Jonathan Papelbon in Transition by Jeff Sullivan January 23, 2015 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: 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: 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.