Jonathan Papelbon Having a Good Start to 2014
What if Jonathan Papelbon has a good season?
I’ll wait for you to stop laughing.
C’mon, it’s not that funny.
During the third game of the season, Papelbon had a disastrous outing after entering the game in the 9th inning with a 4-2 lead. He retired only one of the seven batters he faced, gave up four hits and two walks including a bases loaded walk-off walk to Shin-Soo Choo. It was ugly and it seemed to confirm the doomsday narrative surrounding Papelbon at this point is career: his velocity has declined and without it he can’t succeed.
But then a funny thing happened, Papelbon dominated relief appearance after relief appearance. Look at Papelbon’s line this season, excluding the Texas disaster:
6 G, 6.0 IP, 1 H, 1 BB, 7 K, 0 R, 4 SV
You can try to spin it any way you want, but that’s a beautiful pitching line. It’s often noted in both the sabermetric community and traditional baseball wisdom that relief pitchers are volatile season to season. One of the biggest reasons for this is that their entire season is essentially a small sample size in which relievers only pitch 50-70 innings, the equivalent of 8-12 games for a starting pitcher.
Take Chad Qualls, for example. Phillies fans may remember his miserable stint with the Phillies in 2012. After getting DFA’d by the Phillies at the end of June, Qualls went on to pitch for both the Yankees and Pirates that season. For those three clubs combined, he threw 52.1 innings with a 5.33 ERA and a miserable 11.7% strikeout rate (league average was 19.8%). He was a bad, bad pitcher which is why in 2013 the hapless Miami Marlins signed him. How did Qualls respond? With a solid season, of course (62.0 IP, 2.61 ERA, 19.4 K%).
Before the 2012 season, Papelbon got paid to the tune of 4 years/$58M in part because Ruben Amaro, Jr. sometimes makes bad choices but also because Papelbon’s stuff was so good that up to that point in his career he had avoided the common relief pitcher pitfall of inconsistency. Where the story goes from here is well-documented. Papelbon had a nice first season with the Phillies but then his velocity dropped, his strikeout rate dropped and he entered the 2014 season surrounded by question marks. Oh, and sometimes he talked too much and did weird stuff that didn’t endear himself to the Philly faithful.
I’m not here to tell you Jonathan Papelbon is fixed. He’s not. His velocity used to be 95-96 MPH and now it sits 92-93 MPH. The difference is significant, especially when you consider that Papelbon is primarily a two-pitch pitcher who throws his fourseam fastball about 75% of the time. When a pitch so integral to his success loses effectiveness, it would follow that he will have greater difficulty maintaining the success he had earlier in his career.
Now’s probably a good time to note that four of Papelbon’s six successful outings so far have come against poor offenses, the Marlins and the Cubs. (Yes, I know the Marlins are currently among the NL leaders in runs scored, but we’re talking about a team that trots out Garrett Jones and Casey McGehee in their starting lineup). In the other two good outings, he faced the bottom of the Rangers order (Michael Choice, J.P. Arencibia, Leonys Martin) and the strikeout prone Atlanta Braves. If/when Papelbon starts regularly dominating good hitters and good lineups again that would of course increase reason for optimism.
If Papelbon is no longer the lights out reliever he once was, where does that leave him? Most likely in a lower tier of relievers who sometimes have good seasons and other times are miserable. If Chad Qualls, a pitcher objectively worse than Jonathan Papelbon, can go straight from a horrific year to a solid one, who knows what to expect from Papelbon going forward? His odds for being successful take a hit every time his stuff declines even slightly, but in 2014 so far, so good for Jonathan Papelbon.
Well, except for that one time.