Jonathan Papelbon in Freefall?

All season long, the Phillies have been vying for the Worst Bullpen championship. At first, their strategy involved not using their best reliever, Jonathan Papelbon, in high-leverage situations, but then relief corps stalwarts started to pitch in by allowing obscene amounts of home runs. Chad Qualls, for instance, allowed seven home runs in 31.1 innings before being shipped to the New York Yankees. After that, there was a motley crew of young arms ready to surrender winnable games at a moment’s notice. Just in recent memory, Antonio Bastardo (July 6), Michael Schwimer (July 13), and Jake Diekman (July 18) have done their part.

It can be argued, though, that a lot of that was to be expected. Many warned of Qualls’ eroding skill set when he was signed before the season, and bullpens rife with kids aren’t all that reliable to begin with anyway. The most surprising and disappointing part of the Phillies’ bullpen lately has actually been Papelbon himself, the prize of the past off-season. The Phillies signed him to a four-year, $50 million contract expecting him to replace Ryan Madson, but he has been anything but reliable lately. Since June 20, Papelbon has appeared in 11 games, allowing runs in six of them to the tune of a 6.57 ERA. To that point, he was 17-for-17 in save opportunities, but is 4-for-7 since.

The good news is that Papelbon isn’t in disrepair. Since June 20,  he has a K/BB ratio in excess of 4.0, striking out 17 in 12.1 innings. The issue appears to be BABIP-related, especially towards right-handed batters. The following table shows Papelbon’s BABIP against left- and right-handed batters as well as the number of plate appearances (in parentheses).

BABIP Up To 6/20 Since 6/20
vs. LHB .300 (50) .391 (35)
vs. RHB .212 (52) .583 (25)

The sample sizes are small, so there isn’t anything monumental to find here — just bad luck in general. The .091 BABIP difference to lefties only accounts for three extra hits in 35 PA, while the .371 BABIP difference to RHB accounts for nine extra hits in 25 PA. Where are these hits landing?

First, the LHB:

And the RHB:

In the fourth hit chart, the right-handed batters have a cluster of hits down the right field line. That’s neither an area to which Papelbon has traditionally allowed hits, nor is it an area that indicates that Papelbon has been getting shelled. These two well-struck baseballs are included:

Papelbon’s numbers on the season overall are right in line with his career averages, except for one thing:

2012 Career
K% 29.6% 29.5%
BB% 5.6% 6.6%
K/BB 5.33 4.49
BABIP .323 .279

With a 3.03 xFIP and 2.36 SIERA, Papelbon should simply continue pitching the way he has been and the chips should start falling back in his favor. His last month has simply been the latest straw in the Phillies’ bale of 2012 problems, but it is also easily correctable.

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