
For starters, Watson’s go-to pitch is a sinker. After that, he employs a change-up and slider in his repertoire. The first thing that jumps out here is he uses downward movement and lots of off-speed stuff to toy with hitters’ mechanics and induce grounders.
Similar to 2016 Cy Young candidate, closer Zach Britton of the Orioles, Watson’s sinker and Britton’s own two-seamer are pitches with commonalities. They rely heavily on ground ball outs to keep the base paths clear and produce high percentages of balls that can lead to potential double play outs.
Not trying to make this a piece solely about contrasting Britton with Watson, it’s still difficult to avoid doing so because both find their successes through similar avenues. Both are southpaws with big, sweeping deliveries. Since 2013, Watson has posted a 2.16 ERA in 304.1 IP. His HR/9 rate is only 0.7. Britton, meanwhile, has an ERA of 1.92 and and a HR/9 ratio of 0.4 since the 2013 season.
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Both are also very good at stranding base runners. In 2015 when the league average for LOB% was 72.9 percent, Watson and Britton posted nearly identical numbers (82.2 and 80.9) well above the crowd in that statistical category. During Britton’s prolific campaign in 2016, Watson lost some ground to him with 80.3 percent to Britton’s 89.7. Yet, Watson remained consistent from the year prior and so far in 2017, his LOB% is 100 to Britton’s 93.8.
Only 13 relief pitchers in MLB this season with a minimum of 10 IP hav a LOB% of 100, and the Pirates’ closer is one of them. Watson is also a perfect 7-for-7 in save opportunities, has an ERA of 0.73 (12th lowest amongst MLB relievers) and a GB% of 51.3 percent (54th).
One area of Watson’s game that is mildly alarming is his FIP. This year, it sits at 4.54, well above his career average of 3.49. This number has never been a standout for Watson though, because he’s not a pure strikeout pitcher, with a lifetime K/9 of only 8.0. That’s fairly low by closer standards. But as mentioned before, Watson more than makes up for things with his LOB%.
The Pirates shipped All-Star closer Mark Melancon to the Nationals at the deadline last year for LHP prospect Taylor Hearn and reliever Felipe Rivero. The move made perfect sense to gain a young arm with potential, deepen the bullpen and turn the reigns over to Watson, who had compiled 20 saves between 2013-16.
A season as mind-bogglingly brilliant as Britton’s is unlikely for Watson in 2017, or anytime in the future. Britton has better stuff. But Pittsburgh’s closer has better stuff than people give him credit for.
Watson’s sinker is sitting at 92.1 mph this year for his Pittsburgh Pirates — not far behind Britton’s two-seamer at 96.1 mph. Last year, the competition couldn’t hit it, as Britton surrendered a BAA of only .159 to hitters.
Batters are hitting .206 versus Tony Watson’s sinker in 2017. That number should go up before October rolls around. At the same time, his BAA of .308 on his change-up should go down. Hitters have traditionally hit a mere .174 against it lifetime.
Considering there has been well over 100 blown saves already in the first five weeks of the MLB season, the Pittsburgh Pirates should be counting their lucky stars when it comes to Tony Watson and his not overly electric, but supremely efficient play, in 2017.