Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 7/9/13
Peter Gammons, as he so often does, teased an interesting tidbit yesterday morning, this one concerning Philliers closer Jonathan Papelbon. To wit: The Tigers and Red Sox might be more aggressive on Papelbon were he not 5-for-9 in one run save opportunities, as well as the velo drop — Peter Gammons (@pgammo) July 8, 2013 Gammons has a point, particularly about the drop in velocity. And as the non-waiver trading deadline rumor mill kicks into high gear, it’s worth wondering — is Papelbon the same pitcher he used to be? First, let’s take a look at the velocity. As we can see, it is trending down: There’s a couple of items to note. First, the overall downward trend across three seasons, from just above the 95 mph plateau, to just under it, and now to well under it. Second is the shape of his velocity during each individual season. Generally speaking, in 2011 and 2012, Papelbon’s velocity improved as the season progressed. This season, we have seen a definitive peak, and we are now on the down side of that mountain, though of course the previous trend might suggest that he could regain some of his lost velocity as long he’s healthy. If you’re trading for a high priced premium closer, though, you better be sure he’s healthy. He does have a long-standing shoulder issue that the Red Sox managed well, but perhaps it is starting to catch up with him a bit. We know from Bill Petti and Jeff Zimmerman’s excellent series on pitcher aging curves that relievers don’t lose velocity as quickly as do starters, but at age-32, Papelbon is definitely in the range when relievers start to see their velocity slip: One of the other important findings by Mssrs. Petti and Zimmerman was that a reliever’s strikeouts are more closely tied to their fastball velocity than it is for starters. If we didn’t already have several exhibits of this phenomenon, we could line up Papelbon’s 2013 campaign as Exhibit A. With 30 strikeouts in 35.1 innings pitched, it may not seem like his strikeout numbers have dipped all that much, but we need to apply context. For starters, this would be the first time in his career that Papelbon didn’t average at least a strikeout per inning. Even as a fresh-faced rookie, he struck out 34 batters in 34 innings. Looking at his pitch locations over at Brooks Baseball, I find that he is throwing the same number of pitches inside this year as he did last year, but with the reduced velocity perhaps hitters are having an easier time squaring up those inside pitches on which Papelbon has thrived in the past. And while a 21.7% strikeout percentage would be pretty good for a starter (only 28 of 90 qualified starters have a better percentage) it’s not at all good for a reliever — it ranks just 80th out of 153 qualified relievers. That’s not exactly the kind of numbers you expect from a lights out closer. Also yawn inducing is Papelbon’s recent performance. Papelbon has already blown as many saves as he did last year, and on Monday night he hardly inspired any confidence. He began the ninth with a three-run lead, only to see the potential tying run come to bat after he coughed up two runs. He was credited with the save, and all is well that ends well, but it probably didn’t assuage the fears of teams that are scouting him. And while Papelbon ranks in the top 25 in both shutdowns and shutdowns minus meltdowns this season, he has only recorded a shutdown in four of his last nine outings. His positive SD/MD numbers overall also may be masked by a ridiculously low batting average on balls in play. Papelbon’s .227 BABIP is 19th-lowest among qualified relievers. If that number trends up with any ferocity — and it should, since he has a career .274 BABIP and has been between .278 and .309 in each of the past five seasons — his solid numbers may take a turn for the worse. It’s not all doom and gloom of course. Papelbon hasn’t suddenly turned into a scrub. His strikeouts are down, but he is still generating plenty of swings and misses, and even with his contact percentage on the rise, it’s still a better than average contact percentage. Papelbon is also keeping his walks and home runs allowed in check. It’s just that so many things are trending in the wrong direction, and with his salary what it is, his days of being an attractive trade chip may be over before they really start.
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