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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14 comments

  1. The Citizens Bankers

    July 23, 2012 07:05 AM

    So you’re saying that he’s not perfect? Outrageous. Unacceptable. Trade him for a bag of balls! Maybe some bats too!

  2. Richard

    July 23, 2012 08:09 AM

    Yeah, he’s definitely been victimized by some bad luck. I do wonder, however, if he’s been more susceptible to such shenanigans, given his somewhat decreased average velocity and no doubt concomitant lower whiff rate this season. Granted, his actual K% is still excellent, so I dunno…

  3. Bill Baer

    July 23, 2012 08:18 AM

    I hadn’t noticed his FB velocity had gone down by that much. For those interested:

    www.fangraphs.com/statss.aspx?playerid=5975&position=P#pitchtype

    His whiff rate (SwStr%):

    www.fangraphs.com/statss.aspx?playerid=5975&position=P#platediscipline

    I’m more inclined to pass off the lower whiff rate because it’s within the margin of error, but as you point out, there’s likely some causation there related to the drop in velocity.

    Thanks for pointing that out.

  4. Richard

    July 23, 2012 08:25 AM

    Sure thing. Thanks for posting the links. I probably should have cited the actual numbers, so apologies for that.

    If anything, even if his velocity is not itself a problem, and if the whiff rate is within the margin of error, at least it tells us something about what’s already happened: he’s been giving up more contact (for whatever reason), and more contact means more chances for bad luck. Whether that continues going forward remains to be seen.

  5. JohnRock

    July 23, 2012 08:53 AM

    My eye was drawn to the animations before reading the article….right fielder is entirely too deep for a right handed batter. The second situation calls for a no-doubles defense and the ball probably wasn’t catchable anyway. But the first one is terrible placement on a ball that was still almost caught. A single in front of the outfielder is just as damaging as a double off the fence and far more likely…

  6. hk

    July 23, 2012 10:26 AM

    @JohnRock,

    I don’t believe that any situation calls for a no-doubles defense (particularly with someone like Papelbon who does not hold runners well). The no-doubles defense has been responsible for other hits (in addition to those shown) against Papelbon recently. In LA last Wednesday, Pierre was playing near the warning track when Abreu, a LH batter, blooped a single to left. When Abreu stole second, the no-doubles defense essentially turned what should have been a fly-out into a double.

  7. GB

    July 23, 2012 10:53 AM

    I agree that nothing fundamental or substantial is wrong with Papelbon’s performance so far, but I do think we’ve seen evidence why giving a closer such a large contract is a bad idea…

  8. VANDERGRAAFK

    July 23, 2012 02:24 PM

    Papelbon has looked good. But, he was snakebit in LA during a 10th inning where even the silliest of swings resulted in a dribble base hit. And, it seems unwise to use him for two innings of relief. Thus, the blowup in the 10th against SF. I understand Charlie’s dilemma though. Which other bullpen person are you going to put in in order to wreck a lead or blow open a small deficit? Finally, Diekman was good until Chollie tried to stretch him for another inning. The lack of a reliable bullpen is responsible for most of this mess.

  9. Richard

    July 23, 2012 02:56 PM

    It is somewhat ironic that Papelbon is being regularly used for more than one inning now, rather than earlier in the season, because the bullpen is in such a shambles and even though the season is basically shot, as if these three facts are unconnected.

  10. TexasSportsFan

    July 23, 2012 03:06 PM

    The bullpen was good last year. Never understood why Madson & Lidge were let go and so much money was given to Papelbon. I’m sure Papelbon will be okay, but he was overpaid. Amaro should be fired for bringing in Qualls. I think the Phillies should give Lidge a chance. What do they have to lose?

  11. Bill Baer

    July 23, 2012 03:16 PM

    Hmm… I pretty much disagree with everything TexasSportsFan said. haha

    EDIT: Elaborating…

    Lidge was let go because he was awful and missed time due to a ton of injuries from 2009-11. Madson was “let go” because he was a free agent. The Phillies offered him a 4-year, $44 million contract but that fell through and they signed Papelbon not long after that. The Qualls contract was a low-risk, potentially-very-rewarding signing that simply didn’t work out — no harm, no foul. And say no to Lidge forever and ever until the end of time, even if he plays for free.

  12. Annie

    July 23, 2012 06:32 PM

    Papelbon is a guy with a decent fastball and two inconsisent secondary pitches: a splitter and a slider. That’s one of the reasons the Red Sox were never that serious about turning him into a starter. He’s pretty predictable, and when his fastball flattens out, batters hit him hard.

    Historically, he’s also a flyball pitcher, which means homeruns from time to time.

    As long as he’s got command over his pitches, Papelbon is a solid closer. But, the Phillies overpaid.

  13. Bud Light

    July 23, 2012 07:58 PM

    Charlie: Put a beer cooler in the bull pen. It worked for Francona. You might be amazed how these guys will come around

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