Jonathan Papelbon's recent "struggles" in Boston have been well documented. Between his increasing contact and walk rate, and his penchant to occasionally melt down in dramatic fashion, Papelbon looked (gasp) downright hittable at certain points during the 2010 season.
The results? A career high in ERA (3.90), WHIP (1.23), BB (28), HR (7), losses (7) and BS, ahem...Blown Saves (8). I still believe Papelbon is one of the best relievers in the game, but the fact that his yearly salary and peripheral stats are ballooning in direct proportion to each other doesn't bode well for his future in Boston.
With plenty of late inning relief help (Bard, Jenks, Kyle Weiland, Alex Wilson) waiting in the wings, a cost-conscious organization like the Red Sox just isn't going to tolerate such performances for such a hefty price tag beyond this season.
However, while Papelbon may be letting more batters on base, I'm not so sure it's his control (hear me out). There's one theory that I've had for awhile now that I'd like to share.
Essentially, I believe that Papelbon's fastball is no longer as nasty as it once was. Because of this, he's no longer able to blow the hitter away. He's had to work harder to get batters out, and as a result, he's struggled. It sounds simplistic, but allow me to explain further.
If you're a Red Sox fan, you've seen what I mean. How many times have you seen Pap get into a full count, only to have fastball after fastball fouled away before Pap either walks the batter or surrenders a hit?
From 2006 to 2008, Papelbon appeared in 85 total bases loaded situations, an average of 28.3 per season. But from 2009-2010, Pap appeared in 88 total bases loaded situations, an average of 44 per year. It doesn't take a mathematical whiz to see the increase.
Papelbon started his career with the ability to reach back into the upper 90s (I'm talking 97, 98 MPH). We would see a constant barrage of vicious, nearly unhittable fastballs on a nightly basis. Now, like many relievers, Papelbon doesn't throw as hard as when he once came into the league. He's more often in the 94 to 96 MPH range.
But he still throws his fastball the same way he did when he came into the league: with reckless abandon. That, coupled with the fact that his splitter all but disappeared in 2009 and was spotty at times in 2010 has yielded the negative spike in peripheral stats that I alluded to at the top of the article.
Pap got away with certain things earlier in his career that he no longer can get away with. While his fastball is generally fast, there's not much more to it than that. It doesn't cut, it doesn't sink. It goes straight. Plain and simple.
The difference in a couple of miles per hour on a straight fastball in the major leagues is humongous. An elevated fastball at 98 MPH can still be effective if it misses its intended target by a few inches. Not so when it's traveling (with no deception whatsoever), at 93, 94 or 95 MPH.
But, as you can probably tell by the title, the intended purpose of this diatribe isn't to blame Papelbon's decreased velocity for his struggles. I'm perfectly happy with the fact that his velocity just isn't what it once was; virtually every big league pitcher goes through a dip in speed at some point in his career.
Rather, I have an issue with Pap's lack of adjustment. He pitches the same way as when he came into the league...only he's not the same pitcher that he was when he came into the league.
Granted, I still think he's a very good pitcher, but one who could use a right smack upside the head. He's got all the talent in the world, but hasn't yet made the necessary changes that will lengthen his career and could one day put him in the same category as guys like Dennis Eckersley, Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera.
Allow me, if you will, to take another aside, and briefly examine Pap's current repetoire. He throws a straight fastball, which I have already mentioned, as well as a splitter and a slider. His split is pretty good, even if it was a tad bit inconsistent last season. His slider, as far as I'm concerned, is some sort of ambiguous spinny-thing that he attempts to throw at the bottom of the zone. It's horrendous, and he rarely throws it.
For all intents and purposes, Pap is a two-pitch pitcher: fastball and splitter.
The fundamental design of the splitter is to throw it out of the strike zone. It's most effective when it ends up out of the reach of the batter, preferably somewhere around his ankles.
So, that leaves just one pitch that is designed to be thrown within the strike zone, his fastball. As I've already mentioned, his decreased velocity and lack of movement has made it rather hittable as of late.
I'm a full believer that all of Papelbon's problems stem ENTIRELY from the fact that he's primarily a one (strike) pitch pitcher. Back in the day, when his fastball was in the upper 90s, it didn't matter that he didn't have a suitable complement to it. But it does now.
Think about it. Batters are getting deeper into counts with Papelbon than ever before (as I've already proved), because his fastball is no longer as deceptive.
When a hitter works a full count with Pap, they are sitting on his fastball. His splitter poses little threat; a pitcher isn't going to risk throwing a pitch that is designed to finish outside of the strike zone (his splitter) in fear of walking the hitter, especially if there are runners on base.
Since Papelbon's splitter and fastball are now closer in velocity then they once were, his splitter is exponentially less effective. A splitter's value is dependent upon a pitcher's ability to set up the hitter for it with other commanding pitches. Since Pap's fastball is no longer as commanding, the splitter is rendered less effective.
Because his splitter isn't set up properly by his fastball, Papelbon ironically has to throw his fastball more, despite the fact it's not as good as it once was. And because it's not as good as it once was, he's operating in more and more situations where runners are getting on base earlier into outings.
It's just one vicious cycle that keeps repeating itself.
And, while Papelbon's walks increased to a career high last season, I would argue that it's not necessarily a decrease in control.
For instance, his K/9 last season was 10.2, right at his career average of 10.4, and his highest average since 2007. His 66 strike percentage was also par for the course (career average of 67 percent).
His 21 percent swinging strike ratio was actually his best mark since 2007, and his 24 percent balls in play ratio was right at his career average of 23 percent, and tied for his best mark since 2007. His line drive ratio was 19 percent, his lowest average since 2006.
I could keep going with the stats, but, essentially, they all point to one thing. In 2010, Papelbon was getting swings and misses and keeping the ball in play at a similar (or in some cases better) rate to what he's done across his career.
So, I would not contend that it was inaccuracy that caused the upward trend in walks. Pap is pitching in the same fashion as in the rest of the career. But, (yes, again) his velocity has decreased and batters have started to figure him out.
As a result, he's had to battle harder, and he's presented himself with more scenarios to walk batters. I wouldn't characterize his increase in walks as a result of wildness, rather a result of the fact that the game has become more of a mental grind than it ever has before.
It's evident that Pap isn't operating with the same ease of motion and unabashed swagger that defined his persona earlier in his career. He's still confident as hell, but his struggles appear (at least to me) to have taken him down a notch.
So, finally, we get to the almighty question. Does Jonathan Papelbon need to add another pitch to his arsenal? I think he does.
I think he needs a second pitch that he can throw for strikes, something to distract hitters from his occasionally juicy fastball.
Changing the eyeline of the hitters and keeping them off balance is one of the most important tools that a major league pitcher can utilize. Jonathan Papelbon's fastball-splitter combination doesn't do enough of that.
Unless Pap is going to severely improve his slider, I'd like to see him at least try to bring another pitch into the fold this spring. I'm not a pitching coach, but a fastball with movement (cut, two-seam), or an offspeed pitch (curve, change), could do him some good.
His fastball is no longer as deceptive, and subsequently so isn't his splitter. The introduction of a third reliable pitch would completely change the dynamic of Jonathan Papelbon's repertoire. Suddenly, he's no longer as predictable. The effectiveness of all his pitches, his statistics, and the number of zeros in his contract next offseason will all significantly improve because of this.
It's rare that we see relievers, especially of Jonathan Papelbon's pedigree, add another pitch into the fold. I hold only small hopes that he attempts to do this, but I think it could completely revitalize his career if he did.
But then again, what do I know...right?
Dan is a Boston Red Sox and Boston Celtics featured columnist. Follow him on Twitter @danhartelBR.
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