Tony Watson smiled in the clubhouse before Friday’s game when he heard about the speed of his changeup.
Apparently no one on the coaching staff let him in on a secret: The pitch Watson considers his go-to option has been slower this season than at any point since he became a prominent piece of the bullpen.
“I didn’t know that it was slower, honestly,” he said. “That’s good news, though. Keeps (batters) off-balance. And with (Francisco Cervelli), it’s been called more, especially against righties.”
The left-handed setup man in the Pirates’ bullpen continues to evolve after breaking into the majors as a left-on-left matchup asset. Watson believes his current role calls for many changeups, from the mound and in his mind.
“That’s my bread and butter — hard in, soft away,” he said. “The league has seen me now, so they know it’s coming. I’m trying to adjust, play the chess game, keep them guessing up there so I don’t follow any patterns. I think that’s why you see the uptick in changeups.”
He’s throwing his changeup 19.68 percent of the time, which is his second-highest rate behind last year’s 21.48, according to Brooks Baseball. Prior to 2013, he’d never thrown the pitch more than 16 percent of the time.
“I think it’s my best pitch, for sure,” Watson said. “I can throw it in any count. I have a lot of confidence in it, a lot of trust in it. Cervy feels the same way.”
Said Cervelli: “This guy, he’s easygoing, and he’s got his plan. The key for the catcher is to be on the same page.”
Watson’s average changeup speed this season is 86.11 mph, down from 87.67 in 2014, according to Brooks Baseball. He last averaged a sub-87 changeup in 2011.
Perhaps as a result of the decline, the batting average against Watson’s change is .185 this season, down from .237 a year ago.
News of the drop in speed pleased Watson, but only after he was assured his four-seam fastball and sinker velocities mirrored averages from previous years — the former still sits in the low 95s, and the latter continues to float in the high 94s.
As much as Watson relishes his changeup, he recognizes the fastball sets the tone for the rest of his pitches.
“It’s all about what you make it look like,” he said. “I like to throw a four-seam changeup because I throw a lot of four-seam fastballs.
“I try to spin all my fastballs and changeups the same way, that way the gap doesn’t have to be your standard eight to 10 mph. It can be five or six off, and it’ll still get the job done.”
Bullpen catcher Euclides Rojas is responsible for keeping an eye on the development of Watson’s changeup-fastball combo.
“Since he got to the majors, he’s been working every day on the flat ground to make sure he throws it with the same amount of (arm) speed as the fastball,” Rojas said. “The grip is the difference. It’s the mentality of throwing a fastball with a different grip.”
Watson’s 27 holds lead the majors. A more advanced pair of metrics, Fangraph’s shutdowns and meltdowns — which indicate when a relief pitcher increases or decreases his team’s win probability by 6-plus percent, respectively — also tabs Watson as one of the MLB’s safest late-inning bets.
His setup role led him to reconsider his pitching style and steered him toward increased changeup usage.
“Coming up through the different levels, I had a good changeup I could fall back on,” Watson said. “But the first couple years here, I was a left-handed reliever, and I had the mindset of a typical lefty — to get lefties out. So I was a fastball and breaking-ball guy.
“Then with (former Pirates catcher) Russ (Martin), that kind of all changed. And (ex-catcher) Rod Barajas introduced me to the sinker, so after that, we just started going arm-side and throwing changeups a little more.”