BRADENTON, Fla. — As he was at the end of last season, Tony Watson will be the Pirates’ closer in 2017.

Watson is of course left-handed, which makes him something of a rarity. Only once, in 2006, have the Pirates had a lefty lead the team in saves, and that’s pretty much par for the course around Major League Baseball.

In 2016, with his late-season audition, Watson finished tied for 28th in the majors in saves. If you consider all of the pitchers that he’s tied with and above to be closers for all intents and purposes, you’ll find just three more left-handers: Aroldis Chapman, Zach Britton and Tony Cingrani. Over 25 percent of all the innings pitched in MLB last season were by lefties, but only about 10 percent of the closers are lefties.

So why are there so few left-handed closers and what makes Watson so special? Watson has a theory.

“I don’t have a secret formula as to why there’s not as many,” he said. “Maybe because earlier in the game, situations arise where you have a big, left-handed bat up and you need the lefties then. We’re in a unique situation here.”

Even amongst the small fraternity of left-handed MLB closers, Watson is fairly unique. While Britton, Chapman and Cingrani get results with a heaping of heat, Watson’s success is more nuanced.

“[Chapman] throws about 105 every pitch,” Watson said. “I don’t have that in the tank. My path has been a little bit different where I came through the minor leagues as a starter and learned how pitch. Then, I slowly got myself into some high-leverage situations in the big leagues and worked my way into the closer’s role.”

Chapman’s average fastball velocity in 2016 was over 101 mph. Britton checked in at 97 and Cingrani at 95. Watson sat in the 93’s most of the year. So what makes Watson so effective when he doesn’t have the same amount of heat that other top lefties do?

“I think he just locates really well,” said catcher Chris Stewart. “He throws inside. That’s one of the biggest things. He throws inside to righties. He throws inside to lefties. He’s got an unhittable changeup at times. Just the ability to mix speeds, keep guys off-balance and then to put it where he wants to is what makes him effective.”

The changeup is, in fact, a difference maker for Watson. He threw it almost a quarter of the time in 2016. None of the other lefty closers threw theirs more than 4 percent of the time. Against right-handers, Watson throws it over 30 percent of the time.

According to Fangraphs, Watson’s changeup is the second-best in baseball amongst relievers, behind only Trevor Cahill of the Cubs. Part of the reason for that is the very consistent 10-mph difference between his change and his fastball that Watson has maintained throughout his career.

“It’s an equalizer,” Stewart said. “It keeps guys off his fastball. You have to have to something to keep them off-balance, mix speeds and keep them off the front foot.”

One of the other things that makes Watson special is his ability to pitch almost every game. In 2016, he pitched in 67.2 innings, which was fewer than any of the last four years. In that span, he’s pitch the most innings of any reliever in baseball with 292. As impressive as his stuff is, the ability to get back on the mound nearly every day for such a long stretch might be even more impressive.

“I found a routine early in my career that worked to keep my body going,” Watson said. “It is important. With pitch counts, you want to keep yourself available and be efficient with your pitches. But it’s behind the scenes, it’s the stuff you’re doing early in the day, the between-the-mound work, flat-ground, throwing program that you have to take a lot of pride in each and every day and just keep yourself reliable and available for the manager so that every time that door opens, he knows what he’s going to get. It’s something I took pride in early in my career and it’s just kind of built on itself.”

The Pirates have been more aggressive in getting their relief pitchers more rest in the last year, which may have contributed to Watson’s slightly lower innings pitched total in 2016. But there is a level of trust between the team and Watson that has created a positive environment to make sure that what’s being done is what’s best for him and the team.

“He’s a guy that knows his body, what to do to recover, what to do to prepare,” trainer Todd Tomczyk said. “That’s special, because that’s not everybody. Preparation is huge for him. He knows his body. That’s probably the most important thing”

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  1. Watson will not be the closer come May 1. A prediction, not a desire. He’s got nothing after two consecutive bad years.

  2. Lefty Ramon Hernandez had 14 saves in ’72, eight fewer than Dave Guisti. Hernandez, of course, threw me up a ball above the bullpen in 1975. Guisti did not. Yeh, I’m ready for some baseball!

  3. When reading article I was baffled at using “effective” and Watson in same sentence- at least if we are referencing recent history. He wasn’t very good in 2016 even before he went to closer. Him closing again probably isn’t great idea

  4. I wonder if WAtson’s mindset needs to change now. He no longer needs to be efficient, he needs to close the game out.

  5. I agree that his change up is one of the better change up around, the only problem is sequencing. He mostly throws his change up away and fastball in, which is normal, but with him is almost automatic. As a hitter if I see a pitch outside there’s a great chance that is gonna be the change. If his slider improves and he is able to back door to right handed hitter the change up will play up.

  6. So according to that graph, Watson’s velocity usually builds through April, hitting 95mph in May, peaking at around 96mph late season. The data says he has not been the same player since June 2015. It’s obvious he is not the same player he used to be. Really hope Hurdle does not play his normal stubborn self, letting Watson blow 4 or 5 games early, putting the team behind the eight ball.

  7. While reading the article I was continuously wracking my brain for the 2006 lefty save leader……was it Mike Gonzalez?

  8. With 5 years of control remaining, I doubt they would move Rivero into the closer role this season. With saves, he’d get expensive in a hurry and be a less valuable asset. I expect he’s got 2 or 3 more years in a setup role before they’d allow him to price himself out of their payroll range.

    • I think Watson is a free agent after this season. If that’s correct, then he may be moved at the deadline if he is pitching well enough as long as someone else (maybe Rivero) is a clear candidate to replace him.

      • He might be a clear candidate to replace him if money and arbitration weren’t factors. If Watson gets traded Hudson or Nicasio are probably the most likely replacements.

  9. I know 2016 wasn’t his best season, and this Spring has been a bumpy ride at times, but I still have faith in Tony Watson and I believe he will rise to the level of his new role and perform at a more than acceptable level…Rivero is a good fall back option, but it would nice to leave him in the setup role in front of Watson. Rivero still has some maturing to do and learning how to pitch well in high leverage situations – which is was not very good in last year.

  10. Hoping he turns it around this year. Not all that confident at this point. Hoped we could get something good back in trade but didn’t happen. Think Hudson or Rivero will be closing before mid-season.

  11. I just hope all those IP over the last 4 years haven’t turned him into a ticking time bomb to blow up Pirates postseason aspirations.

    • Something tells me he is on a relatively short leash. With Felipe Rivero just about un-hitable, even with some control issues, I think the Pirates will end up moving Tony back to the set-up roll if he doesn’t get results in the 9th.

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