Neftali Feliz Needs To Replace Tony Watson

Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports /

Left-handed reliever Tony Watson is struggling like he never has before this season, so how do the Pittsburgh Pirates need to handle the situation?

A strong argument can be made that the past three season Tony Watson has been the best left-handed reliever in Major League Baseball not named Aroldis Chapman. The success of Tony Watson in this time frame played a large role in the success of the Pittsburgh Pirates the past three seasons. This is because it helped give the Pirates one of the most dominant bullpens in baseball.

During the past three season Watson pitched 224 1/3 innings out of the Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen, and he was nearly untouchable. In those 224 1/3 innings pitched Watson averaged 7.90 K/9, 1.77 BB/9, 0.52 HR/9, and had a WHIP of 0.95. All of this resulted in a 1.97 ERA and a 2.91 FIP for Watson. Simply put, Watson was dominant.

However, 2016 has been completely different for Tony Watson. So far this season Tony Watson has pitched 24 innings, and they have been the 24 worst innings of his Major League career. Watson is averaging 7.88 K/9, 3.75 BB/9, 1.50 HR/9, and he has a WHIP of 1.13. This has all culminated in Watson posting a 4.50 ERA, 5.04 FIP, and a 4.63 xFIP.

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The struggles of Tony Watson are perplexing. Hitters are hitting .196 off his fastball, .160 off his change up, and .250 off of his slider. With the exception of his slider, all of these numbers are better than his career opponent batting average against off each of these pitches. Watson’s biggest issue this season is an increased walk rate and home run rate, but there is no clear explanation for these two rates spiking.

Tony Watson’s ERA, FIP, xFIP, and HR/9 are all currently the highest of any season in his Major League career. Furthermore, his 3.75 BB/9 is the second highest of his career behind the 4.39 BB/9 he averaged as a rookie in 2011. The time has come that the Pittsburgh Pirates change the way they handle Tony Watson.

Now, do not get me wrong, I still believe Tony Watson should be a key member of the Pirate bullpen. Prior to allowing seven earned runs in his last 2 1/3 innings pitched, Watson had a 2.08 ERA and a 0.92 WHIP in 21 2/3 innings pitched. Also, before Thursday night in Miami Tony Watson had not even allowed a base hit since May 6th. However, Tony Watson should no longer be Mark Melancon‘s setup man that should be Neftali Feliz.

Apr 24, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Neftali Feliz against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 24, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Neftali Feliz against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

Neftali Feliz is a former All-Star closer with the Texas Rangers, but is having the best season of his career in 2016. So far this year Feliz has pitched 20 1/3 innings and is averaging 10.45 K/9, 1.31 BB/9, 0.87 HR/9, and has a 0.74 WHIP. All of this has resulted in Feliz posting a 2.61 ERA, 2.64 FIP, and a xFIP of 3.26.

Feliz currently has the second best ERA, FIP, xFIP, and K/9 of his career behind just his rookie season of 2009. Meanwhile, Feliz’s BB/9 is by far the best of his career while his WHIP is also a career low. Opposing hitters have been absolutely hopeless against Neftali Feliz this season.

At least until Tony Watson begins to right the ship, Neftali Feliz should become Mark Melancon‘s primary setup man. A big reason Feliz has been so dominant this season is that his average fastball velocity of 94.8 miles per hour is the highest it has been since 2012.

Even with his struggles, Tony Watson is still one of the most talented relievers in the Pirate bullpen. For this season, I would still use Watson in high leverage situations right now. I would just simply have Neftali Feliz higher in the pecking order.

I do expect Tony Watson to eventually straighten things out this year. Like I pointed out above, there are no clear signs as to why his walk and home run rates have jumped which lead me to believe they will stabilize at some point. Plus, Watson was pretty dominant in the month of May.

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Right now, Tony Watson’s struggles are hurting the Pittsburgh Pirates and the bullpen. On Thursday night in Miami he took over in the eighth inning of a tie game, and wound up surrendering the eventual winning run. Then on Sunday against the Angels Watson blew a 4-3 eighth inning lead against by allowing a two-run home run to Albert Pujols. And this came the day after Watson inherited an 8-3 lead, and allowed four runs while only recorded one out before Feliz had to come into the game to save the day.

As I said above, I still believe Tony Watson should be a key component in the Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen but Neftali Feliz needs to be ahead of him in the bullpen pecking order. Right now, Neftali Feliz is the most dominating reliever in the Pirate bullpen. As long as Tony Watson keeps struggling, he needs to be replaced as the Pirates primary setup man by Neftali Feliz.