Since being moved to the closer position July 30th, Tony Watson has seemed to struggle more now than he has in the past. But the question is if those issues are being over analyzed, or if those issues are a real concern.
The first point with examining Tony Watson pitching in the ninth inning is the sample. He has been the official closer for all of 28 days, a very small sample to say “he cannot or should not close.” We’re dealing with less than a month of evidence and only 13 outings. Those 13 outings do not outweigh what Watson has done in his previous 334 outings, the ones where he posted a 2.29 ERA and a 3.14 FIP. His sample size for as the closer, is not nearly enough to say that he should be removed, it’s nonsense.
Another way to look at Watson’s 13 outings since becoming the closer is looking at the player who he replaced. Mark Melancon became the Pirates on June 20th, after Jason Grilli blew another save. Over the course of his first 13 appearances, Melancon posted a 2.92 ERA. Melancon did post an elite FIP of 2.08, as he walked zero batters and he struck out 13. In terms of allowing earned runs, Mark Melancon over his first 13 games as a closer was worse than Tony Watson, who has a 2.45 ERA. These both come in small samples, and we really can’t judge a small sample.
Tony Watson’s Batted Ball numbers remain similar.
What players have done off of Tony Watson since July 30th with the bat have not really changed. Before the move to closer, Watson had a very low batting average in balls in play (BAbip), a number of .226. From 2012-2015, a sample of 277.2 innings, Watson had a BAbip of .255. Since June 30th, that number is .242. Watson is regressing more towards his true numbers than he was at in the first 44 games of the season. It’s an expectation that occurs, as no pitcher can hold opponents to such as low average in ball in play.
Taking a look at other numbers show that Watson, in terms of opponents putting the bat on the ball, is fine. In Watson’s first 44 games, he had a soft contact percentage of 22.7, a medium contact percentage of 54.6, and he had a 22.7 percent hard contact percentage. In this small sample of 13 games, he has a 23.5 percent soft contact, 58.8 medium contact, and a 17.7 percent hard contact. There really isn’t much of a change for Tony. A look at his numbers from 2012-2015, shows that those percentages are 24.1, 54.3, 21.6. The ball in play has remained steady, and over the course of this season and next, Watson should look more and more better.
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The one concern with Tony Watson.
There is one concern for Tony, but still we’re dealing with a tiny sample. His strikeouts are down and his walks are up. As the setup man this season, Watson had a strikeout rate of 22.3 percent and a walk rate of 8.6 percent. From 2012-2015, Watson produced a strikeout rate of 22.9 percent and a walk rate of 6.1 percent. He was producing a similar strikeout rate, but an increased amount of walks were already a problem. From June 30th on, Tony Watson has a strikeout rate of only 14.9 percent and a walk rate of 10.6 percent. These are two huge problems, and it’s why his FIP remains a high 4.69.
Overall conclusion of Tony Watson the closer.
Like I wrote in the opening, it is way too soon to have concerns. It’s a small sample size to begin with. His ERA of 2.45 is actually better than the ERA of 2.66 he posted before becoming the closer. While he has not been missing bats and he is walking more people, Watson is still able to keep batters squaring up the baseball. The strikeouts will eventually come up and the walks will go down. There is no reason to really shy away from Watson as the closer, as his FIP is still in small sample. Tony Watson should and will remain the closer for the rest of this season, and all of next season, and as long as the Pirates employ a “closer”, Tony Watson will do fine.
*Numbers as of games entering Saturday, August 27th and numbers from fangraphs.com