Is something wrong with Papelbon?


Two nights ago, Jonathan Papelbon came in, walked Akinori Iwamura, allowed him to take second on a bad pickoff throw, then gave up a single to Jason Bartlett. Runners at the corners, no outs, Carlos Pena pinch-hitting. With the game hanging by a 4-3 margin, I’ll admit it; I was nervous. Explaining exactly why I was nervous goes beyond this particular situation, though. Let me bore you with the details:

  • Papelbon has walked 8 men in 14 IP this season.
  • He walked 8 men in 69.1 IP ALL OF LAST YEAR.
  • Papelbon has gotten about 38% grounders for his career.
  • This season that number is at 22.9%, and flyballs are through the roof at 57.1%.

What does this all add up to? Papelbon has suffered some shoulder discomfort already this Spring, but he claims that he’s just working on some things early in the year. To be fair, we are talking about a very small sample here. But let’s look at his PITCHf/x data to see if that explanation holds water.

Pitch selection

Papelbon is throwing fewer splitters this season (10.1%, down from 15.2% career), and relying more on his slider/slutter (9.0%, 7.0% career). That could be something that he’s working on. He took some speed off that last pitch he threw to Iwamura, but missed inside.

 

The walk pitch shown in green

The walk pitch shown in green

Credit: BrooksBaseball.net for the graph.

 

Velocity and movement

Pap’s still got his fastball; there’s no measurable decline there (94.9 mph 2009 vs 94.5 mph career). His slider is a little bit slower than in previous seasons (83.9 mph 2009 vs 85.4 mph career) and the vertical movement has been reduced (2.2 inches vertical break 2009 vs 4.1 inches 2008). This could mean that he is tweaking that pitch.

On 5/10 he threw all fastballs and seemed to warm up the longer he was out there, topping out on pitch 18 of 22 at 96.8 mph:

 

Papelbons increasing velocity

Papelbon's increasing velocity

Conclusion

Move on, folks, there’s nothing to see here. Papelbon appears to be as healthy as ever, he just missed here and there. It seems that hitters are getting used to his stuff and fouling him off more, making him go deeper into at-bats this year. If that trend continues, a good slider will be a valuable weapon for Paps to go to.

The three consecutive strikeouts to end the inning and save the game should tell you something. The man is fine.

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