When writing about the Pirates’ three All-Stars last night, I mostly wanted to focus on Josh Harrison, since I figured Harrison would be one of the more controversial choices (as he should have been) for the NL team. I briefly laid out how dominant Tony Watson’s been in the last calendar year or so and left it at that, but I almost completely glossed over the larger question of whether a middle reliever like Watson should be considered for an All-Star spot at all. Twitter today has been a wasteland full of angry Pirate fans verbally assaulting national sportswriters for not understanding the greatness of Tony Watson (or some similar such nonsense), and I think that the presence of guys like Tony Watson on the All-Star roster more or less highlights a lot of problems that I have with the All-Star Game right now, so I wanted to take some more time to talk about it today.
Before we go any further, I’ll add this disclaimer: Tony Watson is certainly an All-Star by the rubric that’s been used to define relievers as All-Stars the last few years, and this isn’t about the performance of Tony Watson in 2014 at all, but about a larger discussion involving relievers and All-Stars.
OK, quick, off the top of your head, try and guess the last season in which the Pirates didn’t have an All-Star reliever. No cheating, either, just a gut feeling. The answer is 2009. In 2010, Evan Meek made the All-Star team. In 2011 and 2012, Joel Hanrahan made the All-Star team. In 2013, Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli made the All-Star team. In 2014, Tony Watson’s made the All-Star team. Now, let’s consider this for a second: since 2010, the Pirates have had five different relievers take six All-Star spots. You can’t really argue that the Pirates needed a reliever to be a pity All-Star in any of these seasons, because each of the seasons overlap with Andrew McCutchen’s career, though I suppose that ‘Cutch wasn’t quite established enough to warrant consideration in 2010.
Here’s the next question: how did the Pirates acquire those five relievers? Meek was a Rule 5 pick that Tampa Bay just handed over to the Pirates when they asked. Hanrahan was just a moving part in a deal that was supposed to be more about Nyjer Morgan and Lastings Milledge. Melancon was acquired for Hanrahan after a 2012 season in which Melancon was disappointing and Hanrahan sent up more red flags than a flare gun. Watson has been buried in the Pirates’ system for forever. He was one of Dave Littlefield’s last draft picks in 2007, and he struggled as a starter in the Pirates’ system before mostly moving to the bullpen in 2010. He was a middling reliever for a while until everything suddenly clicked for him around this time last year.
And now the next question: where are these guys now? Obviously Melancon and Watson are still pitching well for the Pirates, but Meek basically fell off the face of the Earth after his All-Star selection in 2010; he threw 32 2/3 bad innings for the Pirates total in 2011 and 2012, didn’t pitch in the big leagues at all in 2013, and has pitched poorly for the Orioles bouncing between Triple-A and Baltimore this year. Hanrahan fell apart in Boston last year and is still recovering from Tommy John surgery. He wants to pitch this year, but probably won’t be a contributor for anyone until next year at the earliest. Grilli fell apart like a piece of Target furniture this year and was summarily dumped off to the Angels in a challenge trade. He’s been OK with the Angels since the trade, but I’m pretty skeptical that there’s much left in his tank.
Tony Watson has been great for the Pirates this year, and no one is trying to deny that. But the Pirates are really, really excellent at finding pitchers with some talent, helping them work to their strengths as relievers, sending them out to the mound, wringing as much value out of them as they can for a year or two, and then moving on when they become less effective or more expensive or both. As that All-Star trend above illustrates, the Pirates have had at least one “breakout” reliever every single year since 2010. Where Meek and Hanrahan and Grilli and Melancon and Watson have been in the past, the Pirates will have Erntesto Frieri or Andy Oliver or someone not even on our radar in the future.
That’s the larger point against Watson and most relievers in general as All-Stars. Relievers are the ultimate small sample size players and they’re subject to circumstance more than any other position in baseball. As good as Watson has been, the Pirates’ track record in recent years suggests that if they didn’t have him, they’d have someone else on the mound doing pretty much the same thing. The recent trend has been to recognize any and all relievers for great performances with All-Star nods. It’s perfectly fine to say that they deserve to be acknowledged and that relievers are people too, but it’s not at all unfair to point out that there are starters out there that might deserve All-Star spots a little bit more than Excellent But Ultimately Fungible Pirate Reliever Of The Year 20XX.