How Tony Watson Went From a Non-Prospect in Double-A to an All-Star Reliever

After putting up some of the best numbers of any reliever in baseball this season, Tony Watson was named to the National League All-Star team. The accomplishment is special for any player, and rare for middle relievers. In Watson’s case, it’s extremely surprising when you consider that just a few years ago he looked like a prospect who would top out at the Double-A level.

Watson was named the Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2008, after putting up a 3.56 ERA in 151.2 innings as a starter with Lynchburg, in what was a very thin system at the time. He moved up to Altoona the following year, but an injury limited him to just five starts.

The progression to the bullpen began in 2010. The Pirates had a strong rotation in Altoona that season, which moved Watson to a long-relief role. In 111.1 innings that season, Watson struck out 105 hitters and had an ERA of 2.67. Even with those numbers, he wasn’t seen as a prospect. He was rated the number 50 prospect in our 2011 Prospect Guide, heading into the 2011 season. Baseball America didn’t have him in their top 30, ranking behind guys like Diego Moreno, Ramon Aguero, and ranking as the second best lefty relief prospect behind Daniel Moskos. In the Pirates prospects rankings, he was second as a lefty reliever behind Moskos, and also rated behind Moreno, Donald Veal, and other guys who haven’t gone on to become All-Stars in the majors.

Watson became a full time reliever in 2011, and proved all of the rankings wrong. In 34.1 innings in Triple-A, he had a 2.36 ERA and 35 strikeouts. Watson was called up to the majors in June that year, and hasn’t looked back.

“It has been a wild ride for a couple of years,” Watson said. “I was a starter all of the way through college and was drafted as a starter. I was in the minor leagues as a starter. In 2011, I got added to the 40 man and moved to the bullpen. A couple of months in Indianapolis, and I started having some success out of the bullpen. I came up here and my stuff played up a tick once I got in a groove.”

The stuff playing up was a big change for Watson. He sat in the mid-to-upper 80s as a starter, and averaged 89 while touching 91 as a reliever in Altoona. His fastball averaged 91 MPH in 2011 in the majors, but has jumped to 93-94 MPH since then. He also added a sinker in 2012, and has used that as his primary pitch the last three years.

In addition, Watson credits manager Clint Hurdle with some of the success. Hurdle put him in some tight situations early and allowed him to gain valuable experience in using his stuff and getting out of those situations.

“I have been here a few years now, and I really enjoy what I do,” Watson said. “With myself and Justin Wilson, it’s just a lot of fun coming into a situation when the game is on the line. You can make a big pitch and get the team back to the dugout.”

Working primarily in the late innings, Watson has compiled a 1.42 ERA in 45 appearances, with a 2.80 xFIP. His K/9 has jumped to 10.2. He has only allowed 37 hits in 44 innings. Friday night, when Watson allowed three runs, was the first time that he has allowed more than one earned run in an outing since Aug. 3, 2013 against Colorado.

“[Friday night] was the first sideways outing that he has had in 93 games,” Hurdle said. “That is pretty impressive and speaks volumes to the work that has been done so far. He continues to grow and develop. As you saw last night, he is upfront and does not back away. He is a stand-up guy and a good pitcher.”

It is the success that Watson has enjoyed this season in tight situations, combined with the strong numbers that have earned him a spot with the best players in the National League.

“It is a special honor,” Watson said. “It is kind of a surreal feeling. Now that it is getting closer, it is kind of setting in. They keep saying that it really won’t set in until you get announced out there in the lineup with all of those guys. It is really special to get to represent the Pirates and the guys in this clubhouse.”

Not only does Watson get to be part of the trio representing the Pirates in Minnesota, he has also embraced a leadership role internally. Watson recently replaced Jason Grilli on the team’s leadership council.

“I just try to come in here and be the same guy every day,” Watson said. “It is just such a long season that you have to stay consistent with everything that you do with the highs and the lows. If you just stay even keel and go about your business, that’s how I looked at the older guys going about their business when I came up here.”

Watson said that it is about taking care of what you can control. He said that he leads by example and does not look to say too much to the newcomers. It makes Watson feel good that he is able to embrace this role.

It is the leadership, plus the success on the field that made Watson such a key player in the clubhouse and allowing him to get the national recognition that he has earned this season when he takes the field on Tuesday.

Tim Williams contributed to this story.

Ryan Palencer

Author: Ryan Palencer

Ryan joined Pirates Prospects as the Indianapolis Triple-A writer in 2014. Prior to joining Pirates Prospects, Ryan covered high school, college and professional sports in the Indianapolis area. For more updates throughout the season, follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanpalencer.

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  • Lee Young

    I remember being ‘stuck’ watching him start in one of the Curve/Hbg games. Never thought he’d amount to anything!

  • https://profiles.google.com/100212786463678215436 Nathan Swartz

    Ian Kennedy & Street for: Harold Ramirez, Adrian Sampson, Luis Heredia, Jin DiJhang, Andrew Lambo and…(I’m likely over valuing our guys…somebody adjust for me!)
    That’s 4 of our top 14 prospects. 2 pitchers, a catcher, a 5 tool outfielder, and a power hitting OF.
    Street would solidify the pen, game over after the 6th.
    Kennedy, Cole, Morton, Locke, Liriano, Cumpton is a decent rotation.
    Plus, next year it would be Kennedy, Cole, Morton, Locke, Kingham, Cumpton, and Taillon. Not too shabby.

    • Lukas Sutton

      Not sure why overpaying for Street makes the bullpen automatically better. Id take Melancon, Watson and Hughes above or at the same level. So itd be smarter to get a guy who is having success as a 6th or 7th inning man to take the spot of Frieri/Wilson. We could solidify the bullpen without paying the dumb prices that closers usually cost at the deadline. A guy like, sadly enough, Chad Qualls would likely cost less than most closers and has been quality. Qualls has a better xFIP and SIERA, suggesting he is just as good at a lowest cost. Game over after the 6th and not give up 4 of our guys. I see no reason to go after a SP with Liriano trying to find his groove and Cole clearly not hurt longterm. Meaning we have Liriano-Cole-Morton-Locke-Volquez-Worley as options right now. With Cumpton as well. All reports have SD leaning towards keeping Kennedy anyway, so itd be an overpay to change their minds.

      • https://profiles.google.com/100212786463678215436 Nathan Swartz

        . Liriano was awesome. Cumpton too. Cole on DL twice. Morton kept it together too. Wish I had your confidence!

        • Lukas Sutton

          The team should give Cole all the chances to come back until they deem him too injured to pitch. Meaning its Cole-Morton-Locke-Volquez and Worley. All guys who have had success this year and are doing well. If Cole were to go down, Liriano is there. If Liriano continues to struggle, you have guys like Sadler and Cumtpon as 5th options. Our depth gives us the ability to not overpay for guys just to be doing it. For the right price im all over Kennedy, but he doesnt appear to be being shopped.

      • csnumber23

        Chad Qualls – Blah!! That is not an upgrade! I do not care what his numbers are. We traded for that guy 2 years ago and he was pitiful! He has been pitiful for years, before this year. No interest in seeing him back!

        • Lukas Sutton

          Generally “i dont care what his numbers are” is a bad way to evaluate talent and upgrade a roster. He has been a quality relief option the last 2 years. I simply look at stats and try not to let emotion get in the way.

          • csnumber23

            Chad Qualls is not an upgrade! Last two years?? He was mediocre last year and what about the 4 previous years? You simply look at the stats, well I watch them pitch and Chad Qualls numbers will inflate. Let them inflate for someone else!

    • csnumber23

      I would do this offer if I were Neal but not sure if San Diego would. It fills two needs without giving up one of our top top prospects.I would love to see this trade.

  • Nuke Laloosh

    Just reading the name Moskos makes be throw up a bit.

  • freddylang

    Baseball America had him at #31 in fact. I got the extra excerpt from BA that year with one extra prospect for each team and Watson was the Pirate’s rep in that book putting him at #31. Back then I believe they said he didn’t throw hard but had had TJS or some other surgery, and that he had a very good change-up…He developed into something very different as the velocity came back. Pretty much the only Littlefield pitcher left since Welker just got released.

  • SportOMania

    Now that Watson has three pitches he should be considered a rotation candidate in 2015. I remember hearing an interview with NH stating that was not out of the question.

    • csnumber23

      Actually, I thought I heard Ray Searage say they were going to look at that in the off season. Greg Brown was interviewing him in the dugout during the game and I thought I hear Ray say that. I was caught off guard by it actually because I didn’t think they thought of Tony as a starter at all. I’m not positive I heard it right but it will be interesting to see if they look in to that in the off season. Seeing Tony always pitching from the stretch is probably another reason I never thought of him for the rotation.

      • SportOMania

        Many relief pitchers always pitch from the stretch including converted starters.