MLB: Tony Watson is Different, Better Now

Since being acquired by the Los Angeles Dodgers at the trade deadline, Tony Watson has become an integral part of the team’s bullpen.

On July 31, the Dodgers made waves when they announced the addition of Yu Darvish to a playoff-bound rotation that already featured Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill. Hidden under the excitement of such a move, was the addition of two lesser known left-handed relievers , Tony Watson and Tony Cingrani. While the latter has received much media attention regarding his ascent from struggling Cincinnati Reds reliever to Los Angeles Dodgers set-up man, Watson has made his own improvements providing another weapon to a deep Dodgers’ bullpen.

Watson had spent previous seasons as the Pittsburgh Pirates closer, accruing 25 saves across parts of 2 campaigns with the Bucs. For his career, Watson has earned a 2.68 ERA along with a 21.8 K% and 6.9 BB% – both average or better marks relative to his peers. In 47 first half appearances with the Pirates however, those numbers regressed to a 3.66 ERA with a 16.8 K% and 6.7 BB%

Watson Struggles with Long Ball Early

Watson entered the 2017 campaign on the back of his worst season since 2012 and with young flame-thrower Felipe Rivero making an impressive pitch for the closers role. Things continued to turn south for Watson as the southpaw continued to see his strikeout rate fall while allowing a career high 1.35 home runs per game. Watson would eventually be dethroned by Rivero and it appeared that the formerly dominant reliever was entering his decline at age 32.

Figure 1: Tony Watson Career Peripherals, Stats Courtesy of Fangraphs

Year

K%

BB%

HR/9
2011 21.3 11.5 1.32
2012 24.7 10.7 0.84
2013 19.3 4.3 0.63
2014 26.6 4.9 0.58
2015 21.2 5.8 .36
2016 21.3 7.4 1.33
2017(Pirates) 16.8 6.7

1.35

As you can see in the table above, Watson’s peripherals had gotten progressively worse since 2014 – a pattern coinciding with a steady decrease in Watson’s fastball velocity. In what appears likely an attempt to combat the effects of aging on a declining fastball, Watson moved away from his sinker in favor of the 4 seam, throwing the pitch just 29.3% of the time in the first half of 2017, down from his career rate of 38.5%. Throwing a declining 4 seam in place of his trademark sinker, Watson watched as his fastballs failed to miss bats, instead leaving the yard at an alarming pace.

A Re-modeled approach brings success for Watson

On the 31st of July, Tony Watson was acquired by the Dodgers in exchange for two lower tier prospects. In 24 appearances since then, Watson has been impressive sporting a 2.70 ERA with his strikeout rate returning to a far better 22% and allowing less than one home run per 9 innings. Instead of the liability Watson represented as the Pirates closer, Watson has become a weapon for the Dodgers.

So what changed? Tony Watson’s success can likely be attributed to three key differences:

Changing the Pitch Mix. As I mentioned earlier, it appears Watson had been shying away from his sinker as its velocity continued to diminish. The Dodgers responded however, by shifting Watson in the polar opposite direction, pushing the 32 year old to use the sinker over 45% of the time – the highest usage rate since 2013. Further, with the Dodgers, Watson turned to the slider as his leading secondary offering, with it outpacing his changeup usage for the first time in his career.

A Velocity Boost. When trying to explain sudden improvements in performance for pitchers, a jump in velocity is never a bad place to start. This holds true for Watson as his sinker velocity has increased by almost a full mile per hour. This increase has carried over to his slider as well helping generate extra swings and misses.

Changing Locations. Since joining the Dodgers, Watson’s zone profile has changed drastically. Let me first show this visually:

 

 

On the left is Watson’s zone profile in the first half of 2017, on the right shows Watsons zone profile after his acquisition by the Dodgers. As you can see clearly, two obvious changes occur. Firstly, Watson almost stopped throwing to his glove-side (inside to right-handers) pitching almost exclusively arm-side. The second and perhaps most important, Watson simply stopped throwing the fastball in the strike zone with a far greater percentage of pitches finding the corners.

The sum of these changes means that Watson is now posting an absurd 60% ground ball rate thanks to the return of his sinker. On top of this, the added velocity to both his sinker an slider has lead to an increase in his strikeout rate, back to career norms. Further, avoiding the middle of the zone has allowed Watson to avoid any meaningful contact from opposing hitters.

The result of all this? Tony Watson had at one point looked like a reliever on the wrong side of his career arc, instead the left-hander is in the midst of a deep October run and an undeniable strength in the Dodgers bullpen.

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