Jonathan Papelbon and Living Up in the Strike Zone

It has been a rough year for Jonathan Papelbon. After nailing down 13 consecutive save opportunities to start the season, he blew four out of five in the span of a week between June 17-24. Even in his most rcent converted save, he allowed two runs to the Nationals but hung on as the Phillies won 3-2. He has allowed runs in seven of his last 16 appearances. Though he still carries an impressive 2.27 ERA, he is having the worst season of his career by defense-independent standards.

The issue is rather easy to diagnose: he is missing bats significantly less often than he has in the past. In 2011 and ’12, he struck out 34 and 32 percent of batters he faced, but that rate has fallen below 22 percent this season, a career low. His velocity is down, significantly, across the board:

(click to enlarge)

Compared to last year, his average fastball velocity has fallen from 94.5 MPH to 93.2, according to Brooks Baseball. His slider has fallen from 80 MPH to 77. His splitter has remained more or less unchanged.

Papelbon has long lived up in the strike zone, but for pitchers to thrive there, they need power. 95 MPH up and in on a lefty is a lot different than 92 MPH. You can see the change in contact rate in those specific locations from last year to this year with the following heat maps. Remember, with these particular charts, blue is good and red is bad.

Left-handed hitters:

Right-handed hitters:

Papelbon is enjoying a .227 BABIP overall, so it is difficult to observe the ill effects of his declining fastball velocity as his luck on balls in play is creating noise. For example, on those fastballs up in the zone, hitters overall have posted a .139 wOBA against him this year compared to .189 last year. However, hitters have swung and missed at those pitches ten percent less often.

A majority of Papelbon’s success this year is illusory. When his BABIP returns to his career average .274, or closer to .300 where it has been in recent years, he will be increasingly unreliable in high-leverage situations unless he is able to recapture most or all of his ability to miss bats. More balls in play plus a higher rate of contact means more hits and consequently more runs. Papelbon is 32 years old, so recovering lost velocity is much easier said than done.

Papelbon is in the second year of a reliever-record four-year, $50 million contract. He has drawn interest from several contending teams — including the Tigers and Red Sox — looking to bolster their bullpen before the trade deadline. The Phillies may never have a better opportunity to jump off this sinking ship while also getting something of value in return. If the Phillies are able to capitalize, hopefully it is a lesson well-learned on signing older relievers to rich, lengthy contracts.

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36 comments

  1. Pencilfish

    July 11, 2013 02:39 PM

    “If the Phillies are able to capitalize, hopefully it is a lesson well-learned on signing older relievers to rich, lengthy contracts.”

    Whether you believe it or not, MLB clubs value closers and are willing to pay dearly for them, so I doubt trading Pap will be a lesson learned. The Phillies and other clubs will continue to pay premium, though it is hard to disagree Pap is overpaid.

  2. Phillie697

    July 11, 2013 03:02 PM

    @Pencilfish,

    We’ll see after the trade deadline if (1) we even trade Paps, and (2) if we do, what we get back for him. I think I’ve been on the record in saying that I don’t think Paps will get us much. Other people cited to Detroit and their win-now craziness as a possibility that I would be wrong. If I am, more power to the Phillies (and RAJ), and I’ll gladly accept being wrong. I don’t think I will be tho.

    That said, I think we’ll get SOMETHING. But unlike some other posters, I have enough regard for you to know that we will be able to have an honest and intelligent conversation about what we get for Paps, if we get anything, is “significant.”

  3. hk

    July 11, 2013 04:33 PM

    Pencilfish,

    What clubs other than the Phillies have paid dearly in both $ and years for a closer lately?

  4. LTG

    July 11, 2013 04:55 PM

    Bell got paid. Soriano got paid by the Yanks. Rivera gets paid. Not exhaustive but some examples. It happens, though not frequently because closers tend to flame out before free agency.

    I don’t think it is accurate to say all MLB clubs value closers, if by closers we mean some special breed of reliever that is rare and worth paying for. Lots of clubs seem to rely more on producing good bullpen arms and just choosing the best of them to close. They might value good relievers but also don’t give them big FA contracts. I’m thinking here of San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta, and Texas, in particular. Tampa Bay also puts together good bullpens without paying much, although I think they value the closer role less than other clubs.

    Papelbon might have netted a decent return earlier in the year when his results looked good despite his drop in velocity. Now, however, teams will be wary, even teams like Detroit and Arizona who desperately need help.

  5. Pencilfish

    July 11, 2013 05:30 PM

    LTG, hk,

    I didn’t say “all” MLB clubs value closers, though I had in mind highly-paid closers. Here are other closers with salaries north of $6M (arbitrarily chosen value for no specific reason) that I can think of:

    Perez (Indians), Hanrahan (Red Sox), Nathan (Rangers), Street (Padres), Putz (D’backs), Francisco (Mets) and Johnson (Orioles)

    Of those, Nathan, Street, Francisco and Putz have multi-year deals.

  6. LTG

    July 11, 2013 05:39 PM

    “MLB clubs value closers”, maybe that’s not a universal claim but it is a generic. I don’t think even the generic is true, at least if it is supposed to entail “and are willing to pay dearly for them”.

    I, at least, don’t think $6M for a year counts as paying dearly. That’s only a bit higher than the going rate on the market for 1 WAR. And whether a particular amount of money is dear depends on the years.

  7. LTG

    July 11, 2013 05:42 PM

    Oh, and as I understand the dialectic here, you have a response to the quote from BB only if most teams are giving expensive *and long* contracts. Otherwise, the Phillies can and might learn the same lesson lots of other teams seem to have learned.

  8. hk

    July 11, 2013 06:27 PM

    Perez (Indians) – 1 year, $7.3M
    Hanrahan (Red Sox) – 1 years, $7.04M
    Nathan (Rangers) – 2 years, $14.75M
    Street (Padres) – 2 years, $14M
    Putz (D’backs) – 2 years, $10M
    Francisco (Mets) – 2 years, $12M
    Johnson (Orioles) – 1 year, $6.5M

    Papelbon (Phillies) – 4 years, $50M

    None of the closers that you listed is making 60% of Papelbon’s average annual salary nor are any of them signed for more than 1/2 the number of years as Papelbon. In regards to the dollars and years context of BB’s comment, if the teams of the players you listed are paying “dearly” for their closers, how do you describe what the Phillies are paying for theirs?

  9. LTG

    July 11, 2013 10:30 PM

    Is Yasiel Puig an illusion:

    >5 BB%
    40 O-Swing%
    30 HR/FB%
    .480 BABIP

  10. pedro3131

    July 11, 2013 11:21 PM

    Putz isn’t the closer anymore… Doesn’t detract from the general point but I think it’s worth mentioning

  11. Phillie697

    July 12, 2013 12:09 AM

    @LTG,

    Illusion? Yes. Crash back down to earth? Yes. Will people cry about said crash? Yes. Will he deserve the inevitable criticism? No. Does anyone who can hit like Barry Bonds for one month deserve at the VERY LEAST an extended MLB tryout? Fuck yes!

    @hk,

    I’m just glad to have Pencilfish, of all people, utter this line: “though it is hard to disagree Pap is overpaid.” That’s enough for me.

  12. Phillies fan from Germany

    July 12, 2013 03:53 AM

    If there is one player I would trade it is Papelbon. Hugely overpaid. I would trade the Youngs as well but I doubt that there will be much of a return for them.

  13. LTG

    July 12, 2013 08:31 AM

    Oh, and I forgot that Puig’s K% is >20.

    697,

    The point of these numbers is that he isn’t hitting like Bonds. His OBP is too low, despite having a very high average. But, obviously, he should keep playing until he crashes or adjusts to the inevitable adjustments made to him.

  14. Jonny5

    July 12, 2013 11:46 AM

    So a team in Boston who relies on Statistics much more so than the Phillies is going to try to obtain Papelbon why again? Are you saying they will be desperate enough to pull that trigger anyway?

  15. Pencilfish

    July 12, 2013 12:38 PM

    LTG,

    If MLB clubs don’t value (or believe in that role) closers (not necessarily expensive), then why is the lion’s share of saves per club usually credited to a single pitcher? Very few teams employ the “closer by committee” approach. I think even fewer succeed. The idea of a closer is part of the MLB fabric.

    Now, about the *expensive* part, if there’s a market for Papelbon, then clearly other teams believe in expensive closers, right? Whether $6M is expensive or not, I admit it was just an arbitrary number I chose by looking at Kimbrel’s and Bastardo’s (whom some said has closer material) salaries ($600k and $1.4M respectively) and arbitrarily picking a value around 5 times higher.

    hk,

    Those listed with salaries north of $6M is just part of the story. You need to look at the total team budget and calculate the percentage devoted to the closer. “Paying dearly” implies not only the absolute salary figure but also a significant fraction of the budget being tied to the closer. Here is the fraction (team payroll taken from Cot’s contracts as of opening day):

    Perez (9.1%)
    Hanrahan (4.6%)
    Nathan (5.6%)
    Street (10.2%)
    Putz (7.5%)
    Francisco (6.9%)
    Johnson (7.0%)

    Kimbrel (0.7%)
    Papelbon (8.1%)

    I will leave it to both of you to comment how expensive Papelbon is in relation to the other closers listed.

  16. Pencilfish

    July 12, 2013 12:42 PM

    I forgot to mention Kimbrel is eligible for arbitration next off-season. I will venture a guess that his fractional share of the Braves’ budget will not remain at 0.7% for long.

  17. Joecatz

    July 12, 2013 12:50 PM

    I might be on the other side of the “sell sell sell” rebuild arguement, for philosophical reasons…. Mainly who and why.

    that said, i dont care if we go 12-0 between now and july 30th, and are suddenly 11 games ahead and leading the division…..

    the only mistake that Ruben can make IMO at the deadline, regardless of where they are is NOT TRADiNG PAPELBON to the highest bidder.

    Eat money, get the best return and cut ties now.

    Bils spot on here. Spot on.

  18. Pencilfish

    July 12, 2013 12:54 PM

    joecatz,

    If you are not on the sell,sell, sell bandwagon, and RAJ trades Pap, who becomes the closer? Aumont? Bastardo?

  19. hk

    July 12, 2013 12:57 PM

    jonny5,

    Who says the Red Sox are going to target Papelbon? Most of what I have read says they are not interested in a Papelbon reunion. It has been a long time since the Red Sox had a reliever on the books for multiple years at more than $6M per year.

  20. Joecatz

    July 12, 2013 01:17 PM

    Pencil fish,

    I think part of the reason I’m not on the sell sell sell bandwagon is because I don’t believe that a team like the phillies has to take one position or the other.

    There are a plethora of ways to go. You can trade for someone, you can go with bastardo, he’ll, you can sign Brian Wilson as a free agent.

    The reason you sell papelbon is because, as bill points out he’s regressing and he’s overpaid, and his return will never be greater.

    Basically, all the reasons why I vehemently disagree with trading cliff lee? They’re the exact reasons why you trade papelbon.

    His money and performance and role is easily replaced.

    My issues stem with evaluating trading someone based solely on return and their cost, without really looking at their value to the team. Especially if you think as I do, that theyll contend every year.

    But if you can get a castellanos, or smyly, or Garcia for papelbon you do it. And you go ahead then and move some lesser pieces for a krod, or axford, or Thornton, or whoever.

  21. joecatz

    July 12, 2013 01:39 PM

    I think theres a ton if divisiveness in the Phillies community right now among smart fans, mainly because we’re smart.

    Its really easy to have an opinion, but no one has the real answers, and I think a LOT of the frustration right now stems from this basic problem:

    The Phillies are still an ass backwards organization. Bill and I disagree on a lot of things in regards to how the team should be constructed moving forward, and honestly the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

    One thing that I believe in strongly though, that I think Bill would be in total agreement on, is that until the Phillies wise up and start truly using advanced metrics to determine roster construction its highly likely that they’ll continue to miss much more than they hit, whether its free agency, trades or even draft strategy.

    the reality is that we can debate the merits and reasoning behind the Howard extention, and to a degree the Adams signing and Papelbon deals to eternity, but the truth is that a team that beives in metrics, and uses them effectively shies away from those deals 9 times out of 10.

  22. Jonny5

    July 12, 2013 01:58 PM

    HK, it’s been said here and other places he is drawing interest from Boston. I don’t see Boston as a real destination if the Phillies wanted to get rid of him. The Tigers, maybe. Now with the Phillies getting hot I’m sure Amaro would like to stay the course with Papelbon unless trading him brings more BP pitchers. I just don’t think anyone is going to bite to be honest and don’t think Amaro wants to unload him either. I feel there is no window of opportunity here to get rid of him and his contract. I feel we’re spinning our wheels in this case for naught.

  23. Pencilfish

    July 12, 2013 01:59 PM

    joecatz,

    I’m somewhat indifferent on whether we should trade Pap or not because of his value and cost. The trouble I see is, the Phillies BP is bad, real bad. Trade Pap and replace him as you suggested. Will this improve the BP and increase their small chance of reaching the post-season this year? If the answer is “no” to both questions, then doesn’t this imply we should also trade M. Young, Ruiz and maybe Utley (but keep Lee!)? There’s no point keeping the expiring contracts unless: a) the minor-league replacements are not better in the long-run, and b) we can’t find better value in the FA market next winter.

  24. joecatz

    July 12, 2013 02:20 PM

    there are two players whos names have been bandied about that I absolutely do not trade if I’m Ruben under any circumstances, if my goal is to compete in 2013 and 2014:

    Utley and Lee. And Chooch is a close third, only because hes played so horribly I believe his value is so low the return won’t be worth the on field value behind the plate this year.

    Young is gonna be traded IMO either way, and the only difference in a sell vs buy mode is what you want in return (think a RP in a buy, prospects in a sell)

    Pepelbon should go either way

    because:

    1. hes regressing
    2. hes expensive
    3. hes replaceable
    4. hes an idiot (that one is personal)

    If you think you need a closer, you trade smaller parts for a lesser closer because:

    1. the HAUL for Papelbon is >/= the prospects youll send for a lesser guy.
    2. Paps value will bever be higher than right now.

    but the problem here is that Ruben won’t do this because he has no real sense of Papaelbons actual on field value, or his regressive signs. he only sees worlds best closer.

    all comes down to analytics again.

  25. Dan R

    July 12, 2013 03:00 PM

    joecatz,

    “but the problem here is that Ruben won’t do this because he has no real sense of Papaelbons actual on field value, or his regressive signs. he only sees worlds best closer. ”

    Sadly, I believe you’re 100% correct in that statement. If by some miracle he does trade Papelbon, it would honesty restore just a little of my faith in RAJ (be it, a very small amount). Due to their lack of analytics, they probably only see is 2.21 ERA and 20 saves and think he’s way too good to trade.

    Any interest they might get probably would not include a package that fits RAJ’s perceived value of Papelbon, making him even less likely to get traded.

  26. LTG

    July 12, 2013 03:20 PM

    Pencilfish,

    I, at least, am not saying teams don’t use closers, merely that they don’t value them in the way you suggested originally. I also don’t think any generics about closers (except their use) apply to MLB teams. Different teams have different approaches to how they fill the closer role.

    While I agree that percent of budget has to be part of the analysis of paying dearly, it can’t be the whole picture. Lower budget teams have to pay a higher percent for the above-average players they retain and obtain. In particular, lower budget teams have to sacrifice a higher percentage of their budgets to arbitration hearings and pre-arbitration signings in order to retain the talent they have developed. One problem with budget percentage is that there is a floor of talent needed to be competitive and that talent demands a certain minimum price.

    Another problem is that it treats the budget as a static thing. Budgets are dynamic. If you have a good reliever at a higher price for one year, maybe that is because you know you can afford him for this year given other fixed expenses. There is much less risk (which is part of paying dearly) in using a big chunk of budget over one year than the same chunk over multiple years. That’s one aspect of the dynamic budget. Another is that when you add a player changes how dearly you are paying relative to your own budget. In the case of Papelbon, his 8% of the whole was added when most of the budget was already devoted to a very small number of players. Papelbon’s contract was a very large chunk of what the Phillies had left to spend on filling out the rest of the team. That makes the contract even dearer, since it prevents other potential moves.

    Finally, you listed above less than 1/3 of MLB teams. That is not enough to support your initial criticism of BB. Here’s how that was supposed to go. BB suggests the Phillies adjust how they value the closer role. You rebut that every team (or nearly every team) values the closer as the Phillies do. (Which is relevant, I guess, because the Phillies couldn’t be trailblazers but have to look to other teams for examples of good roster construction.) Then I pointed out that not even nearly every team values the closer such that they would pay so dearly for one. So far, you’ve not presented evidence that that’s wrong. You’ve only presented, at most (see my dispute above), evidence that some other teams value closers like the Phillies do. That’s not enough to make your criticism of BB go through.

    Care to try again?

  27. LTG

    July 12, 2013 03:22 PM

    Also, the age thing. BB, didn’t rule out paying a bit more for a younger reliever, one that isn’t about to lose a few mph.

  28. Joecatz

    July 12, 2013 03:33 PM

    Age is a factor but it can’t be THE factor. Mariano Rivera, randy Johnson, Curt Schilling just to name a few have been examples of dominant pitchers well into their late 30s.

    Age plus declining velocity etc??

    That’s a red flag.

    But to think smart teams (see Red Sox) don’t see that is the biggest reason why I don’t think he gets traded

  29. Phillie697

    July 12, 2013 03:51 PM

    “the reality is that we can debate the merits and reasoning behind the Howard extention, and to a degree the Adams signing and Papelbon deals to eternity, but the truth is that a team that beives in metrics, and uses them effectively shies away from those deals 9 times out of 10.”

    This is why I think our discussions ultimately amount to not much, unless all of a sudden RAJ has a stroke or a heart attack.

  30. Joecatz

    July 12, 2013 04:18 PM

    697,

    Yup. If you really think about it, every bad roster move Raj has made has been the result of a lack of using advanced metrics and everyone that has worked has basically been the result of trading for a clear no brainer guy, and sending out players the organization knew well enough and long enough to know they wouldn’t really miss.

  31. Phillie697

    July 12, 2013 04:34 PM

    @Joecatz,

    Asking RAJ to understand my reasoning for trading Lee, i.e. the marginal costs of obtaining talents, might literally cause his head to explode.

  32. Joecatz

    July 12, 2013 04:41 PM

    See I don’t believe that he can be that stupid and hold the job. I think there’s a point where the smart fans hatred for the way he does business gets in the way of reality.

    Ruben understands all the cost stuff better than you or I could ever understand it. He just chooses to put very very little value on it.

    Tats basically where I have issue when people call the guy a dolt. He’s not a dolt. He’s a very smart guy, with a completely different philosophical view.

    But Ruben understands baseball, and the business of baseball better than anyone on this sight, or the good Phight or any of the phillies blogs does. To believe anything different is really kind of silly.

    I think he understands the analytical better than most as well. He just chooss to ignore them, or chooses to give the illusion of ignoring them.

  33. Joecatz

    July 12, 2013 04:46 PM

    It’s kind of like a republican saying that Obama isn’t quailified to be president because of his social or economic ideas.

    Whether your right or wrong about that the statement itself is kind of ludicrous. He’s an incredibly intelligent person, and extremely qualified.

  34. Stick

    July 13, 2013 07:49 AM

    If there is one piece on this team that can go its papelbon and I say that only because a non contending team does not need a highly paid closer. However I can’t see the phils getting elite prospects for him unless they eat a ton of money. One thing I think that should be a acknowledged is teams that win championships have elite bullpens and elite closers. I’m sure rube saw paps as an elite closer. The problem is he paid way too much for him. Seems to be a trait rube has with contracts and trades.

  35. hk

    July 13, 2013 10:37 AM

    Stick,

    Haven’t a number of the recent champions won with closers who would not be considered elite? Names like Romo, Motte, Foulke and Jenks come immediately to mind.

  36. Phillie697

    July 16, 2013 01:22 PM

    @joecatz,

    I can choose to known everything there is to know about nuclear physics, and then choose to ignore it and treat it as science fiction. That doesn’t make me smart just because I learned nuclear physics. It’s in choosing to ignore it that makes me an idiot.

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