Tony Watson was an All-Star last season. If you’re a casual fan and the Pirates aren’t your team, you maybe weren’t aware of that. The 29-year-old left-hander isn’t exactly a household name.
Opposing hitters know who he is. Working as a set-up man in the City of Bridges, Watson had a 1.63 ERA in 78 appearances for the NL Central squad. A year earlier, he was almost as busy and nearly as good. Ever since he was introduced to a sinker by erstwhile Bucs’ backstop Rod Barajas, in 2012, the former University of Nebraska Cornhusker has been stellar.
Watson is a big believer in establishing your fastball to both sides of the plate.
“You have to do that,” said Watson. “Otherwise, hitters can eliminate pitches and portions of the plate. When that happens, you’re basically putting it on a tee for them. I pitch off my fastball with sliders and changeups, and try to keep hitters off balance. Pitching is all about upsetting timing.”
His changeup, which he’s using more frequently – 21% in April versus 10.7% last year – is a pitch he’s always had a good feel for. He throws it with white-on-white deception, and a grip that belies its movement.
“It’s a four-seam grip, but for some reason it comes out looking like a two-seam,” said Watson. “I kind of pronate to get a little more action, and I guess my long-ass fingers have something to do with it as well.
“I find I can spin a four-seam change-up better. It’s about spin, and you don’t want the ball to be red – you don’t want the hitter to see a seam – because if he recognizes the pitch, he’ll either spit on it or hit it hard somewhere. You want more white on the ball, so the hitter’s eyes see white.”
The glib lefty saw his name in the Win column 10 times last year, a high number for a reliever who allowed just 16 runs. There were a few vultures along the way, but for the most part, he put up zeroes with games in the balance. What does he think of his 10-2 record?
“I was on the fortunate end last year,” admitted Watson, with a smile. “But as a reliever, you don’t put too much stock in that. Wins are for the starters. Our jobs are to preserve them for those guys. When we get them, we’re usually just in the right place at the right time. If we can go out there and get our outs, and get the boys back in the dugout, good things can happen.”
A second-round selection in 2013, McMahon knows how to handle a bat. Last year he hit .282 with 18 home runs and 46 doubles as a teenager in the South Atlantic League. He did so with a straightforward approach.
“I split the plate up into three sections and kind of widen that middle,” said McMahon, who ranks as Colorado’s No. 4 prospect. “I look for something in there and attack it. When you hunt the middle, you just sort of naturally cover the inner and outer halves. My plan is really just to relax and react.”
McMahon primarily drives the ball to the gaps — “I’m still working on my pull-side power” – and he likes to let the ball travel. The left-handed hitter strives to “let the pitches come to me,” which has been his M.O. since his days as a California prep. His conversations with Morneau haven’t been about changing, but rather about refining what already works.
“I wouldn’t try to compare myself to him, but I think we have a similar approach,” said McMahon. “I’ve picked his brain and he’s given me some helpful pointers. I’m already putting them to use.”
McMahon is beginning the current campaign in high-A Modesto, where he has an .863 OPS through 16 games.
J.T. Watkins has one of the more unique backgrounds in professional baseball. The 25-year-old Red Sox catching prospect graduated from West Point and holds the rank of First Lieutenant. A 10th-round pick in 2012, he played a summer of short-season ball before spending two years fulfilling his military obligations. He’s currently in extended spring training rebuilding his baseball skills.
Watkins’ major was operations research – “It’s kind of like applied math with a little bit of systems engineering” – and along with playing baseball at West Point, he made the game a part of his studies.
“I took a class called Sabermetrics,” said Watkins. “It was taught by Father Costa. He’s a Catholic priest and has been teaching it there for years. If your major is math, or systems engineering, you have the option of taking it. It was my favorite class by far.”
Watkins is in the Individual Ready Reserve now, which allows him to pursue a career in baseball, He wasn’t yet an artillery officer, nor had he graduated from ranger school, during his earlier stint in the minors. But in the eyes of his teammates, he was already well-versed in the ways of warfare.
“When you come to a team, the guys get to ask you anything they want,” explained Watkins. “We did that when I was in Lowell and the funniest question I got was from (6-foot-7, 270-lb. first baseman) David Chester. He asked, ‘Could you kill any of us with your bare hands?’ I just joked and said no.”
How Yordano Ventura and Kelvin Herrera feel the game should be played is a good question. Players have been policing themselves since the days of Alexander Cartwright, but certain brands of frontier justice – throwing at someone’s head, for instance – are taboo.
ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick wrote about Ventura’s hotheaded antics following the KC flamethrower’s latest display of immature petulance. Crasnick cited a quintet of you-don’t-want-this-reputation examples as a cautionary tale. I have another list for Ventura, as well as for Herrera, who recently took aim at Brett Lawrie’s noggin. The following are likely to accept your tacit invitation to brawl.
If you’re willing to man up against one of these guys – not hide behind your teammates – I’m impressed. Otherwise, not so much.
Albert Belle was a beast. In the opinion of some, he was a surly beast. Controversial and far from media-friendly, he ate pitchers alive in the 1990s.
Belle isn’t in the Hall of Fame, and given the relative brevity of his career – 10 full seasons – perhaps he shouldn’t be. That doesn’t mean he didn’t receive short shrift from voters. Belle fell off the ballot after two years despite a 144 adjusted OPS and multiple MVP-consideration seasons.
Wayne Kirby, a former teammate who currently coaches for the Orioles, feels the lack of longevity is what keeps Belle out of Cooperstown.
“He had the numbers, but I don’t think he played long enough,” opined Kirby, who played with Belle in Cleveland from 1991-1996. “He had that degenerative hip, but if he could have kept going, sure enough, he had a good chance. He and Frank Thomas were neck and neck as the best pure hitter in the game for six or eight years.”
Kirby doesn’t think Belle’s battles with the media were a big factor in his lack of support.
“The numbers speak for themselves,” said Kirby. “You can’t discredit a guy because he doesn’t talk. Eddie Murray didn’t talk to the media either, and he’s in the Hall of Fame. Some people are loners and don’t like to talk to the media. That’s their prerogative.”
A valid argument could be made that Kirby is mistaken about how much Belle’s surliness impacted his vote totals. The slugger topped out at 7.7 percent, while the congenial Kirby Puckett, whose career was of comparable length, received 82.1 percent and was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Puckett was the better overall player, but if you exonerate Belle’s boorishness, there’s no chasm in the comparison.
No court of law exists to counteract the court of opinion within the BBWAA’s voting bloc. If it did, the attorney pleading Belle’s case would have a strong defense. If was good at his job, he’d share his client’s attention to detail.
“Albert was a lawyer when it came to hitting,” said Kirby. “When you put a high-power lawyer in the room, like a Johnny Cochran, they dot their I’s and cross their T’s, Albert was in the cage examining everything, every day. He was a perfectionist when it came to hitting.”
Considering how well-spoken he is, Michael Taylor doesn’t say a whole lot. The 24-year-old prefers to let his bat and glove do the talking. In the early stages of the season, each sent a mixed message.
Taylor roamed center field for the Nationals while Denard Span was on the disabled list – he’s since returned to Triple-A – and two things were evident in his performance: he’s got a bright future; there are still kinks to smooth out.
In his 12-game cameo, Taylor went 13 for 48 and six of his knocks went for extra bases. Sounding a discouraging word, he also fanned 19 times. Defensively, he showed good range but didn’t always look at home on the range. The skies are not cloudy all day, and Taylor was especially flummoxed by the sun and wind when Washington visited Fenway Park.
The toolsy native of Fort Lauderdale is a top prospect, and while he remains a work-in-progress, he’s not new to pro ball. Taylor signed out of high school in 2009 – he’d committed to North Florida, where he would have studied business – and has over 500 minor league games under his belt. He’s continued to learn, but has yet to make the full transition from athlete to polished player. As for his mannerly-but-quiet carriage, that’s not likely to change.
“I’m just a naturally quiet person,” admitted Taylor. “I kind of feel like I say a lot, but in some people’s eyes, I guess I don’t. But I love the Lord, I love the game, and I’m happy to be here. Hopefully I can keep getting better and play the way I want to.”
A fascinating tidbit from Mark Armour and Dan Levitt’s excellent book In Pursuit of Pennants.
In October 1962, the St. Louis Cardinals hired 80-year-old Branch Rickey as a consultant. One of Rickey’s first recommendations was that 41-year-old Stan Musial, coming off a .330/.416/.508 season, should retire. His advice wasn’t taken. Stan the Man returned for a final season and hit .255/.325/.404.
Big Data Baseball: Math, Miracles, and the End of a 20-Year Losing Streak comes out in three weeks. Authored by Pirates beat writer Travis Sawchik, it’s one of the best baseball books you’ll read this year.
Russell Martin figures prominently, largely because of his framing, a skill the Pittsburgh front office was ahead of the curve in valuing. A more esoteric aspect of Russell Nathan Coltrane Martin – the son of a jazz-loving non-traditionalist who once busked in the Montreal subway system – is also addressed. The following paragraph, which quotes him, captures the gist.
“My style of catching and calling a game is a little like jazz,” he said. “There’s no beat to it, there’s no sequences. There’s just feel. I almost feel that’s how I can call a game. I’ll call eight change-ups in a row or eight sliders in a row if I feel like that’s the right thing to do.”
On Tuesday, I wrote about how Koji Uehara had thrown 24 splitters and just three fastballs in his first two appearances. I suggested he doesn’t have faith in his fastball. I also said, “Uehara won’t continue to throw 87.5% splitters.”
Over his next two outings, the Red Sox closer actually saw the usage of his signature pitch increase. Through Friday, he had thrown 55 splitters and five fastballs, a stunning 89.7%.
Last night in Baltimore, Uehara threw nine splitters and five fastballs that lacked life, and allowed a pair of runs in the 10th inning. His season total is now 64 splitters and 10 fastballs.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
Yankees southpaw Andrew Miller has faced 29 batters this season, all of them right-handed hitters. He’s allowed two hits and has 15 strikeouts.
Pat Venditte has pitched 10 scoreless innings this season for Oakland’s Triple-A affiliate, the Nashville Sounds. The switch-pitcher has allowed three hits and six walks, with nine strikeouts.
Dave “Boo” Ferriss, a pitcher for the Red Sox from 1945-1950, played at Mississippi State before signing. In college, he pitched right-handed and played first base left-handed. In pro ball, the ambidextrous Ferrell was exclusively a right-handed pitcher.
Per John Dewan’s Stat of the Week, as of Thursday teams had shifted on 1,673 balls in play. Pro-rated to a full 162-game season, that sets a pace of 18,149 shifts, which is 4,851 more than in 2014.
On this date in 1959, Sadaharu Oh hits the first of his 868 home runs. All came with the Yomiuri Giants.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.