6-26-2010: Papelbummed, Pedroia and Buchholz hurt


It looks like someone is conspiring against the Red Sox. After riding an incredible hot streak in which they went 32-17, Boston finds themselves in deeper than before. Exhibit number 1: Jonathan Papelbon’s seeming early decline. First of all, let’s address the elephant in the room: Daniel Bard is NOT going to displace Papelbon anytime soon. Deal with it. Pap himself says he’s not bothered by the Colorado series, but you know he is very bothered.

To tell you the truth, I’m kind of flummoxed about Papelbon this year. His secondary stats are declining, yes, but not THAT much. People have been quick to point to Papelbon’s fastball velocity and command, but that doesn’t seem to be noticeably different. Here’s a quick look at his past three seasons (data from texasleaguers.com):

Pap’s fastball 2008 2009 2010
Velocity 95.0 94.5 94.3
Percent thrown 88.7 84.0 78.9
Horiz mov -8.54 -8.35 -7.95
Vert mov 8.53 9.58 9.07
Strike% 71.6 67.5 66.9
Whiff% 11.8 10.4 10.9
Foul% 26.3 25.8 24
In play% 18.5 15.6 15.9

So his fastball velocity is down maybe 1 mph from 2008, his last dominant year. That’s not unusual; pitchers slowly lose velocity in their late 20s. It doesn’t help, but it doesn’t mean they suddenly become below average pitchers (statcorner.com has Papelbon as a 3 runs below average reliever at the moment). There’s about half an inch less of horizontal movement on his four-seam offering, but the pitch has slightly more rise to it than before, but is that really enough to turn him into a pumpkin? His strike, whiff, foul and in play percentages don’t think so. All of these values are not that far off of 2008. In fact, the only numbers which are off are his walk rate (a career-high 9.0%) and his HR rate on fly balls (a career-high 9.52%). Maybe you could say that he’s lost confidence in his fastball, and is therefore throwing it less and throwing it for fewer strikes. I’m tempted to just chalk this up to some tough outings. But dig a little deeper, and I think the issue becomes a little clearer.

I think the problem with the fastball is the lack of a good secondary pitch. Papelbon had a very effective mid-80s slider which he threw only about 6-7% of the time since he came up. Judging from PITCHf/x velocity and movement, he threw it through the 2008 season. But look at his slider velocity since 2008, and you’ll notice he’s gone to a more slurvy offering that’s thrown in the low 80s with more break (presumably to lessen stress on his shoulder). The problem with this pitch is that it’s a lot easier to hit:

Pap’s slider 2008 2009 2010
Velocity 86.7 84.2 82.8
Percent thrown 5.2 9.1 8.2
Horiz mov 0.08 0.49 0.05
Vert mov 4.06 2.71 1.57
Strike% 58.5 58.9 58.5
Whiff% 18.9 9.3 7.3
Foul% 15.1 12.1 2.4
In play% 9.4 15.9 31.7

2009 looks to be a transition year, in which he threw about 50% of the old (good) slider and 50% of the new (worse) version. Look at that whiff percentage drop! So let me get this straight – Papelbon switched over to a different slider, his swinging strike rate on the pitch is more than 60% worse, batters don’t even foul it off and put it into play almost 32% of the time? This is like “upgrading” to Windows Vista! It’s clear he’s using the pitch the same way, but the results are very different. Without a quality slider to offer to righties, hitters are able to sit on his fastball, which has become incrementally weaker, and Papelbon has become just a touch more timid with it, afraid to challenge hitters inside as often. The result? A lot more souvenirs for some lucky fans in the cheap seats, and panic in Red Sox Nation.

So what’s the answer here? I think Papelbon has to either [A] go back to his old, harder slider or [B] adjust how he uses the new one, because it ain’t getting the job done. I don’t think he’s lost the ability to close, but we shouldn’t expect the old Pap back anytime soon.

Exhibit number 2: Injuries to two key players who don’t have quality depth behind them. Dustin Pedroia has suffered a “non-displaced fracture of the navicular mid-foot bone in his left foot” and been placed on the DL. Estimates of how long it will take him to come back range from 3 weeks to the rest of the season; it all depends on how bad his particular case is. The most common number I keep running across is six weeks. Six weeks of Angel Sanchez (he of the 31 career Major League PA after tonight) playing second base in a pennant race? The kid is a good defender, but he’s not likely to be given too many looks at the plate. Tug Hulett is currently hitting .166/.289/.302 for Pawtucket, so Theo Epstein went and snagged 2B/OF Eric Patterson from the Athletics today, and he’s likely not done. Forget the bullpen; second base just became our top trade priority.

And to top that off, Clay Buchholz hyperextended his knee tonight running the bases, of all things. He was pulled after just one inning, leaving a lot of baseball left to pitch. I’m not sure how the Red Sox were able to pull out tonight’s game against the Giants, but give credit to Scott Atchison and our overworked relief corps. Let’s just pray that it’s just a strain, and all the ligaments are still in place. That would put a serious damper on our playoff hopes, IMHO. I’m already beginning to lose faith in getting back an effective Josh Beckett, Jacoby Ellsbury and Daisuke Matsuzaka this year. We can’t take much more.

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2 Responses to 6-26-2010: Papelbummed, Pedroia and Buchholz hurt

  1. Pat says:

    I wonder if this team would ever become sellers close to the trade deadline.

    It will be interesting to see where we’re at come late July.

  2. redsoxtalk says:

    *sigh* I can’t imagine this FO and this management agreeing to throw in the towel on a $160M team, but if these injuries keep hitting, I don’t know what our chances will be going forward.

    We get healthy, anything can happen. If not, we know what will happen. The problem is you can’t sell until you know for sure.

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