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.

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10 comments

  1. hk

    November 12, 2011 04:32 PM

    Nice job, Bill. Once we all accept that RAJ seems determined to always overpay free agents in years and dollars, we can at least be happy with the fact that the team has upgraded at the closer position.

  2. Phillie697

    November 12, 2011 06:07 PM

    @hk,

    I will not be happy if we end up with Rey Ordonez as our SS.

  3. hk

    November 12, 2011 06:40 PM

    As I said, Nice job, Paul.

    Phillie697, as you know, I agree although I prefer Rey Ordonez to Yuniesky Betancourt.

  4. Brian

    November 12, 2011 08:38 PM

    It would be interesting to see a historic analysis of fastball/split relievers of similar effectiveness as they move into their 30s. I don’t think any two pitch combination could be as taxing long-term as fastball/slider or fastball/hard curve combos.

  5. Alec

    November 12, 2011 09:17 PM

    Good post. Thanks for the info.

    One question that intrigued me about Papelbon is that even though he is a fly ball pitcher, he has had a career hr/fb% of 6.6. Given that he’s been pitching on Fenway Park, that seemed pretty low to me, especially with a +40% fb rate. Rivera’s hr/fb% is 6.2. Madson’s is higher for his career, but dropped significantly last year. (Please notre that I’m not equating these three pitchers, just using them for argument’s sake)

    Anyway, I was just wondering if anyone had any thoughts on how Papelbon had been able to be successful in this aspect as a pitcher, even though he doesn’t induce a ton of gb’s.

    Thanks for the post!

  6. Bill Baer

    November 12, 2011 10:10 PM

    Looks like he has a bit of Matt Cain in him, in that he allows a lot of fly balls, but an above-average portion of them (relative to the league) don’t leave the infield.

  7. EricL

    November 13, 2011 10:27 PM

    My hope is that he comes to Philly and picks up the cutter that has become all the rage on the Phils staff over the last few years (See: Kendrick, Madson, Hamels). Less taxing than the split and the fastball/cutter combo seems to work pretty well for another reliever that I can think of.

  8. KH

    November 14, 2011 01:00 PM

    I disagree this is an upgrade. Or if it is an upgrade its a marginal one not worth spending an extra 1.5 million a year for if the contract numbers that were being discussed with Madson were accurate. Getting Madson at 11 million per is better then getting Papelbon at the dollars the Phillies gave him. Also, Papelbon’s second pitch is a splitter which is a known arm recker and something Papelbon probably avoid’s throwing when he can. Madson has a great changeup so he does not rely on the fastball as much. Because of that imo Madson should age better.

    In the end this is probably not going to effect the Phillies performance versus having Madson in a meaningful way but I just don’t understand paying a 1.5 milliond dollar permium. Part of me thinks this is RAJ stoking up the Phillies propaganda machine to ensure continue hysteria over the local ball team. Everybody in town knew Madson this signing of Papelbon probably sounds sexier to your average fan. Unfortunately he is not the better pitcher and should not have been offered more money.

  9. Michael

    November 16, 2011 12:00 PM

    @KH

    Whether or not Madson ages better is up for debate, but to call Madson the “better pitcher” is just untrue. For comparison’s sake, Papelbon’s career ERA (2.33) is slightly lower than Madson’s single-season lowest ERA (2.34 in ’04), and because this is a sabermetric site, Madson’s xFIP in 2011: 2.94. Papelbon’s xFIP in 2011: 2.16, just 73% of Madson’s.

    As I said, the durability question is legitimate, but as far as traditional and sabermetric statistics are concerned, Madson has been inferior to Papelbon.

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