Pittsburgh Pirates Arbitration Breakdown: Tony Watson


In the coming weeks here at Rum Bunter we will be taking a look at each arbitration eligible player for the Pittsburgh Pirates. We continue today with Tony Watson.

As Major League Baseball’s offseason begins, so does the decision making inside each of the 30 front offices. A big part of this decision making revolves around players that are arbitration eligible. Due to that, here at Rum Bunter we will take a look at each arbitration eligible Pirate in the coming days.

Next up on the docket is new Pirates’ closer Tony Watson. After three dominant seasons in 2013, 2014, and 2015 Watson took a step backward in 2016. Especially after being named closer following the trade of Mark Melancon.

As I said above, in 2013-2015 Tony Watson was absolutely dominant. In 224 1/3 innings pitched he allowed just 170 hits and 13 home runs. Furthermore, he averaged 7.90 K/9, just 1.77 BB/9, and he owned a 0.95 WHIP. All of this led to Watson posting a 1.97 ERA, a 2.98 FIP, 3.38 xFIP, and a 3.4 WAR over this three year stretch.

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A strong argument can be made that Tony Watson was the best left-handed reliever in baseball during this three year stretch. He was also named an All-Star, as a setup man nonetheless, in 2014.

No matter how you measure it 2016 was the worst season of Watson’s career. In 67 2/3 innings pitched in 2016 Tony Watson allowed a career high ten home runs. In fact, that is more home runs than he had allowed the past two seasons combined.

Watson’s 2.33 BB/9 was his highest since 2012. Control was far and away the biggest issue for Watson this season. He held opposing hitters to just a .209 batting average and he allowed just 52 hits in 67 2/3 innings pitched. But poor control led to an increase in both walks, home runs, and batters hit.

In 2016 Watson posted a 4.37 FIP which was the second highest of his career next to his 2011 rookie campaign. And his 4.20 xFIP was a career high. Furthermore, he posted a WAR of just -0.1.

Things turned especially sour for Tony Watson after Mark Melancon was traded. In 23 2/3 innings pitched after the Melancon trade Watson allowed 22 hits, six home runs, he averaged just 7.23 K/9, and he had a 5.60 FIP and a 4.41 xFIP.

There were still signs though that indicate that Tony Watson can be successful in 2017. The first such sign was his velocity. In 2015 his sinker 93.8 miles per hour and in 2016 it averaged 93.6 miles per hour. Additionally, both his slider and change up saw an uptick in velocity in 2016.

Secondly, Watson’s line drive rate dropped in 2016. In 2015 he owned a 20.9 percent line drive rate, but in 2016 this dropped to 17.8 percent. Finally, Watson still generated swings and misses in 2016. His swing and miss rate (52.5 percent) tied the career high he set in 2015. And his 12.8 percent swinging strike rate tied the career high he set back in 2014.

There are a lot of reasons to expect a bounce back season from Tony Watson in 2017. Personally, I would be surprised if that did not happen. The big thing Watson needs to do in 2017 is improve his control, and, odds are, there is a good chance that a mechanical tweak from Ray Searage can fix this.

2017 will be Tony Watson’s final season being arbitration eligible. In 2016 Watson earned 3.45 million dollars. Due to this, I would expect Watson to be awarded 4+ million dollars in arbitration this offseason.

Even with Watson’s struggles in 2016, in my opinion, he still has value for the 2017 Pittsburgh Pirates. Watson’s stuff still plays and if he can fix his control he can once again be a dominant reliever. That, of course, is far from a given though.

While I would offer Watson a contract if I were Neal Huntington, I would still shop him in trade talks this offseason. The main reason I would do this is because the Pirates’ already have a pair of back end power arms in Juan Nicasio and Felipe Rivero that can replace Watson as closer.

Previous arbitration breakdowns: