Bourn vs. Papelbon: a Pitcher Pace Case Study

FanGraphs keeps track of pitcher Pace, which you already knew. Here’s a definition of what pitcher Pace is, in case you need to brush up. The data comes from PITCHf/x timestamps, and while Pace doesn’t have any meaningful correlation with wins and losses — that is, it doesn’t make you better to speed up or slow down — it does have a meaningful correlation with what we might call “watchability”. While we’re all ultimately in it for the baseball, it’s a lot more fun to watch a game with a fast tempo than a game with a slower tempo. A game with a fast tempo makes the baseball more concentrated. Somebody just signed Miguel Batista the other day, and I’m not interested in looking up who, but that was a bad move as far as watchability is concerned. Batista, like other slow pitchers, can be dreadful to watch.

Pace is interesting, because it describes part of the viewing experience. So Pace can be fun to play around with. In late September, I decided to look at opposite extremes. What Pace tell us is that Mark Buehrle is the fastest-working pitcher, and Carlos Pena is the slowest-working hitter, because Pena has a whole routine he gets into. I was curious to see what the Pace would be in their head-to-head matchups. The results basically split the middle between Buehrle’s Pace and Pena’s Pace. Buehrle made Pena speed up, but Pena also made Buehrle slow down. Science!

But that’s not the only case study worth examining. According to PITCHf/x data between 2008 and 2012, Jonathan Papelbon has been baseball’s slowest-working pitcher. Meanwhile, Michael Bourn has been baseball’s fastest-working hitter. We can come up with our own reasons for why these might be. Everybody knows that Papelbon takes forever to throw each pitch, because he has to take his deep breath and make his best Orgazmo face. Relievers generally have slower Paces than starters, and Papelbon is an extreme reliever in this regard. As for Bourn, he doesn’t hit for power, and catchers and pitchers might have to “think less” when they’re facing him. That’s just speculation on my part, but I can imagine a link between Pace and power hitting.

So just as it was worth examining matchups between Buehrle and Pena, it’s worth examining matchups between Papelbon and Bourn. There have been just five of them, all within the last two seasons: one in 2011, featuring the Red Sox and Astros, and four in 2012, featuring the Phillies and Braves. This is a very small sample of matchups, but we’re not conducting academic research. Additionally, I didn’t collect official PITCHf/x Pace data, and instead approximated using MLB.tv timestamps. I can’t imagine why this would make a meaningful difference, but it’s a potential source of error.

I watched all the matchups, and I went in assuming that Papelbon would keep working at more or less his own Pace, while Bourn would have to slow down. The Buehrle vs. Pena results made sense to me — Buehrle could give Pena a little more sense of urgency, but Buehrle couldn’t pitch until Pena was back in the box. With Papelbon, he’s the guy in control of his plate appearances. Just because the hitter might be in the box, ready, doesn’t mean Papelbon would have to hurry up. If he wants to take half a minute to compose himself, he can do that, and the hitter can’t stop him.

Between 2008-2012, Bourn had a Pace of 18.8 seconds. Papelbon, meanwhile, had a Pace of 31.0 seconds. Bourn edged out Chris Getz by four-tenths of a second. Papelbon edged out Rafael Betancourt by three-tenths of a second. Bourn, against Papelbon, has gone 1-for-4 with a single, a walk, and two strikeouts. Papelbon’s approximate Pace over the five plate appearances: 31.3 seconds.

The data comes with error bars, but what it suggests is that, indeed, a fast hitter can’t make a slow pitcher in Papelbon speed up. Not that Bourn didn’t try. Following are a couple .gifs of Michael Bourn waiting for Jonathan Papelbon to do something.

PapelbonBourn1.gif.opt

PapelbonBourn2.gif.opt

The dimensions of the .gifs are small because, when I tried to make the .gifs bigger, the file sizes were too large to upload to the website. That’s what FanGraphs thinks of Jonathan Papelbon’s working Pace on the mound. Bourn doesn’t really have a routine — he steps back after each pitch, then he steps back in, maybe waving the bat around a little. He might tap it on the ground or on the plate. Papelbon does have a routine, a very familiar routine, and probably the only thing Jonathan Papelbon is thinking about when he’s on the mound is Jonathan Papelbon. Something tells me he doesn’t care if the hitter is ready, because something tells me he doesn’t notice the hitter.

In order to reach a certain conclusion about Michael Bourn vs. Jonathan Papelbon, we need more matchups between the two players. In order to reach a certain conclusion about fast hitters vs. slow pitchers, we need to analyze a lot more matchups between a lot more players. But we know more now than we used to know, which is always a noble goal. Jonathan Papelbon: kind of annoying to watch. Unflappably kind of annoying to watch. Whatever works for him, though.



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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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