TONY WATSON, LEFT HANDED PITCHER
|Born: May 30, 1985
Height: 6′ 4″
Drafted: 9th Round, 278th Overall, 2007
How Acquired: Draft
College: University of Nebraska
Agent: Scott Boras
WTM’S PIRATE PLAYER PROFILES
|Watson was eligible for the draft after his sophomore year in 2006, but fell to the 17th round due to concerns about his signability. The Orioles selected him and tried to sign him, but couldn’t. His performance fell off in 2007 as his fastball, previously in the high 80s, lost a couple mph. As a starter with the Pirates, his fastball was in the upper-80s, sometimes lower, and he depended heavily on a changeup. As a reliever, his fastball now sits at 93-94 and can reach 96-97. Watson also throws a slider and change, both of which are effective pitches. He throws from a crossfire angle that can be tough on hitters. Watson’s sophomore eligibility resulted from him red-shirting after labrum surgery. He was a rare instance of the Pirates drafting a player later than he was expected to go instead of earlier. Their usual practice under Dave Littlefield was to overdraft in most of the top ten rounds, which made the players easier to sign for slot money. Baseball America expected Watson to go much earlier than the 9th round, so with a year of eligibility left it seemed as though he might be hard to sign, but he did so a few days after the draft.
Pitched well in ten starts at State College, although his K rate was well below league average. He was almost unhittable against left-handed batters, holding them to an OPS well under .500. Watson moved up to Hickory for three starts and pitched well in two of them.
The Pirates pushed him up to Lynchburg and he had a good, but erratic, season. He was an extreme flyball pitcher, with a ground out to air out ratio of 0.54, and remained much tougher against LH batters. Watson had an odd tendency to bounce back and forth between outstanding and poor outings. For instance, in his last eight starts, he had three in which he allowed only three hits in 21 innings, including one in which he allowed no hits over seven innings. He also had three starts in the same span in which he allowed either five or six earned runs.
Watson was throwing only 83-87 when I saw him in spring training, which makes me wonder whether he was healthy then. He was the opening day starter for Altoona, but struggled through five bad starts and then went on the DL for the rest of the year with a strained elbow. The injury may explain the struggles before he went out; for one thing, Watson had uncharacteristic control problems. He was healthy in time to go to the Arizona Fall League, where he pitched only in short stints.
Went back to Altoona and made a successful move to the bullpen. In 25 relief outings, he had an ERA of 1.84, with a measly 0.80 WHIP and a K/9 of 10.4. He moved back to the rotation late in the season and got hammered in his first two starts. In his last seven, however, he had an ERA of 2.25. That included three scoreless outings of six or seven innings each. Also importantly, he stayed healthy. Watson was nearly unhittable against left-handed batters, who batted only .131 against him in 2010.
Watson opened the season in AAA, but ended up spending over half of it in Pittsburgh. He pitched well during his time at Indianapolis and was effective against both right- and left-handed batters. The Pirates called him up in early June and he stayed in Pittsburgh except for a brief stretch in August. With Joe Beimel turning out to be a flop and Dan Moskos struggling with his control when he was in the majors, Watson was the closest thing the Pirates had to an effective left-handed reliever. He pitched well at times, but often struggled to throw strikes. Opponents hit only .228 against him, but he walked too many and also had some trouble with gopher balls, allowing one every seven innings. He was a fairly strong flyball pitcher overall. Left-handed hitters got a lot more hits against him (279/348/361), while he was more apt to walk right-handed hitters or allow longballs to them (193/304/409).
Watson spent the season as the primary, often the only, LHP in the Pirates’ bullpen. He led the team in relief appearances and improved over the course of the season. While the rest of the team was collapsing at the end of the year, Watson allowed an opponents’ OPS of just .475 in August and .367 in September. He held left-handed batters to a 183/252/301 line, while right-handed hitters managed a line of 213/318/372. Watson’s fastball velocity jumped from 91.2 on average (in the majors) in 2011 to 93.6. He largely scrapped his changeup and went with his slider a quarter of the time. He benefited from a low BABIP of .241, but his BABIP was .255 in the majors in 2011 and in the .240s in the minors in 2010-11. He made progress with his control, but it still was weak at times. It’s ironic that Clint Hurdle generally tried to use Watson heavily against left-handed hitters; slightly under half the plate appearances against him were by lefties. Joe Beimel and Doug Slaten were far less effective than Watson against right-handed batters, yet Hurdle insisted on using them strictly as one-inning pitchers.
Watson continued to improve and had the lowest WHIP of any Pirate pitcher with ten or more IP. He didn’t start the season strongly, as his ERA in April and May was 4.44. It was a good example of why reliever ERA is misleading, though, as his WHIP for the two months was just 1.14. After May, though, he was nearly untouchable, allowing a WHIP of just 0.73 and ERA of just 1.19. Improved control played a big role in his season and he walked nobody after July 21. Like many Pirate pitchers, Watson increased his groundball rate, in his case to a career high of 43.8%; he actually started throwing a sinker rather than a four-seamer in 2012. How sustainable this all may be is open to question. Watson saw a sharp drop in his K rate, which is puzzling because his percentage of swings and misses actually increased slightliy to an above-average 11.4%. The main difference was that hitters made much better contact on pitches outside the strike zone. His batting average on balls in play has always been very low — his career mark is .238 — but in 2013 it was a probably-unsustainable .227. His xFIP (3.72) was much higher than his ERA. He held right-handed batters to an OPS of .582 and left-handed hitters to .483. When Jason Grilli was hurt, Watson was the primary setup man.
Watson had a big year, establishing himself as one of the top setup men in baseball and making the All-Star team. He also led the NL in games pitched. Watson moved to the 8th-inning role early in the year, as Mark Melancon moved into the closer role first due to Jason Grilli going on the disabled list and then due to Grilli’s ineffectiveness when he returned. He got hit a little harder than the year before, mainly due to his BABIP increasing from .230 to a more realistic .306. He still held hitters to a line of 232/283/330 and his K rate increased to well over one per inning. Watson had a platoon split, allowing a .646 OPS to right-handed hitters and .531 to left-handed hitters. His groundball rate increased to a career high 47.7%.
Watson was eligible for arbitration for the first time and settled with the team for $1.75M. He then had another elite season, contributing with Melancon to the majors’ best record (36-17) in one-run games. Watson’s K rate was down, probably contributing to an xFIP of 3.60. Watson was deadly against left-handed hitters, who managed just a .493 OPS against him, but right-handed hitters produced only a .536 mark. His groundball rate, at 47.6%, was nearly identical to the previous year’s.
Watson had a rough season. Like nearly the entire pitching staff, he had a rough first month. He pitched mostly well from May through August, but he had a terrible September. His monthly opponents’ OPS:
The bad September was particularly damaging, of course, because Watson took over the closer role when the Pirates traded Melancon at the end of July. When he wasn’t pitching well, a lot of it was gopher balls. He gave up ten on the year, more than one every seven innings. Right-handed hitters gave him more trouble than usual, posting an OPS of .711 against him, compared to .577 by left-handed hitters. His xFIP of 4.20 was much higher than his ERA. That’s always been the case with Watson, probably due in part to his modest K rates and partly to low BABIPs. His 2016 BABIP was a very low .232, but his career BABIP is just .251, so he seems to have a legitimate ability to generate poor contact. The main difference for Watson in 2016 was an increase in his HR/FB rate to 14.1% from his previous career norm of about 8%. He’s lost a little fastball velocity, as his average from 2014-16 went from 94.3 mph to 93.8 to 93.2.
Despite considerable fan consternation about his showing as closer, Watson didn’t have a bad 2016 season, although he didn’t dominate like he did from 2013-15. He’ll be in his final season before free agency in 2017, but he won’t bring the sort of return in a trade that Melancon did. It’s unknown whether the Pirates will try to find a different closer for 2017 and return Watson to the setup role.
2011: Major League Minimum
|Signing Bonus: $85,000
MiLB Debut: 2007
MLB Debut: 6/8/2011
MiLB FA Eligible: N/A
MLB FA Eligible: 2017
Rule 5 Eligible: Protected
Added to 40-Man: 11/19/2010
Options Remaining: 2 (USED: 2011)
MLB Service Time: 5.101
|June 3, 2003: Drafted by the Florida Marlins in the 23rd round, 683rd overall pick.
June 6, 2006: Drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the 17th round, 505th overall pick.
June 8, 2007: Drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 9th round, 278th overall pick; signed on June 18.
November 19, 2010: Contract purchased by the Pittsburgh Pirates.