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Updated 2 hours ago
BRADENTON, Fla. — This spring, something seems different about Tony Watson.
Watson appears a skosh leaner. There's an air about him that suggests added confidence after navigating his first stint as the Pirates' full-time closer. Perhaps he's a bit wiser, too, after absorbing a few tough outings last season.
Pitching coach Ray Searage, a savant of spin rates, delivery mechanics, release points, perceived velocity and upper-body rotation, mulled how to put Watson's new vibe into words. He came up with a decidedly nontechnical term.
“Loosey-goosey,” Searage said, grinning. “Now he looks like the Watty from '15.”
Watson was very good in 2015, as well as the season before. In that two-year span, he put up a 1.77 ERA and a 0.99 WHIP. Over 152 2⁄3 innings, the left-hander racked up 143 strikeouts, allowed four homers and issued 32 walks.
Last year was a bumpier ride. Watson inherited the closer's role when Mark Melancon was traded in late July, but was not as dominant as usual. Watson blew five of his 20 save chances, served up 10 homers and saw his ERA inflate to 3.06.
“Sometimes, I went out there and my arm felt good, my legs felt good, but I just couldn't put it all together,” Watson admitted. “Something was off. Maybe my delivery was off.”
Searage said Watson ramped up his offseason workouts before the 2016 season, but might have done too much.
“He told me he cut a couple exercises out of his winter workouts,” Searage said. “That helped him to get more flexible and more loosey-goosey.”
In one aspect, Watson's offseason routine got a lot busier. He and his wife had their second child last year, so now he's helping care for an infant and a rambunctious 2-year-old.
“Chasing them around the house and trying to keep up is fun, but it's busy,” Watson said.
The combination of laboring in the weight room and tucking kids into car seats helped Watson limber up. He came to camp trimmer than a year ago.
“What Ray was talking about — the loosey-goosey — is going to help me be able to pound that extension fastball,” Watson said. “That's important for my delivery. Everything I do feeds off that pitch.
“At times, it was there last year. At times, it was in the general area — and ‘in the general area' in the major leagues is not going to get it done every night.”
When Watson allowed fly balls in 2015, batters hit .118 with a .366 OPS. Last season, batters hit .200 with a .840 OPS when they put the ball in the air against him.
The 10 homers Watson allowed were as many as he yielded in 2013 and 2014 combined. He gave up three homers in 2015.
Six of those 10 home runs came after Watson became the closer. Three were clubbed in a nightmarish ninth inning Sept. 6, when Watson coughed up a one-run lead against the St. Louis Cardinals.
“It was location, more than anything else,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “I think it was just a speed bump. I think he's learned from it, and I don't anticipate those type of challenges again.”
The home runs were Watson's most glaring problem, but he was bothered more by some of his peripheral stats. His average of 2.7 walks per nine innings pitched was his worst since 2012. His rate of 7.7 strikeouts per nine innings was the lowest of his career.
“The things that burned me the most, I thought, were walks,” Watson said. “Home runs, walks … it's lack of execution. Not getting the ball where you want.”
After a tough outing, Watson usually would get encouragement via text message from Melancon, who kept tabs on his old club after being traded to the Washington Nationals.
“I'm just trying to pick up where he left off,” Watson said. “It was a great experience, closing games down the stretch. A lot of adversity. A lot of ups and downs.
“To go out there some nights without my best stuff and lock down the last three outs was really important for me. I know now I can pitch without my best stuff and get the job done at the highest level in the last inning.”
Rob Biertempfel is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.
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