Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Reinvention of Jonathan Papelbon

Last January, when I was just a baby blogger, I wrote the following about Jonathan Papelbon:
You can mark January 20, 2010 as the day I officially plead to Theo to keep The Exploder (the nickname I came up with for Pap last year) around after 2011. The Exploder is a great reliever, and great relievers, used properly, have a lot of value. Could Bard, assuming he continues on his current path, step in and be a good closer if Pap leaves? Of course he could. He could even match some of the seasons that Pap has had. But why not keep both? Why not have a really good set up man and a great relief ace? So what if it takes a 4 year, $60M contract to keep Pap in Boston? While he may not be worth exactly $15M a year, the Sox not only have the money to afford that, but they also are in the position where every extra win (or marginal win) is worth more to them than the majority of the league...Papelbon is not quite a once in a lifetime reliever like Mariano Riviera, but he is consistently one of the top 3-5 relief aces in the league. And that is worth something. That is worth a lot. So please Theo, consider loosening the purse strings just a bit to keep the Exploder in the Fens for a few extra years.
Four years and $60 million is a lotta clams. I was definitely over stating his value coming off his 2009 season when his ERA was deceptively low with all the walks he was giving up. Following that post I wrote, Papelbon went on to have the worst season of his career. In the off season he faced questions over whether he would lose his closing job with the addition of Bobby Jenks or, worse, be traded away. So of course, this season he has completely remade himself as a pitcher (again) and has struck out 21 batters in 16 2/3 (against just 2 walks) while posting a 2.70 ERA. No big deal. What I want to take a look at here is that remaking himself business and reevaluate the prospects of Pap The Exploder sticking around after this season.

Papelbon was drafted as a starting pitcher. In 3 minor league seasons he started 48 of his 58 games pitched. He was called up in 2005 to help a pitching staff with serious injury and fatigue issues in the rotation and the bull pen. He made 3 big league starts that year with some success, but (like most good starting pitchers) he looked dominant in the bull pen. He would never start another game in professional baseball.

The following season he was even more dominant, taking over for incumbent closer Keith Foulke in the first month of the season on his way to posting a 0.92 ERA, the fourth lowest all time of any pitcher with at least 60 innings pitched (Dennis Eckersley has the record with a 0.62 ERA in 1990). In the 3 seasons that followed, he continued to post miniscule ERAs with high strikeout rates, but last year his ERA jumped up to near 4.00 and he looked like a completely different pitcher. The thing with Pap, though, is that he looks like a completely different pitcher nearly every year.

If you look at his pitch types (tried to put this graph in my post but failed miserably), which shows the percentage of the types and velocities of pitches he throws per year, you see a guy who changes his repertoire pretty much yearly. We'll explore the data and split Papelbon into his pitching phases.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice Phase

His first two full years (’06 and ’07), Pap threw a 94.3 MPH fastball about 75% of the time, an 85 MPH slider about 6% of the time and an 88 MPH split finger about 17% of the time. His fastball was dominant in those two years because he was keeping hitters honest with the slider and splitter. This combination led to the previously mentioned 0.92 ERA in ’06 and in ’07 he set his career high in strike out rate with nearly 13 strikeouts per 9 innings. These were also Curt Schilling’s final two years in Boston and if memory serves me right I believe Schilling really tried to take Pap under his wing. The splitter was one of Schilling’s best pitches and I think his influence kept Pap throwing this pitch and throwing it well.

The Ricky "Wild Thing" Vaughn Phase

By the end of 2007, Pap was catching on to just how dominant a pitcher he had become. His cockiness, which can be a good thing for a closer, was emerging to the point where he added a new pitch midseason: the slutter. According to Pap, this was a combination of a slider and a cutter. The year prior, he had lost a bet to Kevin Youkilis and had to shave his head into Rick Vaughn’s hair cut, but now he was actually channeling “Wild Thing” by making up his own pitches (Vaughn had the Humiliator and the Eliminator). But by the time 2008 rolled around and Schilling was no longer around, Papelbon was more focused on old number 1, his fastball. That year he increased his fastball velocity to 95.3 MPH and was throwing it 81% of the time. His slider (or possibly the slutter) and splitter velocities also increased, but he was now throwing the splitter less often at just 12% of the time. A weird thing happened this year though. While still pitching extremely effectively, Pap saw a decrease in strikeout rate, but a dramatic increase in groundball percentage to almost 50% of balls in play. With the decrease in splitters you wouldn’t expect that to happen, but most likely he was just able to keep his fastball down. Also, with less separation in velocity between the fastball and splitter, batters were probably being fooled into swings and misses less and instead making weak ground ball contact on the splitter, which when thrown with more velocity will break downward later.

The next season (’09) is when he really took on the life of Rick Vaughn from Major League 2.  He maintained the 81% fastball frequency, but the velocity dropped a bit to 94.7 MPH. The big change came in his use of the slider/slutter. After throwing this pitch 6% of the time for his career, he started throwing it over 9% of the time and now he was throwing it slower than ever at just 84 MPH. As a result of the increased usage, his splitter dropped to being thrown just 9% of the time as well, almost half of how often he threw it during his best 2 seasons. A lot of the surface results that year make it seem like he was just as dominant as ever (1.85 ERA, 38 for 41 in save chances, 10.21 K/9), but his ground ball rate hit an all time low (26%) and his walk rate hit an all time high (3.18 BB/9). He was throwing fewer pitches in the strike zone and batters caught onto this as they stopped chasing the slider and splitter out of the zone. He allowed the most baserunners of his career to that point and it lead to a lot of tense save situations (he was bailed out by a fluke rate of stranding baserunners). Like I said, the final numbers looked ok but there was a clear shift in perception of the dominance of Jonathan Papelbon.

The Bright Red Corvette Phase

After the 2009 season, a lot of people realized that Pap had a down year with all of his tense saves and his post season melt down against the Angels. Again, if I remember right, there were a lot of calls for him to rediscover his splitter (I at least remember being among that chorus). Whatever was said, Pap listened and he listened hard. Unfortunately, like a middle aged man trying to prove he is still young, Pap overcompensated. In 2010, he threw his splitter 21% of the time (up from 9%). His slider/slutter still represented 9% of his pitches, but it continued to lose velocity at just 82 MPH. With the increased use of the splitter, he began throwing his best pitch, his fastball, just 69% of the time. This combination led to all sorts of bad things. Pap’s walk rate jumped to 3.76 BB/9 because batters weren’t chasing his increased number of breaking balls. He also allowed more home runs than ever due to a heightened contact rate on pitches in the strike zone. Basically, batters were not fooled by his splitter or slider so they were waiting for a good pitch to hit in the strike zone. Pap set career highs in Hits/9, HR/9 and BB/9 leading to a career worst 3.90 ERA, 7 losses and 8 blown saves.

The Paradox Phase

I don’t know what to make of Pap this year. He is in his final year in Boston so he is clearly motivated to having a good year to get a big pay day. The traditional numbers and advanced stats are all saying that he is having a great year. His strikeouts are up, his walks and home runs are down and he is 7 for 8 in save chances. However, his pitch selection, pitch location and line drive percentage all indicate a smoke and mirrors act. On balls put in play, 26.8% are line drives, which are the types of balls that have the highest likelihood of falling in for a hit. Pap seems to be balancing this out by allowing an abnormally high amount of pop ups. His pitch selection has also been strange. He is throwing the same percentage of fastballs as last year, which I decided is too few, while decreasing his splitter to the usage rate during his dominant years. The weird thing is that he is throwing the slider/slutter 12% of the time, more than ever, and only averaging 80 MPH on the pitch, his slowest ever. He is also only throwing 44% of pitches in the strike zone, so somehow he is getting hitters to chase his breaking balls leading to the high strikeout rate. These stats lead me to believe we will see Pap come back to earth some.

So what does this all mean for Jonathan Papelbon’s future in Boston? If my prediction holds up that he will not end the season with numbers this strong, I can’t envision a world where Theo Epstein would bring him back for more than a one year deal. If, however, he can prove to be successful with this new mix of pitches, I really think it wouldn’t hurt to have him back on a 3 year deal. Relievers vary greatly in success from year to year, but besides a down year last year, Papelbon has been strong to quite strong throughout his career. As I said last year, the Red Sox can afford to spend a little extra on a luxury. Having two guys (Daniel Bard too) you can count on at the back end of the bull pen is important for a manager. As we will see this year, and more in the years to come with the rise of the Blue Jays and Orioles, every single win counts in this division so this team cannot afford to just give up a player who contributes positively to that side of the ledger. Reliever deals are risky, but this is one risk I’d be willing to make if I were Theo.

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