Jonathan Papelbon in Transition

From the looks of things, Jonathan Papelbon might well soon be on his way to Milwaukee. As I write this, nothing’s confirmed, and you never know when something might break down, or when some other team might decide to interfere. But the last I saw, the Brewers and Phillies were deep into negotiations, with the final hurdle being the small matter of Philadelphia covering some of Papelbon’s salary. That’s not actually a small matter — that’s kind of half of the entire trade. But, let’s assume.

One’s first thought, probably: Papelbon is nuts! Okay, granted, but maybe not important. One’s second thought, possibly: why not just sign Francisco Rodriguez as a free agent? Rodriguez was a Brewer for a few years. Of Milwaukee, he said this in September:

“I definitely know where I want to be. I want to be here. But it is not my decision. There are a lot of things the front office has to do over the course of the winter. They know how I feel. My heart is going to always be here.”

Some months ago, Rodriguez said he wanted to return. Maybe free agency changed his mind, I don’t know. I do know the Brewers know Rodriguez, and they must have their reasons. It’s not like this idea hasn’t occurred to them. It seems the Brewers are fond of Jonathan Papelbon. We, then, should talk about Jonathan Papelbon, closer for a bad team, who might soon become closer for a decent team.

Let’s get this out of the way. Brooks Baseball:

papfastballs

So that’s steep. People have been talking about this for a while. It’s no secret that Papelbon has lost a good bit of gas. What you’re looking at are average velocities. Unsurprisingly, this is mirrored by looking at the trend in Papelbon’s top velocities. In 2009, he hit 100. A few years later, he topped out at 97. Last year, he didn’t exceed 95.1. The oomph is gone. Papelbon has blamed some minor aches and pains, as well as a lack of motivation closing for a go-nowhere ballclub, but it seems he’s just capable of less than before, even at 100%. That’s what velocity loss indicates.

When a pitcher loses velocity, it gets blamed for everything. Rightly, for the most part — it’s kind of a big deal. As recently as 2011 – 2012, Papelbon struck out a third of the hitters he faced. That dropped a full ten percentage points in 2013, and last season it barely nudged up. The twin declines in velocity and strikeouts have raised some red flags. A pitcher trending downward invites skepticism. With the way people talk about him, you’d think Papelbon allowed more than 15 runs all last year.

The trend, though, is definitely curious. Here’s something I think is at least as curious. Let’s examine the past five years:

Season Ahead% 2 Strikes% 2-Strike K%
2010 39% 33% 21%
2011 44% 34% 25%
2012 41% 33% 25%
2013 41% 30% 21%
2014 42% 33% 18%

The first column shows Papelbon’s rate of pitches thrown in 0-and-1, 0-and-2, 1-and-2, and 2-and-2 counts. The second column is similar to the first: it’s Papelbon’s rates of pitches thrown with two strikes. The final column shows the rate of those two-strike pitches turning into strikeouts. Should all be pretty simple to understand.

It’s interesting that, last year, Papelbon still did a great job of getting ahead. As great a job as he did in 2012. The league average, if you’re wondering, is about 37%. And it’s equally interesting that, last year, Papelbon still did a great job of getting to two strikes. As great a job as he did in 2012. But then look at the last column. A few years ago, a quarter of Papelbon’s two-strike pitches turned into strikeouts. Last year, a little over a sixth. That’s the real problem. Papelbon doesn’t have the same putaway ability.

Here’s one more thing to embed — Papelbon’s pitch mixes in two-strike counts:

pap2strikecounts

He’s known for his splitter, and his splitter has remained fairly steady, in usage. The fastball rate has come down. The slider rate has gone up. This gets to the heart of something. Last year, Papelbon struck out 30% of righties, a little higher than his career average. Yet his strikeout rate against lefties keeps sinking. Last year it dropped under 20%. Papelbon generally doesn’t throw many sliders to lefties, because it’s not a good pitch for opposite-handed hitters.

What we’re observing is a transition. Probably because of the lost velocity, Papelbon’s fastball is a less effective putaway pitch. Because of the reduced effectiveness of the fastball, Papelbon’s splitter has also paid some price. Hitters have laid off the splitter more, and it’s hard to believe that’s not in some way connected to the worsening heat. With righties at the plate, Papelbon has been able to counter this by folding in more sharp sliders. The slider provides a third look, generally located down and away, and that takes some of the pressure off the other two pitches. But the slider doesn’t work so well against lefties. Which means Papelbon has had to stick with his established bread and butter. The bread’s getting moldy, and the butter’s doing whatever butter does when you leave it out too long. Or are you supposed to leave butter out? Whatever the case, it isn’t non-perishable.

Papelbon, last season, was still able to get ahead of lefties. He was still able to get to two strikes against lefties. It’s just, that’s where he ran into trouble. Now here’s the potentially encouraging part. The first two months, Papelbon struck out just five of 42 lefties he faced. From June on, 20 of 88. The first two months, Papelbon threw lefties exactly one slider. From June on, 28, accounting for 8% of his pitches. Papelbon also decreased his fastball usage. Potentially as a result, all three pitches worked together, and Papelbon got more swings at his splitter. It could be, Papelbon figured out a way to mix in his slider just enough against lefties to keep them honest.

That could be part of the transition. What we’re seeing is a fastball that’s getting worse, and a splitter that, as a consequence, is also getting worse. So to counter those trends, Papelbon has introduced more of a pitch that’s usually only good against same-handed hitters. Maybe that means Papelbon is now going to run bigger platoon splits than usual. Or, alternatively, maybe the slider will work against lefties, with the other two pitches still present. Even if the slider isn’t good, it doesn’t have to be good to work as a part of a mix.

We can see that Papelbon isn’t what he was at one time, indicating that he’s gotten worse. He hasn’t yet gotten worse to the point at which he’s ineffective, and the question is, how much longer can he keep runs off the board at an acceptable rate? By throwing more sliders, Papelbon’s trying to adjust to what he’s been reduced to. If nothing else, that’s a hell of a lot better than being stubborn.





Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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KC
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KC

Great read! My only thought is… WTF is MIL thinking? I know you said that they are decent, but are they really? They can’t really think they are legit contenders, right? I know shooting for .500 and hoping for outperformance may be the new norm, but in a year where the Cubs/Cards/Pirates all look vastly superior, does trading for a closer heading in the wrong direction make any sense?? Just seems like an unusually boneheaded move.

Lonnie
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Lonnie

The Pirates look vastly superior? Really?

Pitnick
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Pitnick

Yes.

Steven
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Steven

It will be interesting to see the Brewers Fangraphs projection after ZIPs is incorporated, because it seems like ZIPs is much higher on Milwaukee than Steamer.

Just doing a rough estimate using the FG Depth Charts and the Zips projections (zWAR/zPA*fgPA & zWAR/zIP*fgIP), the Brewers get 7 more WAR for hitters and 6 more WAR for pitchers. This would put them at 37 WAR total, which would have them behind the Cards but ahead of the Cubs and Pirates. Even an average of this crude ZIPs projection and Steamer would have the Brewers at 31 WAR, or basically tied with the Giants.

Of course, Fangraphs has a much better projection system than this that they will roll out once ZIPs is completely released. The simple method I used may be overstating ZIPs confidence in the Brewers and it could be slightly below this projection. At that time we will also have Pecota out as well to look at.

All I am saying is that I think the 76 win prjection Steamer gives the Brewers will probably be lower than the others. I anticipate FG and BP to both end up projecting about an 81 win team, and that is without Papelbon. Perhaps adding him would add another win or two. I think will likely be a bad move for the Brewers, but I think there is an argument that they should make it.

JS
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JS

The Brewers are contenders. I’m not sure I agree with this trade though unless Philly kicks nearly all of the money.

Dayn Perry's Dame Puree
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Dayn Perry's Dame Puree

Hard to have any kind of opinon on a trade that hasn’t happened, where we don’t know what players are heading to Philly or what money is coming back, but here’s a couple things to consider:

1. Teams pay a huge markeup for backend relief at the deadline. If the Brewers get off to a poor start than it’s not a stretch to think Papellbon will be just about as valuable at the deadline as he is now.

2. The type of stathead fans(and i consider myself among them) that tend to post on fangraphs miss some important bits when they refuse to consider things outside of what happens on the field. There are a lot of people here who seem to believe wholly in the ‘win 90 or win 60’ school of roster construction. People have been arguing that the Brewers need to do a tear down since the end of the 2011 season. Attanasio has taken the team from not really being relevant at all in the state for over a decade, to packing the stands and drawing pretty decent ratings considering the market. I’m sure there is real fear that spending 3-5 years bulding back up and playing poor ball is going to collapse that fan base and I think there is some wisdom to that. Currently the team is in a place where it can spend 100-110 million a year and put itself in the middle third of team payrolls. That has value on the field, and it’s easy to lose and takes time to build. Therefore playing for 83 wins has value if it means maintaining that fan base and cash flow. The extra wild card only adds even more incentive.

JS
Guest
JS

Exactly. Also, they have had 3 winning seasons out of the last 4. They need things to go their way to make the playoffs, but they have enough talent and the payroll to be able to have a chance at the playoffs every year.

joser
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joser

I’m sure there is real fear that spending 3-5 years bulding back up and playing poor ball is going to collapse that fan base

Especially when that fanbase is already having to be talked off the ledge due to the way their NFL team exited the playoffs.