Reports of Jonathan Papelbon’s Demise Greatly Exaggerated?

Early in the season, I wrote several blog posts discussing Jonathan Papelbon‘s waning velocity and tumbling strikeout rate, but all the right-hander has done over the first half of the season is pitch lights out. Despite missing out on a nomination to the National League All-Star team, Papelbon has been among the game’s best closers. Following last night’s save, a 1-2-3 inning against the Milwaukee Brewers, Papelbon is now 21-for-23 in save opportunities with a 1.27 ERA.

Things couldn’t have gone better for the Phillies in this regard, as Papelbon’s trade value is about as high as it will ever be and he should draw at least some interest as the trade deadline nears. Papelbon is earning $13 million this season and in 2015, some or all of which the Phillies may have to cover, and he has a $13 million vesting option for 2016.

Despite the first-half success, though, there is reason to expect that the other shoe will fall for Papelbon, and the sooner the Phillies can recoup value for him, the better. Yes, we are going to continue talking about velocity. It has remained in the low 90’s:

As a result, Papelbon’s 22.6 percent strikeout rate is just a hair higher than last year’s career-low 22.4 percent. His 6.7 percent walk rate, while still good, is his highest since 2010.

There’s also a solid foundation on which to believe Papelbon has been extraordinarily fortunate, leading to his minuscule ERA. He has a .234 BABIP, which is minimum 54 points lower than in any of the last seven seasons. In a small sample of 137 batters faced, a few extra hits can mean the difference between an ERA in the 3’s and an ERA in the 1’s. Papelbon has also allowed exactly zero home runs.

Even if you want to make the case that Papelbon has pitched well enough to deserve a 1.27 ERA, he has not pitched “zero home runs” well. Further, if you want to make the case that Papelbon’s 2.35 FIP — the kindest of the ERA retrodictors as it relates to Papelbon — is representative of how he’s pitched, that still is a nearly 100 percent increase from what the results have borne thus far.

Relievers are a fickle bunch. I like to refer to them as volatile, because they can be good and then bad in the flash of an eye. ESPN’s David Schoenfield pointed this out recently, looking at All-Star relievers in recent years:

Papelbon will only log another 30-35 innings the rest of the way, so maybe the Phillies — or his new team, God willing — will continue to be the beneficiaries of his good fortune. But if the stats tell us anything, it’s that regression is looming on the horizon. The Phillies would be best served by trying to move their 33-year-old closer as quickly as possible before his value bottoms out.

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  1. Ryan

    July 09, 2014 08:46 AM

    A-men to that–good riddance. The 100 Miles Giles era begins! (not sure if this is a good thing but better than watching Papsmear.

    • Kyle

      July 09, 2014 03:30 PM

      Oh good someone else used the Papsmear term.

      • hedda lee

        July 09, 2014 07:52 PM

        Nothing like a little misogyny to liven up a conversation about baseball.

  2. Beez Nutz

    July 09, 2014 09:35 AM

    Kind of disagree with Schoenfield on this … relievers may be volatile from year to year. That however, does not mean they aren’t worthy of being All Stars for THAT particular season.

    But I do understand why you put that in the article.

  3. crow

    July 09, 2014 10:03 AM

    I’ve found Papelbon really interesting to watch this year. Give the guy credit for doing what some other Phillies have stubbornly resisted doing. You could see him working to reinvent himself last year, and his success this year is at least a partial reflection of reinvention. His BABIP is at a 7-year low and his flyball rate (47.8%) is at a 5-year high, so he should be overdue for regression. But his line drive rate (15.2%) is also a career low, and that says to me that he’s been keeping hitters off balance. Pitch f/x rates his slider (per 100 pitches) as a very successful pitch, better, in fact, than his fastball and splitter have ever graded out. He’s pitched smartly and efficiently to accomodate new realities. The league will catch up, I’m sure, but I’ll give him credit where due.

  4. dang

    July 09, 2014 11:20 AM

    Allowing 0 HR is what is keeping his FIP so low. Not a lot of stock should be put into a low FIP when it is dependent on an unsustainable HR/FB% (See: Buehrle, Mark).

  5. velo

    July 09, 2014 07:36 PM

    Would love to see a chart showing changes in pitch usage frequency & location, and not just velo. He most positively will regress some, but he does seem to have reivented himself to where his loss of mph plays. Who knows, he might become the new Hoffman.

      • Anonymous

        July 09, 2014 11:18 PM


      • velo

        July 10, 2014 03:06 AM

        Thanks! So, to my untrained eye it does look like he’s become a slider pitcher and no longer a fb/split guy.

      • velo

        July 10, 2014 03:11 AM

        Thanks for this too. Again, it looks like he is staying away (rhb) a good deal more this year v. last.

      • velo

        July 10, 2014 03:20 AM

        now, only if i had access to pitch movement charts…

        sorry, i come from a scouting background but i know the way things are done on the internet is with charts or no one believes.

      • dang

        July 10, 2014 03:44 PM

        First –

        This has a bunch of links on the side bar for release point, movement (horizontal and vertical), velocity, etc.

        Secondly – You make it sound like these numbers are made up. There’s a reason why people look at them and trust them – because they’re more reliable. A scout’s eyes can deceive him, maybe he doesn’t perceive it correctly. I’m not shitting on the “scouting” perspective – I think that having a trained eye can help you ask the sort of scientific questions that will allow you to have a deeper understanding of the game (by delving deeper into things). But don’t make it sound like all of these numbers are superfluous.

  6. philly fan in NY

    July 10, 2014 03:48 PM

    Bill, thanks for being the type of writer who is willing to acknowlege a mistake. Paps has been good and he has shown some maturity by becoming a better pitcher as his arm slows down, so kudos to him. That being said, I think he’s a bad clubhouse guy and has high trade value to a team that needs some new blood in the system. Assuming we eat half the contract, can we get back a top 100 kind of guy – maybe a 2 or 3 prospects from a team, if so who do you like? I follow our prospects pretty closely, but I have no idea about other teams? Can you get a Zack Wheeler type? I hope we go for pitching and then second choice outfield.

  7. GB

    July 10, 2014 06:37 PM

    Papelbon’s performance has never been the main question or issue IMO…it was the absolute lunacy of giving a closer the biggest reliever contract in history in a sad and desparate attempt to deny reality. Sure, the guy is a knucklehead, but most of the angst aimed at him is really deflected from the teflon covering both Amaro & Monty wear and the idiocy of our local media that dissect every word players say and look for hidden meanings like French literary post-modernists….while acting holier than thou as if their sh** did not stink….I’d love to see Papelbon cashed in for a great haul, but he is a definite poster child for the organizational rot at the core of the Phils ownership/management structure. Good riddance to them first, then Papelbon IMO…

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