No longer a fireballer, Papelbon needs to pitch

No longer a fireballer, Papelbon needs to pitch
April 7, 2014, 2:45 pm
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In 2013, Jonathan Papelbon averaged 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings, the worst of his career. (USA Today Images) 

The Phillies will start an 10-game homestand on Tuesday. At some point, they will find themselves with a lead in a close game going into the ninth inning. They will go to Jonathan Papelbon. His music will play and the bullpen door will open and he’ll head out to the mound and go through his pre-pitch stare-down routine with various batters.

All of that will happen. What happens thereafter is less certain.

The season has barely begun and there is already an uneasy feeling when the Phils call on their closer. You watch and you wait and you wonder if he will get the job done or disintegrate. It is appointment viewing, even if it’s also worrisome.

As Papelbon put it over the weekend, his performance as a closer has been “a roller-coaster ride. I liked Space Mountain as a kid, you know what I’m saying?”

Papelbon has had three outings. That is an admittedly small sample size. His results so far might mean nothing at all. Or they might forecast the future just as they remind us of his recent past.

In his first appearance, Papelbon threw 12 pitches, nine for strikes. He recorded one strikeout and three outs. The Phils beat the Rangers 14-10. It was a low-stress outing for him and everyone who witnessed it. Nothing much to see there. Move along. Which, when it comes to Papelbon, is just fine. 

His second appearance, as everyone remembers, didn’t go very well. Papelbon faced seven batters. He retired just one. He threw 21 pitches (12 for strikes). He allowed four hits and three earned runs. He blew the save by walking in the winning run. The Phils lost.  

In his last outing, Papelbon faced three batters, had a strikeout, didn’t allow a base runner and earned his first save of the season in a win over the Cubs.

Three outings. One forgettable. One unforgettable for all the wrong reasons. One somewhere closer to average.

The Cubs appearance had the desired result for the Phillies -– a 1-2-3 inning and a save for the closer who will make $13 million this season and next -– but it wasn’t exactly an overwhelming demonstration of dominance for Papelbon. His best fastball registered at 91 mph that afternoon. It took him seven pitches to retire the first batter and 18 pitches to get out of the inning. And when he started off the third and final batter with a fastball, it hit just 88 mph. He left some pitches out over the plate. The Cubs missed them. It was a save for Papelbon, but it also represented quite a few missed opportunities for Chicago.

A lot has been made about Papelbon’s velocity, and with good reason. According to fangraphs.com, Papelbon has averaged 90.5 mph on his fastballs this season. His minimum velocity is 88.2 mph, while his maximum velocity tops out at 92.2 mph. That represents a pretty big dip from just two yeas ago.

In 2012, Papelbon averaged 93.8 mph on his fastballs. He recorded 37.3 percent of his strikeouts that year with the pitch. Last season, Papelbon’s average fastball was 92 mph and he got 27.5 percent of his strikeouts with the pitch.

Between 2007 and 2012, Papelbon averaged 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings. Last year, he averaged 8.3 and converted 81 percent of his save opportunities. Both of those were the worst marks of his career.

Papelbon is 33 years old. As with all pitchers, his velocity was bound to dip. The question is whether he can still be a quality closer without the ability to overwhelm hitters with heat.

“The longer and longer I pitch the more and more I learn, so sometimes I need to be a pitcher more than a thrower,” Papelbon told reporters over the weekend. “I get into that mode sometimes of just going out there and trying to throw it by guys or throw a pitch without a certain intent. You know, as the season goes on, hopefully my velocity will be able to increase. I think everybody usually hits their peak around June. But right now I’m going to focus on just pitching.”

What you have is a closer who knows his velocity is down, who cops to sometimes throwing a pitch “without a certain intent,” and who hopes his velocity will somehow increase this season even though it’s dipped each of the last few years. Decline and denial. That is not a good mix.

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