Sunday, September 21, 2014
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Papelbon: a closer in rapid decline?

Jonathan Papelbon blew his first save chance of the 2014 season in ugly fashion on Wednesday night, walking back to back batters, including the game-ending run. Papelbon has been in rapid decline since last summer.

Papelbon: a closer in rapid decline?

Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz and closer Jonathan Papelbon. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)
Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz and closer Jonathan Papelbon. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)

ARLINGTON, Texas - OK, OK. Jonathan Papelbon was neither “shaky” or “god-awful,” last night. It was just my quick attempt to post last night’s game story link on Twitter via alliteration while commuting to the airport pre-caffeine.

Papelbon was somewhere in the gray area between shaky and god-awful, though. And for the highest paid relief pitcher in baseball history, a closer that will earn $12.5 million this season, that’s not great.

Papelbon did indeed get what may have been an inning-ending double play during his nightmarish ninth inning. But he had also given up more hits (two) than he had gotten strikeouts (one) before that ground ball, and a $12.5 million closer should be able to strike out people with more regularity.

Through two games (small sample size!), Papelbon has as many walks as strikeouts: two apiece in 1 1/3 innings.

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Larger sample size: Papelbon’s strikeout rate has been in decline since last year. His 8.32 strikeout rate in 2013 was a career low.

In his last year with Boston, in 2011, Papelbon struck out 87 batters in 64 1/3 innings. In his first season with the Phillies, 2012, Papelbon struck out 92 batters in 70 innings.

Last year, Papelbon struck out a career-low 57 in 61 2/3 innings. Papelbon's strikeout rate has gone from 12.17 to 11.83 to 8.32 in the same time frame.

Of course his declining strikeout rate has a lot to do with his declining fastball velocity.

In his last season with Boston, Papelbon's average fastball clocked in at 95 mph, according to fangraphs.com. In 2012, his average fastball was 93.8 mph; last season, it was 92 mph, not surprisingly, also a career low.

Through the first two games of 2014, Papelbon’s average fastball has been a tick below 92 (91.62 MPH on Wednesday night, according to PITCHf/x data)

This spring, Papelbon said he had a nagging hip injury that may have affected his performance last season, when he blew seven of his last 23 save chances. But he also admitted pitching for a losing team in somewhat meaningless games played a role, too.

“My role is an intensity-driven role, so on nights when the ballpark is full and it’s a close game, that’s what makes me tick and we’re in a race,” he said. “That’s the big reason I’ve always decided to be a closer is 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 velocity has something to do with that, 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. It is what it is. I go into the offseason and I train as best as I can to make sure that doesn’t fall by the way side. I make sure I continue to work.”

With the Phillies three outs away from winning their first series of the season, intensity shouldn’t be an issue. Papelbon says he’s healthy.

The reality? He simply no longer has the strikeout stuff that landed him a $50 million contract two winters ago.

And as a closer, that’s a problem.

The Phillies do have two relievers on their roster who do have a penchant for piling up punchouts: Antonio Bastardo and Jake Diekman. Ryne Sandberg is highly unlikely to make a change in the first week of the season, but he at least admitted he’d monitor his closer situation.

"We'll see how it goes," Sandberg said of Papelbon's grip on the closer's job. "I thought [on Monday] he kept them off-balance. He just has to get it down in the zone better and elevated for a purpose. He has to get down in the zone - that's what we're preaching as a staff."

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