Jonathan Papelbon’s Lost Velocity: Much Ado about Nothing?
Back in mid-April, a couple weeks following an ugly blown save in Texas against the Rangers, Jonathan Papelbon asked the media why they worry so much about his declining velocity. In 2011, Papelbon’s fastball averaged 95 MPH. In 2012, it was 93.8, 92 MPH last season, and 91.6 MPH so far in 2014.
Did he have a point?
Papelbon closed out Saturday night’s game against the Mets relatively easily, notching his 11th save, tied for third-best in all of baseball. It continued a streak of scoreless appearances dating back to April 2’s meltdown against the Rangers in which he allowed three runs in one-third of an inning.
Since then, Papelbon has appeared in 14 games, tossed 14 innings, allowed zero runs on six hits and three walks, struck out 12, and converted all 11 of his save opportunities. It’s tough to argue with those results, even in a small sample.
That said, there are some worrying trends. Papelbon’s strikeout rate is still only at 23 percent, six percent below his career average and about ten percent below where it was as recently as 2012. His walk rate, at eight percent, is currently his highest since 2010. He’s been a bit fortunate on batted balls, sitting on a .244 BABIP compared to his .279 career average. And he has yet to allow a home run despite inducing fly balls at a rate he hasn’t seen since 2009 (52.5%).
Everything we’ve learned about pitchers thanks to DIPS would indicate that Papelbon is a ticking time bomb; a regression monster waiting to spawn.
Papelbon’s 2013 started off similarly. He allowed two runs in a non-save opportunity against the Atlanta Braves in his first appearance, then rattled off 18 consecutive scoreless appearances through May 28. From May 29 through the end of the season, Papelbon posted a 3.86 ERA and blew seven of 26 save opportunities.
|Thru May 28, 2013||19 2/3||0.92||10-10||23.0%||3.0%||.180||1|
|May 29, 2013 – RoS||42||3.86||19-26||22.0%||5.0%||.341||5|
|2014 Total||15 1/3||1.76||11-12||23.0%||8.0%||.250||0|
Samples for relievers are small enough within one season that Papelbon’s luck could continue throughout 2014, but the smart money is on his numbers resembling those of the final four months of the 2013 season going forward. The Phillies should hope that Papelbon’s luck can last another two months to further inflate his trade value — which had fallen precipitously in the latter half of 2013 — and try to move him before the trade deadline.