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”