With a fastball that would not be uncomfortable on the Autobahn and a splitter that buries itself into the dirt, Papelbon has some of the best stuff in baseball.
Papelbon's numbers are not what they once were. He has a 3.98 ERA over the past two seasons compared to 1.84 for the first five seasons of his career, but he is still saving games for one of baseball's best teams. Despite some struggles, he has only blown one save this season, putting him among baseball's top closers yet again.
What is it that make some pitchers lock into the ninth inning and others feel like they can't get a ball by a Little Leaguer? Jonathan Papelbon spoke with B/R about life as a closer in the major leagues last Friday.
Closers often pitch one inning in close games. They go to the ballpark every day unsure if they will get to play. If they do, it will be for a limited but highly pressurized time at the end of the game.
How do players deal with the boredom?
"I don’t even pay attention to the game until the sixth inning," Papelbon said. "In my situation, I’m pitching at the end of the game, I’d be mentally drained by the time it came for me to pitch."
So what does he do during downtime at the beginning of games?
"I watch the umpires to see what they’re going to be calling," Papelbon said. "I'll have a cup of coffee, stretch, work in the training room, get dressed, shower up and get ready for the game."
Every pitch matters. When closers take the mound at game's end, mistakes are magnified. How can a pitcher maintain intensity late in games through an entire season?
"It's just a different mindset," Papelbon said. "It's like the NBA in the fourth quarter. It all comes down to the last two minutes."
Papelbon said that mentality is something that differentiates closers from other pitchers. He said that he thinks a number of pitchers in the Red Sox bullpen have that mentality.
Every pitcher needs a pitch he feels supremely confident in. For closers, who only see batters once per game, a vast repertoire is less important than one pitch they can dominate with (see Mariano Rivera's cutter).
Papelbon said he's been feeling good about his splitter lately and is willing to throw it in just about every situation.
Just a few months ago, Papelbon was struggling with command on the pitch, and it seemed to have less bite. What was the difference?
"It's all about the grip," Papelbon said.
Papelbon said the the best advice on closing he ever got came at his first All-Star game:
"Mo [Yankees closer Mariano Rivera] told me to have a short-term memory," Papelbon said. "That’s the number one thing."
Rivera is not a bad source of information. Papelbon said Rivera is still the best closer in baseball, bar none.
"It's not even close," Papelbon said.
Papelbon said every closer blows saves. What differentiates the great ones from the scrubs is the ability to come out the very next time and put it all on the line again.
The sabermetric revolution in baseball has forced fans to consider the value of various statistics more than they otherwise might. The save, in particular, has taken heat from a number of writers.
Papelbon said he still thinks the statistic has value.
"That's just people trying to reinvent the wheel," Papelbon said. "I think the save is a good way to measure [effectiveness]. The only thing that’s tough if you’re a closer, if you come in with a guy on third and give that run up, it's a blown save."
Jonathan Papelbon will be a free agent at the end of the year, and with Daniel Bard's emergence as a dominant setup man, there is speculation Papelbon could find work elsewhere next season.
What would a Red Sox team without Jonathan Papelbon look like?
"I think a Red Sox team without me on it is like a Red Sox team without David Ortiz on it," Papelbon said. "We’ve both been here and set a standard for the position. When you see someone in a uniform for such a long time, it’s weird to see them in a different one."