Tony Watson: Future Pirates Closer?

Pittsburgh Pirates LogoMark Melancon has done an admirable job as the Pirates closer the past few years. Unfortunately all good things must come to an end. Melancon is only under contract through 2016 and is sure to test the open market. But just like when Melancon took over for Jason Gilli in 2014, Pittsburgh has another reliever on standby to step into the closing role. Enter Tony Watson.

Watson has shown steady progression since his debut in 2011. For his career he owns a 2.46 ERA, a 1.03 WHIP and an 8.11 K/9, but his numbers the past 2 seasons tell an even better story. Watson’s 2 year average for ERA and WHIP is 1.77 and 0.99 respectively, and his K/9 stands at 8.41. Even if he has lower than normal strikeout numbers for a closer, if you tack on 30+ saves annually to those totals you get a top 10 closer. So what’s behind those nifty totals?

First of all, Watson has become very efficient when it comes to issuing free passes.  In his early days he had a BB/9 just over 4.0, but in 2013 he gained a new level of control.  While his career BB/9 total stands at 2.46, his average since 2013 is only 1.77. To show you how good that number is, I sorted all pitchers for the past 3 seasons using his 220 innings pitched as a baseline.  Over the past 3 seasons, only 16 pitchers have put up a lower BB/9, and all of them are starters.  Watson’s walk ratio rivals those of Clayton Kershaw and Matt Harvey and are better than Chris Sale and Zack Greinke – that’s some nice company.  If we lower the innings pitched threshold to 180 to include more players, Watson only drops four spots from 17 to 21.

Walks aren’t the only part of Watson’s game that has improved over the years.  Early on he had issues with the long ball, but over the past three seasons they have become a non-factor for him.  In that time, Watson has a HR/9 of 0.52.  Again I sorted all pitchers for the past three seasons using his 220 innings baseline, and Watson’s total is 5th in the majors – being bested only by Adam Wainwright, Jake Arrieta, Clayton Kershaw and Henderson Alverez.  When I lowered the innings threshold to 180 to include more players, Watson only dropped from 5 to 13 – just outside the top 10 but still ahead of ace relievers Aroldis Chapman, Zach Britton, Craig Kimbrel and Wade Davis.

So we know Watson doesn’t walk anyone and is good at limiting home runs.  What about hits?  Glad you asked. Watson has a career 6.8 H/9 along with a 77.4% contact rate (77% over the past 3 seasons).  The three-year average contact rate places him 30th overall for pitchers with 220+ innings and just inside the top 50 if we lower the innings total to 180.  While this number is not as elite as his walk or home run numbers, it still places him in the company of Stephen Strasburg & Madison Bumgarner and a notch below relievers such as Mark Melancon and Tyler Clippard.  His three-year average for Z-Contact% is much better at 83.2%; that’s good enough for 22nd on this list, and that is using the lower 180 innings total as a measuring stick.

Sticking with hits, it might surprise you to learn that over the past three seasons Watson has the lowest hard hit percentage in the majors at 20.9% (of pitchers with at least 180 innings).  Dallas Keuchel is the highest rated starting pitcher on the list with 23.3% followed by Garrett Richards at 25.2%.  So when batters do connect, it is medium or soft contact a majority of the time; this is one of several reason Watson is able to keep his home run total down. 

Another reason for the low home run total is his GB%.  Watson started his career with a GB% in the low 30’s, but each year that number has increased.  Over the past two seasons he has an average GB% of 47.7.  His FB% has taken the reverse path, starting out in the mid 40’s in his debut season to 31.7% the past two years.  That number is somewhat high, that is until you factor in the IFFB% of 12.6 which ranks in the top 30.  Watson also has a low HR/FB% during this time (6.3%).  This may seem low and unsustainable, but a high IFFB% combined with a low Hard Hit percentage means he could easily keep the ball in the park.

His pitch selection is the final piece of the puzzle here; something that can bring together the IFFB% and low HR/FB%.  Watson throws a sinker with incredible movement and speed.  He also throws one of the better changeups in the game, also with incredible movement – both pitches have 12 or so inches of horizontal movement and 6 inches of vertical movement.  A 95 MPH sinker (which he utilized 75% of the time in 2015) combined with an 85 MPH changeup to keep batters off balance make for a deadly combination, especially when you have the type of command Watson has.

Now I mentioned in the intro that Watson doesn’t strike batters out at the rate of your typical closer, but that does not mean he doesn’t have strikeout ability.  His two-year average for F-Strike% (65.2) and SwStr% (12.2) rank him in the top 40 for each category among starters and relievers.  Also, while his career K/9 stands at 8.45, he has had seasons (both major and minor) where the K/9 was at or above 9.0.  While you won’t get big strikeout numbers from Watson, the rest of his numbers make him the total package. 

Putting all this into fantasy perspective and using his last two years as an average: Watson is good for an ERA under 2.0, a WHIP of 1.0 and around 8.5 strikeouts per nine.  Just like I said in the intro, if you tack 30+ saves on to those totals you’ve got a top 5 closer.  If you play in a dynasty league or keeper league that retains 12 or more players, I would hold Watson or target him now before the changing of the guard.  For those drafting in 2016, take a late round flyer on Watson.  Even if he doesn’t get the closer job this season, his ratios will easily help your team just as Darren O’Day and Tyler Clippard have done for years.

All stats provided courtesy of FanGraphs

 

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Jim Finch
The self proclaimed Grand High Exhausted Mystic Ruler of Fantasy Baseball. While I am not related to Jennie or Sidd Finch, I will attempt to uphold the integrity of the Finch family name as it relates to baseball. You can also find me at FanRagSports.com
Jim Finch

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