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Is Jonathan Papelbon's Dominance a Thing of the Past?

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Is Jonathan Papelbon's Dominance a Thing of the Past?

“Things happened quick. More than anything, I wasn’t really able to stop the bleeding,” Papelbon said. “Your team fights to put you in that situation. To call upon you, and you let them down? Your team expects you to pull through and to preserve that win...and when you don’t it’s definitely not a good feeling.”

Jonathan Papelbon has been one of the elite closers in the game for the past four years.  So elite that he has more saves in the four-year period than that of the New York Yankees Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera.

A closer has to be lights out when the game is on the line.  One thing I have noticed is that his ability to get the first two outs of an inning is impeccable as the stats show:


RA

G

S

SVO

IP

H

R

ER

HR

BB

SO

AVG

WHIP

GO/AO

0 Outs

0.84

-

-

-

21.1

21

2

2

1

6

18

.253

1.27

0.44

1 Out

1.19

-

-

-

22.2

16

3

3

1

7

31

.195

1.01

0.33

2 Out

3.38

-

-

-

24.0

17

10

9

3

11

27

.191

1.17

0.45

                             

His inability to get the third out is one of the reasons that his dominance is now coming into question.

You ask that a few bad pitches with two outs cannot be why that he has lost that “it” factor.  One statistic, one that has been reduced since the All-Star break, but continues to be a problem is the number of walks given up by him this year.

Before 2009, the highest his BB/9 has been was 2.31 in 2007, a year in which he had the highest number of walks in his career as a closer.  This year that number is at an all-time high, 3.18, or nearly tripled since 2006.

What is the difference? Is it that his shoulder problems are more relevant than we are lead to believe?  Is that that he relies on his fastball, one that was almost unhittable, too much?  Is the pitch selection an issue?

Upon arriving on the scene as the full-time Red Sox closer in 2006, Papelbon was unbelievable:

Year

ERA

G

S

SVO

IP

H

R

ER

HR

BB

SO

AVG

WHIP

GO/AO

06

0.92

59

35

41

68.1

40

8

7

3

13

75

.167

0.78

0.75

A fastball consistently around 98 mph, with a split-fingered fastball that matched the velocity difference that Eric Gagne, previously of the Los Angeles Dodgers once had.  What is currently happening is in direct correlation with the recent downfall.

Courtesy of Fan Graphs, they have very detailed information that can give every fan, player, manager or general manager a leg up on the opposition.

In 2006, the said fastball regularly topped out at 97-98mph (94.3 avg), and his slider hit at 86mph (85.6 avg).  In the three years since, his average pitch speed has stayed nearly the same, his slider, which is not nearly as imposing as his splitter has lost almost 2mph (84.1avg).

It does not look like a major difference but when compared to pitch selection, the flaws become more visible.

In all aspects of his pitching theory, Papelbon has become a two-pitch pitcher, almost abandoning his splitter all together.  This year the fastball has been used a career high 81.5 percent of the time, as has the slider, 9.2 percent while the split-finger has been nearly eliminated from the game plan by nearly 50 percent (9.3 percent).

Hitters are gearing up for the fastball, and laying off the off-speed pitches in obvious situations.  Batters can review all the video they want, can look for patterns, but when looking at the numbers it is clearly apparent that what is happening is a lack of imagination, relying on ability from the past.

Opposition is laying off Papelbon’s pitches more often than any previous season by an alarming rate of 5 percent.  Pitches hit outside of the strike zone have increased nearly 20 percent from 2007 and pitches put in play while in the strike zone have reached a career high.

Being a former professional pitcher, I know what goes through a pitchers mind when the game is on the line.  I also have a feel for what a batter goes through as well.  There are times when you can out think your self and play right into the oppositions hands.  You can also develop patterns that you revert to when faced with a situation out of the norm. 

In these circumstances, a recalculation of the game plan is necessary.  If hitters are laying off your best pitches, work backwards.  Begin with your off-speed and close it out your fastball.  In 2009, it is obvious that league has figured out the tendencies of this all-star closer who still has dominant stuff, though not using it properly.

Pitch selection is directly related to the amount of pitches a batter sees and the wear and tear this places on a pitcher and his arm.  A career high in pitches thrown, a career high in fly ball percentage, and a BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) of .297; second only to last year (.313), concludes that if a change is not made soon, the unfamiliar outcome to Jonathan Papelbon’s 2009 season will become very familiar.

Devon is the founder of The GM’s Perspective and currently, Devon is a Branch Manager at a financial institution in Southern Ontario Canada.  He can be reached at devon@thegmsperspective.com or devon@businessofsportsnetwork.com

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