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.