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 Kalish, Nate 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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