Closer Watson inducing weaker contact in '17

Closer Watson inducing weaker contact in '17

ATLANTA -- Tony Watson's lower strikeout rate may indicate he's missing fewer bats. But the Pirates' closer is also missing fewer barrels this season.

Watson pitched a perfect, eight-pitch ninth inning Saturday and another clean, 10-pitch ninth on Sunday to lock down his 10th save in 11 chances this season. Those two appearances came after a scheduled, non-save situation Friday in which Watson allowed his third home run of the season.

That kind of contact has been rare off Watson. Hitters' average exit velocity against him this season, according to Statcast™, is 80 mph. That is down from 84.9 mph in 2014 and '15, when Watson was one of the Majors' best setup men.

"I've felt good all year," Watson said Sunday. "It's just getting balls on the ground, getting balls to people and keeping the pitch count down so you can go three days in a row. I feel good. I feel strong."

Watson, Mercer turn double play

Watson's strikeout rate is down, currently 15.6 percent compared to his career average of 22 percent, and he's giving up more hits and walks than in years past. But Watson's ground-ball rate is up to a career-high 51.6 percent, he's allowing fewer fly balls than in the past, and he's actually drawing swinging strikes at a career-high rate (13.1 percent).

"His feel for pitching is maturing. He knows himself really well," manager Clint Hurdle said. "It's not just missing bats now. It's weak contact."

The velocity on Watson's sinker has ticked up since the start of the season; the pitch averaged 90.9 mph in his first appearance, compared to 92.4 mph this weekend.

"His velocity's ticking up right now from where it was through Spring Training and the first month," Hurdle said. "He's thrown the best slider I've seen him have in quite a while the last two weeks."

Around the horn

• More than 20 fathers of Pirates players and staff made the annual "dads' trip" to Atlanta. In addition to staying with the club and attending each game at SunTrust Park, the fathers got a tour of the Braves' new ballpark early Monday afternoon. Hurdle said the trip is always a highlight of the season for himself, players and their parents.

"It's a very unique opportunity the organization has bestowed upon these fathers, and we're very grateful for it," Hurdle said. "This is like reverse Little League. We'll pick up after our dads for the next four days like they used to pick up after us. It's kind of fun."

• Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said Sunday that relief prospect Edgar Santana, who has a 0.36 ERA with 25 strikeouts in 25 1/3 innings for Triple-A Indianapolis, is "certainly doing everything that we want him and need him to do to believe he's going to help us at some point here, maybe sooner than later."

Top Prospects: Santana, PIT

Santana, 25, has made only 30 appearances in Triple-A. He began pitching at 19 years old, and Huntington said the right-hander is still developing, learning to make adjustments on the fly and read swings.

• Indianapolis swept the weekly International League awards. Left-hander Steven Brault (2-3, 2.54 ERA on the year) was named Pitcher of the Week, joining the league's Player of the Week, Jason Rogers (batting .291/.342/.468 with six homers and 22 RBIs).

• The Pirates have extended their Spring Ballpark Pass ticket plan with a new monthly plan, which starts in June and extends through the remainder of the season. The mobile-only, standing-room ticket package gives fans the ability to attend every home game at PNC Park, beginning June 8.

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, read his blog and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.