By the nature of modern Major League Baseball, whoever has the role of “closer” is usually the star of any bullpen.
For a long time this season, the face of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ “Shark Tank” relief corps was Jason Grilli, he of the deadly fastball-slider combo and spectacular career resuscitation. Once Grilli went down with a forearm strain in late July, sterling setup man Mark Melancon took over in the ninth and – despite a rare rocky outing Tuesday night in Texas - has leaned on a biting cutter to finish games with little drama over the past several weeks.
But while Melancon has the glamour role now, even as Grilli works his way back into peak form, the man who has done the most in keeping the Bucs bullpen close to its spectacular first-half level is lefthander Tony Watson.
Watson, a 28-year-old third-year Pirate from Sioux City, Iowa, has been on a remarkable run in the season’s unofficial second half. A glance at his recent game log is eye-opening, as he was been charged with exactly two earned runs in his last 24 appearances – with both of those runs occurring in a single game: Aug. 3 vs. Colorado.
His recent run of success is impressive in the above context alone, as Watson carries a streak of 16 consecutive scoreless appearances into Wednesday afternoon’s series finale in Texas. Beyond that, Watson has surrendered a lead just twice in 26 opportunities this season, and furthermore he has enhanced the Pirates’ odds to win in 15 of his past 20 outings, according to Win Probability Added (WPA).
Watson’s strike-throwing prowess has added to his value as a late-inning reliever. To wit, he hasn’t walked a single batter in his last 20 games, dating back to July 21 at Cincinnati. Although he possesses an effective mid-90s fastball/slider repertoire, Watson isn’t known as a strikeout pitcher, so limiting the free passes has been critical to his success.
Maybe we should’ve known Watson had the ability to cut it in high-leverage spots, as he struck out the only two batters he faced in his MLB debut June 8, 2011 against Arizona. Watson entered with the score tied in the eighth and two runners on before memorably escaping at PNC Park.
Watson executed a similar trick Tuesday night in Texas, striking out Jeff Baker with the potential tying run at second base in the bottom of the eighth, bailing Grilli out of a jam and setting up Melancon.
The irony of being a setup man is you often face the most pivotal situations of a ballgame, only to have the “closer” get most of the publicity. Watson has performed like a star this year, even if he hasn’t been lauded as such. It’s time for that to change.