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What’s the matter with Tony Watson?

The dependable lefty has been very undependable lately.

Philadelphia Phillies v San Francisco Giants Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

In Sunday afternoon’s dull loss to the Diamondbacks, Tony Watson got a “get right” inning. With a four-run deficit, Watson had an opportunity to work whatever had been plaguing him over his previous three outings. In those appearances, Watson had given up nine runs while only retiring three batters. His season ERA exploded up to 4.50 from 2.80.

His outing on Sunday didn’t go great. He faced six batters, allowing one hit, striking out one, and walking three. Watson wasn’t able to finish his low-pressure inning, and now his ERA is up to 4.63.

The good news is that isn’t anything obviously wrong with Watson that might have started this dismal stretch. His velocity reached 95 mph on Sunday, and Watson says he feels fine. Relievers are simply prone to stretches like this because on any given day, they don’t have the benefit of second chances. If a reliever gets on the mound and discovers—uh oh—they’ve left their breaking ball in their other pants, they don’t get two, three, four innings to rediscover feel for their pitch like a starter might. Sometimes, these outings can string together like they have for Watson.

The bad news is that Watson had this coming. Before he fell into an open manhole, Watson was running a 4.10 FIP and 4.45 xFIP. His 3.3 walk percentage was among the best in the majors, but his strikeout rate of 18.6 was approaching a career-low. That’s close to a 10 percentage point drop from his first year in a Giants uniform.

Watson throws four pitches: four seam fastball, sinker, slider, and changeup. He uses the changeup to righties and slider to lefties. You’ve probably noticed that Watson has had really weird platoon splits this year. Righties are hitting .246 against Watson this year while lefties are hitting .370.

The difference between this year and last year is that this year, Watson’s slider hasn’t been nearly as effective. In 2018, Watson could use his slider to make hitters look silly and get lefties to lunge out of the zone. In 2019, it hasn’t been the same. Lefties aren’t swinging and missing at Watson’s slider at the same rate this year.

Watson’s slider isn’t moving the same as it has in previous years. It’s lost nearly three inches of drop and an inch of break. It’s coming in a little straighter now, so if it’s in the zone, hitters aren’t missing it.

Without the slider, Watson has to rely on his fastballs to get him through. He made it to August just fine, but he hasn’t been able to locate his sinker or four seamer as of late. We saw that on Sunday when he walked in a run.

The changeup is still good, and as long as he can hit his spots with the fastball, he can get at least get righties out. Watson’s recent funk has been unusually bad, but even with a diminished slider he should still be an effective reliever.