Papelbon is coming off the worst season of his career—it’s not even close. The ironic thing is that, at face value, he does not appear to have lost his “stuff,” as his strikeout rate remained above 10K/9IP (10.2) and his average fastball continued to approach 95 mph (94.9 mph).
While his strikeout rate was still elite, most of the rest of his pitching metrics were far from "elite," and it seems obvious that his struggles come down to one word: location.
Pappy had difficulty both locating the strike zone and locating his pitches within the strike zone when he found it. According to the data at fangraphs.com:
- He failed to throw at least half of his pitches for strikes for the first time in his career (46.2 percent).
- Opponents swung at barely half of all of his pitches (52.1 percent).
- Opponents contact rate for all of the pitches he threw for strikes was a career-worst (87.7 percent).
What does this data mean?
He threw fewer pitches for strikes. Batters became more patient and made contact more consistently when they swung. Opponents BABIP was .287, nearly the league-average of .294 (NOT a good indicator of success when discussing a closer).
His walk rate, which edged above 3BB/9IP for the first time in his career in 2009, came dangerously close to reaching 4.00 last year (it was 3.8/9IP).
For Fantasy Owners
The data at fangraphs.com illustrates another key feature about his performance last year: He threw far fewer fastballs (69.5 percent of his pitches) than he ever had previously (he had a career rate in excess of 78 percent entering the season).
He replaced those fastballs with split-fingered pitches (21.2 percent of his pitches, as opposed to 14.2 percent previously). It is impossible to know whether his pitch-selection is a result of the change in catcher (Victor Martinez vs. Jason Varitek), the result of getting hit hard and having less confidence in his fastball or whether he strayed from what had made him successful in previous years and batters teed off on his other offerings.
Whatever the reasons for the change, there appears to be a correlation between his pitch selection, his ability to throw strikes and the ability of his opponents to hit him hard (he posted a career-high earned run average: 3.90).
Pitch selection data will be hard to come by in spring training, but his fate during the 2011 season could rely on whether he effectively uses—and locates—his fastball.