Jonathan Papelbon: Buyer Beware

Peter Gammons, as he so often does, teased an interesting tidbit yesterday morning, this one concerning Philliers closer Jonathan Papelbon. To wit:

Gammons has a point, particularly about the drop in velocity. And as the non-waiver trading deadline rumor mill kicks into high gear, it’s worth wondering — is Papelbon the same pitcher he used to be?

First, let’s take a look at the velocity. As we can see, it is trending down:


There’s a couple of items to note. First, the overall downward trend across three seasons, from just above the 95 mph plateau, to just under it, and now to well under it. Second is the shape of his velocity during each individual season. Generally speaking, in 2011 and 2012, Papelbon’s velocity improved as the season progressed. This season, we have seen a definitive peak, and we are now on the down side of that mountain, though of course the previous trend might suggest that he could regain some of his lost velocity as long he’s healthy. If you’re trading for a high priced premium closer, though, you better be sure he’s healthy. He does have a long-standing shoulder issue that the Red Sox managed well, but perhaps it is starting to catch up with him a bit.

We know from Bill Petti and Jeff Zimmerman’s excellent series on pitcher aging curves that relievers don’t lose velocity as quickly as do starters, but at age-32, Papelbon is definitely in the range when relievers start to see their velocity slip:


One of the other important findings by Mssrs. Petti and Zimmerman was that a reliever’s strikeouts are more closely tied to their fastball velocity than it is for starters. If we didn’t already have several exhibits of this phenomenon, we could line up Papelbon’s 2013 campaign as Exhibit A. With 30 strikeouts in 35.1 innings pitched, it may not seem like his strikeout numbers have dipped all that much, but we need to apply context. For starters, this would be the first time in his career that Papelbon didn’t average at least a strikeout per inning. Even as a fresh-faced rookie, he struck out 34 batters in 34 innings.

Looking at his pitch locations over at Brooks Baseball, I find that he is throwing the same number of pitches inside this year as he did last year, but with the reduced velocity perhaps hitters are having an easier time squaring up those inside pitches on which Papelbon has thrived in the past. And while a 21.7% strikeout percentage would be pretty good for a starter (only 28 of 90 qualified starters have a better percentage) it’s not at all good for a reliever — it ranks just 80th out of 153 qualified relievers. That’s not exactly the kind of numbers you expect from a lights out closer.

Also yawn inducing is Papelbon’s recent performance. Papelbon has already blown as many saves as he did last year, and on Monday night he hardly inspired any confidence. He began the ninth with a three-run lead, only to see the potential tying run come to bat after he coughed up two runs. He was credited with the save, and all is well that ends well, but it probably didn’t assuage the fears of teams that are scouting him. And while Papelbon ranks in the top 25 in both shutdowns and shutdowns minus meltdowns this season, he has only recorded a shutdown in four of his last nine outings. His positive SD/MD numbers overall also may be masked by a ridiculously low batting average on balls in play. Papelbon’s .227 BABIP is 19th-lowest among qualified relievers. If that number trends up with any ferocity — and it should, since he has a career .274 BABIP and has been between .278 and .309 in each of the past five seasons — his solid numbers may take a turn for the worse.

It’s not all doom and gloom of course. Papelbon hasn’t suddenly turned into a scrub. His strikeouts are down, but he is still generating plenty of swings and misses, and even with his contact percentage on the rise, it’s still a better than average contact percentage. Papelbon is also keeping his walks and home runs allowed in check. It’s just that so many things are trending in the wrong direction, and with his salary what it is, his days of being an attractive trade chip may be over before they really start.

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Paul Swydan is the co-managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for ESPN MLB Insider and the Boston Globe. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

53 Responses to “Jonathan Papelbon: Buyer Beware”

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  1. Bruce says:

    Paul: It seems clear the Red Sox want Papelbon and have whispered in Gammons ear the little message about velocity and save issues to try to get Amaro to lower the asking price. Papelbon’s issues began when he started speaking to the media and it doesn’t help that his teammates don’t like him and he wants to go back to Boston. A trade to Boston will happen unless the Phils win a lot more games before July 31, probably for Bradley Jr or Middlebrooks. Phils might throw in M. Young and cover the salary.

    -37 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Dave Cameron says:

      Things that will happen before the Red Sox trade Jackie Bradley Jr for Jonathan Papelbon:

      I will resign from FanGraphs to fulfill my dream of writing at Bleacher Report.
      Jeff Sullivan will write an entire post without a GIF in it.
      Eno Sarris will launch CoffeeGraphs, extolling the virtues of alcohol free drinks.
      Carson Cistulli will wear a t-shirt that does not have holes in it.

      +157 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • JN says:

        Do they Red Sox have anyone named Young in their system? That should get a deal done.

        +20 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Jonathan says:

        What about Jeremy Reed? Could that get it done?

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      • Ruben Amaro Jr. says:

        I would trade Jackie Bradley for Papelbon.

        +8 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • ALEastbound says:

        Do you like apples?

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      • Joebrady says:

        That Mr. Cistulli wears shirts with holes in them makes me very sad.

        Where did I go wrong that I don’t have a job where you can wear clothes without holes (assuming my shoes and socks don’t count).

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        • Jason B says:

          To be fair, all of my shirts have no fewer than four very large holes in them. I think it’s very difficult to buy them any other way.

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      • jcxy says:

        Interesting point, Dave, since to the casual observer it would seem that the Red Sox valuation of closers is more warped than any other team in baseball–including the Phillies.

        December 2011:
        Sox acquire proven closer Andrew Bailey for Josh Reddick (and others). Bailey provides 0.1 WAR of value thus far over 2 years. Reddick provides 4.5 WAR 2012 and 1.4 WAR in 2013. Reddick, of course, is cost controlled (the A’s paid <1MM for that production) while Bailey cost 8MM over 2012/2013.

        December 2011:
        Sox acquire Mark Melancon for Jed Lowrie. We all know what happens. Melancon "provides" -0.1 WAR in his role. Lowrie is serviceable (2.6 WAR) and is flipped.

        December 2012:
        Sox acquire proven closer Joel Hanrahan for Melancon and parts. Hanrahan is paid 7MM for 2013 and puts up a small sample 11.25 FIP. Melancon is in the midst of a 1.5 WAR season.

        Quick aside–I'm not a fan of WAR for RP, but I think in each instance using it provides a quick and fair snapshot of each players production.

        Anyway, back to your point–the Cherington Red Sox have shown to be repeatably capable of trading assets in their quest for a #provencloser. Bradley Jr may be a stretch, sure, but if the Phillies got back a cheap, perennial 2-3 WAR player for the expensive Papelbon…well, will you really be *that* surprised?

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        • Billy says:

          I have found the Red Sox approach to building a pen interesting. They seemed to be averse to paying big money for a closer, which probably isn’t a bad way to think. But they seem to have done something just as silly, paying big time in terms of young players. They gave up Lowrie and Reddick for Melancon and Bailey, the second of whom has ligaments made out of dried macaronis.

          I think they did a better job going into this year, because I don’t think the players they gave up for Hanrahan were as talented (other than maybe Melancon) and they had more depth in the ‘pen to cover for his eventual injury.

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        • redsoxu571 says:

          Wow, what an ignorant/cherry-picked viewpoint.

          First, the Melancon trade was not for a “proven closer” at all, so you’re already way off there. The team was looking to acquire a good, young, cost-controlled bullpen arm for a bullpen that needed arms. And as we can see this year, the team got the right man, and just overreacted to a bad start.

          It’s a similar situation with Bailey…yes, the idea was for him to be the closer, but more importantly he was just meant to be a good arm. He was still young, still fairly inexpensive, and was controlled for multiple seasons without sacrificing long-term flexibility, and all at the cost of pieces the team viewed as expendable. What’s so “warped” about that?

          The moment I heard that Melancon had been included in the Hanrahan deal, I hated it, so I’m with you there. I declared with as much certainty as possible that Melancon would have a better season than Hanrahan (both due to Hanrahan falling short and Melancon rebounding), and I was right. So that was a terrible deal.

          As with any higher payroll team, Boston tries to go into the season with as deep a bullpen as possible, but UNLIKE teams that actually have a “warped” view of closer value, they’re willing to let franchise closers go when the price tag is too high. All your examples show is that the current Boston F.O. is willing to expend organizational depth to bring in bullpen upside with reduced financial cost. Sounds a lot better to me than signing the Francisco Corderos of the world to long-term deals.

          Don’t commit the fallacy of killing the plan (or, even worse, distorting the plan to make it out as something it isn’t) just because the players hit on their worst-case scenarios.

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        • Da Splinter says:

          @redsoxu571 “All your examples show is that the current Boston F.O. is willing to expend organizational depth to bring in bullpen upside with reduced financial cost.”

          How can one argue with someone oblivious or ignorant to facts? I’ll try!

          “They seemed to be averse to paying big money for a closer, which probably isn’t a bad way to think.”

          Sounds good.

          “But they seem to have done something just as silly, paying big time in terms of young players”.

          The players you declare as “organizational depth” are simply not that. Also, that phrase also doesn’t mean what you think it means. Those assets were young, cost-controlled, and very good. That they’re being swapped for “proven closers”, at best, “bullpen arms” at worst–the moniker is insignificant. That’s a bad idea, and one the Sox have repeatedly made over the last 2 years.

          Also, you’re wrong that their current bullpen have reduced financial costs. In addition to the acquisition costs, which we just saw were fairly significant, the bailey + hanrahan combo is being paid 11 MM this year.

          What a curious way for a large payroll team with aspirations of sustained success to build a bullpen.

          Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Andy says:


        I really hope that a Bradley for Paplebon trade happens so I can stop reading your biased drivel on this website. While you started as a competent writer your work over the last 2-3 years has been horrible.

        You are the worst writer/analyst on this website and it’s not close. You consistently decide your point of view first and then find stats to back up your point, even if it makes no sense.

        You belong on Bleacher Report.

        -57 Vote -1 Vote +1

        • Izzy says:

          You know that you don’t have to read his work, right? Right above his post on here is the name “Dave Cameron”, That means that everything that follows his name will be words he has written. Glad I could help out.

          +15 Vote -1 Vote +1

        • Anon21 says:

          Go home, Mrs. Papelbon. You’re drunk. No need to get this upset when your son gets paid either way.

          +18 Vote -1 Vote +1

        • ettin says:

          Andy took the Bleacher Report comment a little too hard. Perhaps Dave should have formatted this article as a slideshow?

          +36 Vote -1 Vote +1

        • MikeP says:

          Wow Dave, he sure showed you! I guess you’ll just quit writing about baseball now, huh?

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      • hamjenkinsIII says:


        +12 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • channelclemente says:

        A man should seek his dream.

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      • Josh says:

        I am well aware that this is a baseball site, but while once accidentally clicking on a Bleacher Report article, I read a post that claimed that Tom Brady was a fluke and had yet to prove anything (the year was 2012). The article proceeded to dismiss each of Brady’s record-setting years and Super Bowl-winning years (with zero evidence, of course) as results of luck or supporting cast. The article concluded that Brady still needed to prove himself worthy of our adoration. Just wanted to share

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    • mch38 says:

      I’d love either of those players to try and rebuild the Phillies

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    • Jonathan says:

      Dude, no. I wouldn’t trade either of them for a reliever at the top of his game, much less one suffering a precipitous drop in velocity.

      Bradley’s a cost controlled young player whose floor is probably above average regular with a ceiling of maybe a couple of All Star appearances in his prime. That’s not an elite player or anything, but it’s the kind of prospect that doesn’t get traded for a reliever unless you’re dealing with Bill Smith.

      +6 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Synovia says:

        “regular with a ceiling of maybe a couple of All Star appearances in his prime. ”

        Bradley is putting up a .920 OPS in AAA while playing elite CF defense. The MLE for him is .252/.325/.442, right now, as a 23 year old. He runs the bases well.

        In the current run environment, that’s a 4-5 WAR player at 150 games. At 23.

        His floor is so high that if he shows any development (and his MLEs are real), he has a real shot of being elite.

        Vote -1 Vote +1

        • Ever heard of Dee Gordon?

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        • Hank says:

          which does just prove the above posters point even more. I’m hesitant to project these numbers into a major league career, but yeah, he has a pretty high ceiling, and there’s no way I’m trading that for current Papelbon.

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    • Caveman Jones says:

      While I kind of agree with you about Gammons being a Boston puppet, the idea that the Red Sox would give up either of those guys is hilarious.

      +5 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Scott says:

      LOL. That is all. And I legit lol’d too.

      Bradley Jr or Middlebrooks for Pap? Keep dreaming.

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    • Paul Swydan says:

      What Dave said.

      +18 Vote -1 Vote +1

  2. Anon21 says:

    Teams should also beware of the fact that Jonathan Papelbon has a big dumb face that goes slackjawed when he leans in to get the sign. And that they will see that big dumb slackjawed look for an average of 30 seconds before each and every pitch, because he is the slowest pitcher in Major League Baseball.

    +45 Vote -1 Vote +1

  3. John Franco says:

    I would never watch another comedy again, because nothing as hilarious as Papelbon going back to the Red Sox would ever happen again.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  4. Spit Ball says:

    Trade to get Him back and pay for the years you did not want to give him in the first place. No Brainer.

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    • God says:

      you cannot have Him back, He is Mine

      +9 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • redsoxu571 says:

      Well, technically trading for him isn’t the same as “the years you did not want to give him in the first place”, because now years have passed and it’s a short term projection instead of a long term one.

      The problem is that the short term projection doesn’t look so hot.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  5. Hurtlockertwo says:

    The Giants just signed Jeff Francoeur, miracles do happen.

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  6. Alby says:

    To be fair about last night’s lackluster performance, it came on the day after a 30-pitch non-save 9th against Atlanta.

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  7. bflaff says:

    I like how Peter G. doesn’t site more practical reasons for passing on Paps, like, “Who wants to pay that much for a closer?” No, it’s a ‘velo drop’ and ’5 for 9 in one run saves’ like that adds up to something that should make you nod and stroke your chin.

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    • bflaff says:

      Oh, and not for nothing but Paps has a 2.27 ERA to go along with that declining velo and 4 blown saves in 1 run games.

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    • chuckb says:

      A drop in velocity is not a practical reason for passing on a trade for a pitcher? If real, I would think a drop in velocity would be one of the best reason for passing on such a trade.

      +5 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • bflaff says:

        What is the drop in velo correlating with, in terms of performance? A lower than usual strikeout rate. What is that, in turn, correlating to? A 2.27 ERA.

        Do not want.

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  8. Phillies Fan says:

    Shhh! Keep it down, Swydan!

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  9. Antonio Bananas says:

    Whoever gets swindled into this trade with get “pap smeared”

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  10. James says:

    Buyer beware: Papelbon is a jerk.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

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