Tony Watson Is Doing Just Fine As Closer

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Apr 14, 2017; Chicago, IL, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli (29) and relief pitcher Tony Watson (44) celebrate after defeating the Chicago Cubs 4-2 at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 14, 2017; Chicago, IL, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli (29) and relief pitcher Tony Watson (44) celebrate after defeating the Chicago Cubs 4-2 at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports /
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Pittsburgh Pirates closer Tony Watson has appeared to be dancing out of rain drops all season long in the ninth inning.  However, a deeper look into the numbers shows that might not really paint the correct picture.

Tony Watson has allowed one run all year, that coming on a wind-blown home at Wrigley Field off the bat of Kris Bryant.  That does not show up in a pitchers numbers, as it treats all home runs the same.

However, the ball struck by Bryant had an exit velocity of 89.9 miles per hour with a launch angle of 33 degrees, traveling 383 feet.  Giving a +/- of two to both the exit velocity (88-92) and launch angle (31-35), the batting average comes out to .058 a slugging percentage of .159, the wOBA is just .084.

This doesn’t account for direction either, and Kris Bryant’s home run was just left of center field, landing in the basket in front of the 365 sign.  On a normal day, that ball is caught by Starling Marte.  That does not show up in Tony Watson’s metrics, it just shows as a home run, and that increases his FIP, and that’s the problem with just using one metric.

Watson’s FIP is currently at 5.87, and that is because 20 percent of his fly balls have been home runs, and that one home run was wind-blown and usually does not do damage given the launch angle and exit velocity.  That’s why one stat that doesn’t tell all, there is much more to the numbers, especially when only pitching in 9.1 innings to this point.

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Another part of FIP is the strikeout.  Watson is currently striking out 10.9 percent of hitters, a career low.  It would appear he is not missing bats, especially when Pirates relief weapon Felipe Rivero is striking out hitters 21.8 percent of the time, eighth inning reliever Daniel Hudson is striking out 22.2 percent, and another relief weapon Juan Nicasio is striking out 22.5 percent of the time.

However, Tony Watson is getting whiffs on 28.95 percent of his swings, the best rate on the team.  Daniel Hudson is at just 25 percent, Juan Nicasio 20.99 percent, and Felipe Rivero 20.39 percent.  Similarly, Watson is getting whiffs on 14.29 percent of his pitches, Hudson 12.57 percent, Rivero 10.48 percent, and Nicasio 9.94 percent.  Watson leads the team in this as well.

His strike out rate is low, and that should be a concern, but he does rank in the 76.9th percentile among those with over 100 pitches in the league in whiffs per pitch.  Watson is also getting whiffs per pitch at a career best.  Little strikeouts are concerning, but he is still missing bats (or getting foul balls) and at a career best rate.

Watson is also getting very soft contact.  His 76.3 mile per hour exit velocity and 1.3 degree launch angle are both the lowest on the team, and it is a big reason why he is producing a 59.4 percent ground ball rate.  Among the 314 pitchers with 20+ at bats, Watson has the lowest average exit velocity and the 29th lowest launch angle.

Watson is getting soft contact and ground balls.  If you’re not going to get strike outs, getting the softest contact in the league is the way to go.

In fact, Watson may actually be more unlucky than it appears.  His expected wOBA is .300 but opponents currently have a .322 wOBA.  Additionally, batters have a .237 average compared to the .228 expected average.  There is a difference, suggesting Tony Watson is a tad unlucky right now, but he still needs to strikeout hitters to have sustained success for the season.

Of course, it would not be fair to just point out the positives.  There should be a concern for how much Watson is in the strike zone, his current rate of 48.5 percent the second lowest for his career, and for reference Tyler Glasnow is at 48.31 percent.  That is concerning, and plays into his career high 10.9 percent walk rate.

All in all though, Watson’s FIP is a tad misleading given the home run he allowed to Kris Bryant is rarely a home run, and it took gusting winds at Wrigley to get it over the fence.  He’s allowing really soft contact at a low launch angle to achieve a high rate of ground balls.  Watson is getting whiffs per swing and whiffs per pitch at the best rate on the team  Of course he is not striking many hitters out and walking batters, but if he keeps getting this soft of contact and on the ground, Watson should be fine.

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