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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.