ATLANTA — His season likely ended Saturday with 32 pitches of slop, but Jonathan Papelbon was unconcerned. He hung a curveball that Justin Upton crushed for a three-run homer. His fastball topped at 92.3 m.p.h., averaged 91 m.p.h., and 40 percent of his pitches were breaking balls.
The Phillies paid $50 million for Papelbon and he resembled nothing Saturday of the power arm that preserved so many Boston Red Sox victories. Can he still be a shutdown closer with a 91-m.p.h. fastball?
"Well, he's our guy right now for that," Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said. "I see him getting some rest and getting back to throwing 94. I think that's what he needs."
Papelbon was not exactly overused in 2013; he pitched in 61 2/3 innings, which are his fewest since 2007. He finished with a 2.92 ERA and 29 saves. He turns 33 in November and is owed $26 million over the next two seasons.
A dip in fastball velocity coincided with the fewest strikeouts of his career. The more balls put in play, the more Papelbon leaves to chance. He struck out 8.3 batters per nine innings in 2013. His career average before this season was 10.8.
During his final three seasons with Boston, Papelbon's fastball traveled at an average 95.6 m.p.h., according to Pitch Info data. It dipped to 94.6 m.p.h. in 2012 and 92.7 m.p.h. in 2013. That is significant.
Papelbon said he had "no clue" how much velocity he lost on his fastball. Sandberg attributed it to a minor hip injury suffered earlier in the season. Papelbon said that ailment does not bother him. The boorish closer was upset by the line of questioning.
"I guess, if you guys think I'm not throwing hard enough," he said when asked if his velocity could return. "I don't know, maybe. I don't think it really matters. It's velocity at the plate, life at the plate. It's not how hard it comes out of your hand, it's what it does near the plate."
Basic physics would contradict Papelbon's explanation, but if the closer who once relied on pure heat must change his strategy, late movement is important. Papelbon acknowledged he is throwing more offspeed pitches. He said it is not because his fastball has lost life. So what is the reason?
"I mean, that depends on the situation," Papelbon said.
The closer expressed his displeasure in July about the direction of the team. When asked Saturday where the Phillies are headed, he said, "We're headed to go play golf." More specifically, Papelbon said his opinion about 2014 mattered little.
"I don't think there's one thing," Papelbon said. "You can't point your finger at one guy or one thing. Everybody is in this thing together."
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