I swooned over Tony Watson back in October because he was one of the few bright spots in 2018. I think we can all agree those bright spots were:
- Pablo pitching
- Andrew McCutchen’s walk-off HR against the Dodgers
- Tony Watson
- Dereck Rodriguez
- Farhan Zaidi
The Giants signed him last February to a 2-year deal with an option and a guaranteed $9 million that could go as high as $21 million with performances bonuses and escalators. He wound up being one of the best relievers in baseball, so not only did that luxury tax/salary cap-friendly deal help the Giants reset their penalty so that they could do nothing this offseason, it also set him up to get paid for stellar performance.
Where would they have been without him? Games would’ve felt a lot more miserable, that’s for sure. We would’ve had far less to swoon over, too. Swooning, of course, is at least as important as rooting for a winning team. I digress!
Farhan Zaidi is counting on the team to have an elite-ish bullpen, at least in the early part of the season, as he tries to goose as much positive performance out of the many veterans on the roster before stripping it for parts as the he transitions the organization into Rebuild Mode, and it’s safe to say that Watson’s track record and extra year of team control makes him one of the most attractive trade chips in the organization.
Pitchers have been mostly immune to the hedge fund effects on baseball roster management and mid-thirties pitchers have managed to hold their value despite the “launch angle revolution” and the higher pitching velocities, so we don’t need to rethink Watson’s value in the same way we do any of the hitters or Madison Bumgarner.
Watson’s 2.45 FIP last year was a full run lower than his career FIP of 3.60 — in fact, he had such a great season that it lowered that career number to 3.45 — so in one sense it was an outlier, but in another sense, he got better with age and thanks to his new home ballpark.
Just look at these blindingly bright home numbers:
33 IP, 1.36 ERA, 35 strikeouts, 2 walks, 0.85 WHIP, 9.5 strikeouts per 9 innings.
Watson’s lefty-righty splits are also pretty good — he can reliably pitch against lefties and righties, although he did show a very slight lean towards being a lefty specialist. This could be the one thing holding him back from being the Giants’ sole eighth inning guy, but given the depth of talent in the ‘pen, that’s a good problem to have.
It seems unlikely that he’d duplicate his 2018 season perfectly, but the ingredients for similar success are there. Looking at the Statcast data, he saw a dip in velocity across the board between 2017 and 2018 — terrifyingly, nearly a full mile per hour on all three of his pitches; literally, the fastball went from 93.5 mph to 92.5 — but increased the spin rates for his fastball and slider (by 2% and 4%, respectively).
Average exit velocity and hard hit rates both jumped up to the highest Statcast has ever seen off of Watson, though, and those underlying numbers coupled with his age certainly point towards a more mortal-looking Tony Watson in 2019 and beyond. Still, a 27.6% strike out rate and 5.4% walk rate are outstanding and much higher than his usual and above the league average. He’s figured out how to turn into the skid that is mortality.
The 2018 Giants would’ve been much worse without him. If the 2019 team is destined to at worst be 2018’s equal, then they’ll need Watson to do what he does best — be good — for as long as possible.
Almost certainly. His $7+ million salary — it’s a bit vague because it’s based on incentives earned after his stellar 2018 — might hold back the return because 1) teams are treating the luxury tax as a salary cap and most of the good teams are going to be closer to the line anyway and not want to lose “payroll flexibility” and 2) it’s no guarantee that the Giants would be willing to pay down some of the money owed just to acquire a better player.
Remember, baseball teams exist to enrich its investors, and given how much space under the salary cap the Giants will be entering the season, it’s a safe bet that in order to avoid diminishing returns to the team’s investors thanks to two consecutive godawful seasons and declining attendance, the team just won’t spend as much on its major league payroll for the foreseeable future. That’s just good business.
Still, as I noted in that season review, he was fantastic last year.
His 1.8 wins above replacement puts him in a six-way tie as the 14th-best reliever in all of baseball, better than notable names like Craig Kimbrel (1.5), Brad Hand (1.3), Kyle Crick (1.0) Wade Davis (0.9), and Adam Cimber (0.7). Hand and Cimber were traded together for the #1 catching prospect in all of baseball at [the 2018] trade deadline.
Watson turns 34 in May, but he does have an option for 2020. His splits overall are excellent so there’s a chance a trading team views him as a full reliever solution instead of just a lefty specialist. If he approximates his performance, then the Giants could get really cocky with what they ask in return.