Sandberg eager to see if Pap's fastball improves

Sandberg eager to see if Pap's fastball improves
February 18, 2014, 8:00 am
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Jonathan Papelbon's fastball velocity dropped from 93.8 mph on average in 2012 to 92.0 mph in 2013. (USA Today Images)

Will Jonathan Papelbon bounce back this season?
Yes
55%
No
45%

Jonathan Papelbon blew five of his 25 save opportunities for the Phillies in the first half. (AP)

CLEARWATER, Fla. – Fastball velocity is not everything for a closer. Remember The Mild Thing, Doug Jones?

But for most closers, fastball velocity is important. Jonathan Papelbon might have reached 30 saves for the eighth straight season in 2013 if he hadn’t lost a tick or two on his fastball from previous seasons.

Among the 32 closers with 20 or more save chances in 2013, Papelbon ranked 29th with an 81 percent save rate, the lowest of his career. He blew seven saves.

According to PITCHf/x, the technology used in all major league ballparks, Papelbon’s average fastball velocity was 92 miles per hour in 2013. In 2012, it was 93.8. In 2011, his last year in Boston, it was 95.

Several factors may have contributed to Papelbon’s drop in velocity. For starters, he is 33 years old. Second, he was bothered by a hip problem. And third, he may have missed the adrenaline that comes with pitching in a pennant race. Closers thrive on that rush.

But there was no denying, Papelbon lacked life on his pitches. Manager Ryne Sandberg essentially admitted that Monday.

“I’m anxious to see what his velocity is as soon as he gets some sides and some games in,” Sandberg said. “I know that he feels good and he feels comfortable and there’s nothing bothering him physically, so I’m anxious to see as spring training goes what his velocity is. I’m not ruling out more velocity than the second half of the season for Papelbon.”

Sandberg was asked whether he believed Papelbon could be a dominant closer with the same stuff he had in the second half of last season. He did not answer the question directly.

“You know what?” Sandberg said. “That’s all hypothetical. Once again, that’s last year. I’m anxious to see where he’s at in two weeks, three weeks, six weeks. He definitely has the bulldog mentality. He’s got the attitude out there. I like all that. He’s used to that role. He’s not afraid of anything. I’m anxious to see with the way the camp goes and his outings go where he’s at. I’m optimistic to see some good stuff.”

Papelbon did not deny that lack of adrenaline hurt his fastball last year.

He has checked into camp with a positive attitude (see story) and believes he will be pitching for a contender this season.

“My role is an intensity-driven role, so on nights when the ballpark is full and it’s a close game and we’re in the race, that’s what makes me tick,” Papelbon said. “When the dial is turned up and there is something on the line, I just seem to be at my best. When it’s a day game in New York and you’re 12 games behind, that dial ain’t really turned up. That ain’t really how I go. I’m sure that has something to do with velocity.

“But, you know, I don’t feel like I was at my healthiest I could have been last year and I had to grind through some things here and there. I’m feeling great this spring and probably better than I felt in a lot of springs.”

As stated, Papelbon believes he will be pitching for a contender this season.

How much of a contender?

“I don’t want to make any statements about what we’re going to do this year because I know we have a long season,” Papelbon said. “But I will say I have looked at what people have predicted us to do and I don’t necessarily agree with that. If I was a gambling man I would take us.”

Take you for what?

“To go all the way.”