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The Dodgers have turned Tony Watson into a ground ball machine

After acquiring Tony Watson from the Pirates at the trade deadline, the Dodgers made a small change that’s had a big impact on his profile.

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at Los Angeles Dodgers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Dodgers had a glaring need for a left-handed reliever at the trade deadline. Adam Liberatore and Grant Dayton had spent the year either hurt or ineffective, and despite his success against lefties, Luis Avilan spent all of 2016 with a reverse platoon split and isn’t someone you’d consider a lefty specialist. With the prospect of facing dynamic left-handed hitters like Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Anthony Rizzo, and Jake Lamb in the postseason, it was imperative that they get some left-handed bullpen help.

Rather than give up any top prospects for Sean Doolittle or Brad Hand, the Dodgers opted for two under-the-radar and, at the time, underwhelming moves when they acquired Tony Cingrani from the Reds and Tony Watson from the Pirates. In Cingrani the Dodgers saw someone with plus stuff who needed an alteration in approach. As Jeff Sullivan detailed recently, by having Cingrani throw his slider more often and his four-seam fastball in a different spot, the Dodgers have completely turned his season, and probably his career around.

Unlike Cingrani, Watson was in far less need of a major overhaul, but he was not the lock-down lefty that he’d shown the potential to be in the past. The Dodgers must’ve felt that the ability to recapture his effectiveness was still there, however. With the caveat that any partial season relief numbers are subject to a small sample size disclaimer, let’s take a look at what Watson has done with the Dodgers compared to his time with the Pirates.

Tony Watson 2017 Team Splits

Pirates 46 2/3 16.8% 6.7% .333 84.1% 14.3% 3.66 4.69 6.29
Dodgers 20 22.0% 7.3% .241 84.2% 18.2% 2.70 3.85 3.86
Data via FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus

While he has pitched fewer innings with Los Angeles, Watson has cut his ERA by close to a run and his FIP by nearly that same amount. Despite a slight increase in walk rate and sizable increase in home-run-to-fly-ball rate, his FIP has decreased due to a more than five percentage point increase in strikeout rate. And on the run prevention side of the ledger, Watson’s ERA has fallen due in large part to an almost 100-point decrease in BABIP. We tend to think of BABIP as an indicator of luck, but it’s important to remember that it can also be reflective of batted ball tendencies.

The most glaring difference between his time with each team is the incredible decrease in Watson’s DRA. The drastic cut lends credence to the idea that he hasn’t just gotten lucky with balls in play during his time in Los Angeles, but that something fundamental has changed about the contact he’s allowing. Let’s take a look at his batted ball splits.

Tony Watson 2017 Batted Ball Splits

Team IP LD% GB% FB% IFFB% Soft% Med% Hard%
Team IP LD% GB% FB% IFFB% Soft% Med% Hard%
Pirates 46 2/3 23.5% 43.6% 32.9% 12.2% 18.5% 58.0% 23.6%
Dodgers 20 20.4% 59.3% 20.4% 9.1% 28.6% 51.8% 19.6%
Data via FanGraphs

The main difference jumps right out at you: Watson has increased his ground ball percentage by 15.7 percentage points. While in Pittsburgh, his mark of 43.6 percent was just below the league average of 44.3 percent for relievers; but his 59.3 percent ground ball rate as a Dodger would put him in the top 10 of all qualified major league relief pitchers if he held it for a whole season. The rise in ground balls is reflected in the significant increase in Watson’s soft hit percentage, which, when paired with the improvement of the defense playing behind him, makes his large decrease in BABIP more understandable.

It seems to be the Dodgers modus operandi to acquire undervalued relief pitchers and tweak their approach. It’s worked tremendously in bringing Cingrani’s slider back from the dead, and while the changes are a bit less pronounced with Watson, it seems to have worked well him too. In Pittsburgh, Watson was throwing his sinker 29.3 percent of the time. That’s not insignificant, but with LA that number has increased to a usage rate of 44.7 percent. The difference seems to have mostly come out of his four-seam fastball usage, as his slider and changeup, while fluctuating, haven’t seen drastic spikes overall.

Yellow with PIT, Blue with LAD
Chart via Brooks Baseball

It’s not just that the Dodgers are having Watson throw his sinker more, he’s now keeping it concentrated to one part of the zone — on his arm side. It still leaks over the plate on occasion, but there seems to be a definite strategy in play as you can see the heart of his sinker heat map with LA is actually located mainly outside of the edge of the zone. Compare that to his time with Pittsburgh where the most concentrated area is on the inside of the zone’s edge, but still over the plate.

Heat Maps via Baseball Savant

The shift in location isn’t meant to get more whiffs — Watson’s changeup and slider have been his go-to pitches for that — but instead increase bad contact. A look into the Statcast data on Watson’s sinker shows that the improved location has in fact altered the offering’s batted ball characteristics.

Tony Watson 2017 sinker statcast splits

Team Avg. Launch Angle Avg. Exit Velocity wOBA xwOBA
Team Avg. Launch Angle Avg. Exit Velocity wOBA xwOBA
Pirates 5.6° 83.5 mph .371 .303
Dodgers -7.2° 78.4 mph .172 .248
Data via Baseball Savant

Contact outside of the zone usually equals bad contact, and that’s exactly what we’ve seen now that Watson’s sinker is living mostly on the edge. Opposing hitters aren’t hitting it as hard, and they’re hitting it on the ground with increased frequency. The contrast is clearly illustrated in the differences in wOBA the pitch has allowed, and the xwOBA (Statcast’s expected wOBA metric based on batted ball information) that the quality of contact forecasts.

Even with the improvement gained by increased sinker usage, a look at Watson’s overall peripherals doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence heading into the postseason. Yes, his ERA as a Dodger is under three, but despite the massive improvements described above, his FIP and DRA are still nearly four. His strikeout rate is up but so is his walk rate. And even though we’ve seen that his huge BABIP drop is not all luck, there is still probably some luck in there. The good news is that the small sample nature of splitting a reliever’s season in half means that based on his overall profile change, it’s most likely that Watson’s 18.2 percent home-run-to-fly-ball rate is not a representation of his true talent.

The days of the dominant, sub-two ERA and sub-three FIP Tony Watson from 2014 and 2015 are probably gone. But it seems that the Dodgers have been able to tweak his approach just enough to maximize his current-day effectiveness. Ground balls may be the new normal for the 32-year old left hander, but with a first round series taking the Dodgers to a bandbox in either Coors or Chase Field, that may be just what the doctor ordered.

Chris Anders is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can find him on Twitter @MrChrisAnders.