Jonathan Papelbon’s Issues Go Beyond Declining Velocity

When writing about Jonathan Papelbon in the year 2014, there’s a few things that we can stipulate as fact, if only because you all already know about them and there’s not really much point in spending time rehashing them.

We know that his velocity has been dropping steadily for years. We know that the four-year, $50 million contract he signed prior to the 2012 season looked bad at the time and looks even worse now, both hampering the Philadelphia budget and helping to usher in a world where closers don’t get big money on the market any longer. (No closer has earned as much since, and with Craig Kimbrel extended, it’s possible no one will for years.) We know that he’s not exactly considered the best teammate in the world. We know, we think, that the Phillies badly wanted to be rid of him and couldn’t, for all of these reasons.

Even still: 2014 has provided some additional information, and it’s not exactly encouraging.

It’s probably important to remember, first, that Papelbon was still a valuable pitcher in 2013. Even with the declining velocity and a corresponding decline in missed bats — a career-low 10.6 swinging-strike percentage, down from 12.2 in 2012 — he managed to make it work. He allowed only 11 walks in 61 innings, which is very good. He gave up just six homers. That’s not to say it wasn’t done without heartburn, or without a certain amount of smoke and mirrors (his FIP increased from 1.52 to 2.89 to 3.05), but if you could set aside the salary and the memories of what he once was in Boston, he was still a perfectly viable reliever.

…for most of the year, anyway. Over the first four months of the season, he held hitters to a line of .209/.245/.324, which is very good. Over the last two months, that shot up to .308/.337/.396 against. That is less good. Though it’s still early in 2014, that late season slide has continued in some ways. Papelbon was fine in his debut, then had a distastrous second outing against Texas, facing seven batters, retiring one, allowing four hits and walking two. What was a 3-1 Phillies lead when he entered turned into a 4-3 loss after his second consecutive walk, this one to Shin-Soo Choo, allowed the Rangers to walk off. His fastball sat mostly at 90-92, never getting above that.

So with that in mind, here’s a chart:


If, like most internet readers, you glanced quickly at the chart without looking carefully at the labels, you’d probably think that was his velocity over the years. It’s not. It’s his horizontal release point. As his velocity as slipped, his arm slot has changed, considerably.

Since we have the power — nay, the obligation — to GIF, we GIF.

Here he is in June of 2009, still with the Red Sox, against the Orioles:


Now here he is in Chicago last week:


Though he was never really a straight over-the-top guy, you can definitely see the difference, particularly in the bottom GIF. His arm is clearly further away from his body, not quite making him a sidearmer, but trending in that direction. In and of itself, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s no rule that says one arm slot is successful, and another isn’t. If there was, Josh Collmenter and Darren O’Day wouldn’t even be considered among the same species, much less the same profession. But in Papelbon’s case, it’s not great, because even though he’s walked just the two batters, his command early in the season has still been a problem.

For example, in the Cubs game shown above, he struck out one in a perfect inning. But while that seems perfectly acceptable, it wasn’t easy. He topped out at 91. One fastball reached just 88. It took 18 pitches. And if you take the beginning and end of that GIF, and follow Carlos Ruiz‘ glove…


…you can see that he didn’t come anywhere near hitting his spots. The pitch was supposed to be low, around the knees. It ended up high, above the belt. That the Cubs couldn’t take advantage of it probably says more about Ryan KalishNate Schierholtz, and Emilio Bonifacio than it does Papelbon. I could do the same with a variety of other pitches, but it would just be repeating the same point. That one shows it pretty well. “Not walking guys” isn’t the same as having good command, and the new Papelbon, the one pitching from a different arm slot, hasn’t shown he’s able to do that in the way he used to.

There’s also the question of why he’s throwing that way, and while we don’t know for sure, it’s usually not for a good reason. If he’s trying to change his mechanics to compensate for a loss of velocity, well, that rarely works and often leads to an injury. Former pitcher Ricky Bottalico, who spent parts of 12 years in the bigs and is now a Phillies post-game analyst, noted on the air the other night that when a pitcher changes the way he throws like this, he’s usually already trying to cover up something that he doesn’t want to admit — like, say, an injury.

In fact, that question has come up:

So is Papelbon healthy?

“He hasn’t had any complaints,” Amaro said. “He hasn’t complained about anything.”

Of course, Papelbon also reportedly didn’t say anything about the hip injury that plagued him last season, and we’ve seen endless examples this spring of pitchers hiding injuries to their own detriment.

This is pure speculation, of course. We have no idea what’s going on inside Papelbon’s arm, and it’s worth noting that he’s never been on the disabled list, nor has he had any arm problems since a shoulder subluxation way back in 2006. He doesn’t have to be hurt to be a 33-year-old pitcher who doesn’t throw as hard as he used to. But as the velocity continues to sink — and though it’s early, it’s down a bit this year even from last year — and his arm slot changes with it, and his control looks off, this seems like a problem that could only get worse for the Phillies. That they still owe him $26m this year and next, with a not-impossible $13m vesting option in 2016 (should he finish 100 games over 2014 and 15), only adds to the issue, because it makes him immovable. But sooner or later, the Phillies are going to have to figure out an answer, one way or another.

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Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times and TechGraphs, and was an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.

41 Responses to “Jonathan Papelbon’s Issues Go Beyond Declining Velocity”

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  1. mcbrown says:

    But do his issues go beyond having pitched only 2.1 innings so far?

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    • Mike Petriello says:

      I feel like there’s only so many times I can start an article with paragraphs of explanation about small sample sizes. Obviously, this isn’t a new issue for Papelbon, but a continuation of previous issues. Had this been Kimbrel or Holland or someone, obviously this article doesn’t get written.

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      • tz says:

        That’s why the small sample of just 2 GIFs was shown after a graph with many more, very informative points of data to corroborate them.

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      • mcbrown says:

        My point is that if you’re going to write about him after 2 and a third innings, shouldn’t you consider how much of his results indicate bad luck and how much indicate declining skill? His FIP is 3.22. His xFIP is 3.75. His whiff rate is 15.6%. His f-strike rate is 69.6%. His BABIP is .500 and his strand rate is 62.5%.

        Where do you see a sharp decline in skills besides his velocity and a gif of a missed location?

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        • Mike Petriello says:

          Why would I ever look at any of those stats after 2.1 innings?

          Years of continued velocity loss is not bad luck. A consistently changing arm slot is not bad luck. And if you’re want to use those stats, and are wondering where the “decline in skills” is, then just look at his FIP and K% over the last few years.

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        • Kevin says:

          ‘Small sample size’ is the new ‘correlation doesn’t mean causation’…thrown out all the time in an attempt to sound smart, even if it’s not particularly smart to use it in that context.
          Usually it’s so obvious a statement that it’s not adding anything to the conversation, and occasionally (like here) it’s so misused it doesn’t really make the user-of-othe-phrase look the way he was trying to.

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        • iSteve says:

          @ Kevin
          Ding ding ding…winner!

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        • mcbrown says:

          “Why would I ever look at any of those stats after 2.1 innings?”

          You wouldn’t look at his results after 2.1 innings… yet you wrote an article that is based on his results after 2.1 innings. If he hadn’t given up a few runs so far would you have written this?

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        • mcbrown says:

          “And if you’re want to use those stats, and are wondering where the “decline in skills” is, then just look at his FIP and K% over the last few years.”

          For avoidance of doubt, I’m not disputing this. I’m questioning the tone of the article, which goes well beyond “Papelbon is aging like a normal pitcher”.

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        • Mike Petriello says:

          “You wouldn’t look at his results after 2.1 innings… yet you wrote an article that is based on his results after 2.1 innings. If he hadn’t given up a few runs so far would you have written this?”

          Here’s where you’re factually incorrect. I wrote an article after years of declining velocity and changing arm slot, and 2.1 innings. The answer to your question is: yes. I saw the arm slot chart before I saw that he blew up in Texas.

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        • mcbrown says:

          Then I stand corrected.

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  2. phillipsmc says:

    If he gets anywhere close to 100 games as we approach the end of 2015, surely the Phillies will demote him to keep the option from vesting, right? Right?

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    • Stank Asten says:

      And then get hit with a grievance from the players’ association and end up paying him anyway plus getting super bad PR.

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    • vivalajeter says:

      They might have to treat him like the Mets treated Krod a few years ago. Eat his salary, and trade him to a team with an established closer so that there’s justification for not letting him finish games. If he’s healthy and in Philly, then it would be very difficult to demote him to 8th inning duty unless he completely melts down.

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  3. Tom Cranker says:

    But he stares really hard and makes a mean face before he throws! Looking intimidating/weird is like 80% of being a closer, right?

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  4. Padraic says:

    It’s also obvious that Papelbon is not finishing through on his pitches – he simply has looked terrible since about the midway point last season. You only have to watch him throw once and you realize there is a problem. As someone who has watched him pitch probably 300 games (moved from Boston to Philly in 2011), it’s obvious this is not a 2 IP problem. He’s simply done as an elite closer.

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    • tz says:

      He seemed to be doing this even towards the end of his time in Boston. That last playoff appearance against the Angels (when Guerrero hit the walk-off single against him) you could tell he just wasn’t right.

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    • Dave Cornutt says:

      I noticed that too… in the first GIF, you can see how much torso rotation he gets to help drive the arm through the slot. In the second GIF, he’s still getting torso rotation — but most of it is happening after he has released the ball. To this totally non-expert observer, that seems like something that ought to be fixable.

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  5. DD says:

    Can the dropped arm slot be a conditioning thing? Like he’s lost some flexibility in his shoulder, or beefed up a bit in his back and shoulder muscles which makes it harder to come over the top? I’d think that the Phils, though they aren’t a seber-inclined group, can at least show him tape of the slot change and address it. Maybe a reporter can ask him about it point blank and see if he’s at least aware of it.

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    • ColonelTom says:

      Earlier this spring, Papelbon said he was pitching with a “little hip issue” last year:

      It’s possible that he’s abbreviating his delivery and follow-through because that’s still a problem, or perhaps he hurt his shoulder as a result of trying to pitch through the hip problem last year.

      I’d noticed the arm slot in the disastrous Texas outing without any graphs or data. He was pretty much slinging the fastball sidearm. Oddly enough, he was locating the splitter really well but had no control over the fastball, several times missing the target by 2 feet or more. His only out was via a swinging strikeout on Alex Rios, who swung at one of those badly-off-target fastballs about a foot outside and at neck level.

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    • tz says:

      Could be conditioning, or could be loss of flexibility from simply getting older. The contortion needed in the shoulders and upper arms to throw a ball overhand is pretty immense.

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  6. ballsteidhe says:

    The only positive thing about Papelbon this year might be that he’s working a little quicker now – at least it seems to me he does.
    There’s no more “wander around the mound for 10 seconds -> slowly lean forward -> stare for 10 seconds -> get up -> stare for another 15 seconds -> throw the ball” sequence.
    Everything else has just gotten worse over the years. He’s raised his asshole skills to a whole new level, throwing his teammates and everyone else under the bus when he blows a game, insulting the Phillies’ management and even the fans…
    Signing him was just a typical Ruben Amaro thing. Looked bad to begin with, and gets worse everytime we have to look at it…

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  7. Dick Schofield says:

    10.6% swinging-strike percentage, down from 12.2% in 2012

    If he threw 1.6% fewer swinging strikes from one year to the next, how many actual pitches are we talking about? 20? 25?

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    • maguro says:

      15, according to my calculations. He threw 962 pitches in 2013 and a 10.6% rate works out to 102 swinging strikes. He would have had 117 swinging strikes if he had maintained his 12.2% rate.

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  8. camisadelgolf says:

    I have Mike Adams stashed away on the DL in a couple leagues. Can anyone tell me if I’d be better off having Bastardo or someone else as the heir to the Phillies closer throne?

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    • Atreyu Jones says:

      I think Bastardo is the better option, but keep an eye on re-acquiring Adams at some point in the future.

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    • Kevin says:

      Bastardo is the closer in waiting. I wouldn’t be surprised if Adams would slot into setup immediately though.

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  9. RC says:

    It may just be my computer, but that first GIF seems to be missing the frames that actually show his release point. It’ like the ball is in the glove, then immediately moving towards the plate. The 2nd one is fine.

    Also, you comment about Papelbon losing command, and that doesn’t seem true to me. He’s ALWAYS been effectively wild. Varitek used to call for pitches high and get them over the plate, outside and get them inside, etc. Papelbon’s stuff was just so good that it didn’t matter.

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    • Ben Hall says:

      This is absolutely true. I could never figure out how he had such low walk rates when he missed the glove so often.

      Doesn’t mean he’s getting worse and it’s certainly likely that without the stuff he had in the past he’ll walk more batters, but I don’t think among his many issues is significantly worse command.

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  10. larry says:

    could changing his arm slot be a purposeful adjustment to try and get more movement on the ball to compensate for losing velocity? Gotta figure someone in the phils org would notice his arm slt changing that much

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    • ColonelTom says:

      You must not have watched the Halladay debacle unfold. Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt, it’s a way of life in Philly.

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  11. Tx Ball Scout says:

    Release point gets lower as shoulder gradually wears out. Father Time is still undefeated.

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  12. japem says:

    I bet it has something to do with Toradol, even if it’s not the main cause. Papelbon used Toradol a lot in Boston as a painkiller, but the Phillies don’t allow it.

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