A Closer Look at Jon Papelbon

Well, yesterday was fun, huh? It seems like giving out a huge contract or making a(t least one) blockbuster trade is a rite of passage for every offseason under the Ruben Amaro Jr. reign.

The latest addition to this big, happy family is none other than long-time Boston Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon, he of the intense pitcher-face, long pauses between pitches and often exuberant reactions to saves. He’s also a pretty darn good pitcher. Sure, giving four guaranteed years and $50 million – I’m still in the stage where I wince while typing that – to any reliever that isn’t prime Mariano Rivera is sure to raise as many questions as it does eyebrows.

For now, though, we’ll put that aside to check out some of the things that have made Papelbon so effective.

Papelbon rebounded from a shaky 2010 to post another solid season in ’11 with great peripherals. He’ll only pitch 60-70 innings a season, but rest assured that those innings will be good ones. Papelbon finished his fifth consecutive season of logging 10-plus strikeouts per nine, but what makes him more than just a simple power pitcher is that he actually commands his stuff; not only that, he loves to challenge hitters and still has the stuff to blow by them.

In 2011, Papelbon lived in the upper part of the zone, as shown to the right. The vast majority of the pitches from the belt to the letters were fastballs, and seeing as his average fastball was 95 mph, it’s a bit easier to see how he can overmatch hitters.

There’s interplay with Papelbon’s stuff, too. You can have a fastball that touches the mid-90s and still get knocked around (ask Danys Baez) but you need secondary stuff to make it effective. And vice versa: offspeed and breaking pitches can be ignored or sat on if the hitter knows there’s an ineffective fastball backing it up (ask 2009-11 Brad Lidge). With Papelbon, the mid-90s fastball is supported by an excellent splitter, a pitch that drastically changes the batter’s eye level and throws off timing.

Again, bear in mind how often Papelbon hits the upper part of the zone with the heater, than take a look at the map to the left.

The splitter was a pitch Papelbon was eschewing in favor of more heaters, as there was talk of the pitch possibly leaving his shoulder sore. The splitter is a notoriously taxing pitch. Really, with that fastball to lean on, it’s no surprise he was still effective, but when the splitter is a prominent part of the arsenal, Papelbon is that much more dangerous.

The slider is still something of a work in progress. One of the big reasons why Papelbon wasn’t converted into a starter – as he was for the majority of his time in the minors – was the lack of an effective third pitch. As a reliever, two plus pitches can definitely be enough, but if Papelbon can continue to demonstrate an effective slider in 2012 and beyond, he should remain very, very effective for a while. Perhaps, as it improves, he can even use it against left-handed batters (from 2010-11, Papelbon threw his slider to lefties only three percent of the time) and be a three-pitch guy to all hitters.

While 2010 was likely considered his worst year – even though, relatively speaking, it wasn’t all that bad – a big rebound in 2011 almost certainly played a big part in the Phillies front office seeing Papelbon as worthy of four guaranteed years and a lot of money. Via Inside Edge, here’s a comparison of a few next-level categories for Papelbon between 2010 and 2011.

click here for a larger, more readable version

Fastball command was improved, as was efficiency and the amount of hitters’ counts that ended up resulting in outs. What really jumps out at me, though, are the “Dominance” and “Overall Effectiveness” sections. Papelbon was good in both areas in 2010, to be sure, but the numbers go off the charts in ’11.

What all of this amounts to is a fine relief pitcher who should accumulate plenty of quality outs. Whether he’s worth the kind of money he’ll be paid will almost certainly be in question for the life of the deal, but there’s little denying that the Phils have added a fine piece to their relief corps.