Hidden Vigorish

Detailed Analysis of The Pittsburgh Pirates

Maximizing Tony Watson

Tony Watson has been sensational out of the bullpen for the Pittsburgh Pirates this season. Sporting just a 0.87 ERA in 31 innings this season, Watson has been the Pirates’ most valuable pitcher. And I mean that quite literally. His 0.9 fWAR is the highest on the team. To lead a pitching staff in WAR is practically unheard of for a non-closer relief pitcher. Watson has been so good he has been virtually unhittable. In fact, you have to go back to May 22nd, three whole weeks, to find the last time he did surrender a hit. He is also working on a 21.2 inning scoreless streak. So of course when a guy is this successful fans want to make him into something more. The logical progression is to turn him into a closer. There is no doubt in mind that Watson would make a great closer. But I’m not so sure he is more valuable to the team in that role. He is already pitching in high leverage situations that rivals the closer role on most teams. His 16 appearances in high leverage situations is tied with Mark Melancon for the team lead, and only 3 less than NL leader Sergio Romo. To me closers are overrated, and the way manager Clint Hurdle uses his bullpen Tony Watson will get more work and just as many high leverage situations in his current role than he would if he were closing.
Of course not all suggestions of change are so logical. It is one thing to suggest Tony Watson become the closer, but Richard over Saberbucs.net goes so far as to suggest the Pirates turn Watson into a starting pitcher. Let me first say I give credit to Richard for thinking outside the box and floating an idea that has virtually no chance of ever happening. So let me tell you why it won’t happen.
Tony Watson is a 29 year old relief pitcher that is 4 years removed from being a starting pitcher. This is a guy that is now indoctrinated into being a reliever. It is what his role is. It is what he is comfortable as. It is what he has been successful being. He pitches exclusively out of the stretch. There are very few examples of guys going back to starting after having been a reliever for any length of time. The best example Richard came up with was John Smiley. It is a huge reach to call these situations comparable. Smiley was a 23 year old two years removed from last being a starting pitcher, and had struggled in a relief role. Tony Watson is a 29 year old four years removed from last being a starting pitcher, and is dominating as a reliever. With Smiley the Pirates were searching for an answer to salvage him. There was no risk in trying to convert him back. With Watson you are trying to cover a perceived weakness with a strength. Pulling the linchpin from your bullpen is a huge gamble, and frankly I think a silly one. The idea that you can just plug and play any pitcher into the role of a high leverage reliever is misguided. And when you look at the future of the Pirates roster it is tough to see an experienced late inning guy other than Watson being around much longer. Jason Grilli will be a free agent after this season and Mark Melancon’s salary is approaching a level that the Pirates will be uncomfortable fitting within their relatively small payroll.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Tony Watson is incapable of starting. But there are some significant barriers for him to hurdle to become a top of the rotation pitcher. And let’s face it, if Watson can’t become a number 3 starter or better then such a move would be a flop. The Pirates already have plenty of guys capable of filling the back end of a rotation. For Watson to become a good starting pitcher he would first need stretched out. This isn’t a guy accustomed to throwing 90+ pitches an outing. So it is probably too late in the year to make the change this season. If you were to make such a move next season he’d probably have a pretty hard innings limit for his first season. His career high in innings was 151.2, but that was back in 2008. The last time he threw more than 100 innings was 2010. It is hard to envision the Pirates allowing him to throw much more than a 140 innings in his first season as a starter. If you’re lucky he makes 25 starts, and probably gets shut down in September. In addition to the workload concerns there are questions that remain as to whether he can alter his style of pitching and still be successful. He will have to dial down his fastball a bit. No way he can sit at 94 mph with his fastball over a 6 inning stint. He will have use his off speed pitches more. He will have to adjust to hitters seeing him multiple times in a game. There are just too many reasons why something like shouldn’t be tried. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. As for the starting rotation, that would be best addressed by acquiring proven starting pitchers. That might not be some novel out of the box solution, but it is a darn good solution that is hard to argue with.


  1. I agree. There is no reason to turn Watson into a starter unless he can be a number 2 or 3 starter.

    The only thing the Pirates could use would be to acquire a solid number one or number two pitcher.

    The Pirates can try to resign Volquez to fill out the back end of the rotation. They also have Vance Worley, Cumpton, and Jeff Locke to compete for the 5th spot in the rotation.

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