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Jonathan Papelbon’s Slutter

Posted By Albert Lyu On March 4, 2011 @ 1:00 pm In Daily Graphings | 11 Comments

Jonathan Papelbon recently announced that he will use his slider more this upcoming season and that he feels it will be a ‘difference-maker’ to rebounding from a down 2010 year. As reported by WEEI, here is how Papelbon came to decide to committing to this pitch:

“I remember being in Yankee Stadium, throwing a few of them to [Mark] Teixeira and one to [Derek] Jeter,” the Red Sox closer said. “I remember throwing one to Jeter and he check-swung. He got the call – even though it was a strike – but I remember him specifically looking at me and looking like he was thinking, ‘Where did that come from?’ From then on I said I am going to start using this pitch any time, all the time.”

“This is the most confident I’ve felt about a breaking pitch,” he said. “It’s right where I want it to be. I’m going to throw it as much as my split. I’ll have three pitches I can throw from 0-0, to 3-2.”

What this quote portends is that Papelbon will use his slider more this season — this much is true. Having three pitches to throw in all counts, as he claims, is more of a trite remark than an analytical one, but it does lead me to want to investigate how Papelbon’s three pitches and each of A) their usage and distribution based on the count, and B) their performance and pitch results.

A quick look at Papelbon’s pitch type usage according to BIS shows us that the Red Sock has employed his slider every year since his debut, but no more than 10% of the time. He’ll use his explosive fastball 70-80% of the time, which can sometimes reach 99 mph, while his splitter is his out-pitch, err, his #winning pitch if you will. As a high leverage reliever, his heater and splitter have its roles, and combined, result in dominant stuff.

But back to his slider. His breaking ball doesn’t have too much 12-6 break while behaving like a cutter, or in other words, a slutter. Here’s how Papelbon describes the pitch himself, way back in 2007 when he had his closer spot cemented and Daniel Bard wasn’t around yet:

“It’s a cross between a slider and a cutter,” insisted Papelbon. He had been trying to throw a cutter, that was taught to him by Curt Schilling but was having difficulty and he incorporated the cutter with a slider and he got the “slutter”. “It’s not a true slider. It’s not a true cutter.” Papelbon said. “I leave my palm (up), I kind of cut the ball. That’s the angle it comes out (at).”

How will increased usage of the slider-cutter hybrid slutter allow Papelbon to turn things around? Blown saves and high ERA aside, Papelbon’s 2010 performance drop was highlighted by increased wildness and a high BABIP (.329) and HR/FB (16.1%) in high leverage situations, which accounted for 40% of his innings. While it’s impossible (or perhaps improbable) to accurately predict how increased slider usage can help or hurt Papelbon’s 2011 performance, what we do have is a pretty good sample of his slider in the past three seasons. We can look at how he’s used it in the past and how well it’s performed relative to his two main pitches and go from there.

I took PITCHf/x data of all of Papelbon’s pitches from 2008 to 2010, classifying them into fastballs, splitters, and sliders accordingly based on the speed, horizontal movement, and vertical movement of each pitch. From those buckets, here’s a look at Papelbon’s pitch selection each season by count situation (first pitch, hitter’s count, pitcher’s count, and with two strikes):

Against right-handed batters:

2008: First Pitch Hitter’s Count Pitcher’s Count Two Strikes All Counts
Fastball 90.2% 75.9% 73.9% 79.8% 79.1%
Splitter 3.3% 4.6% 9.7% 8.9% 6.8%
Slider 6.6% 19.5% 16.4% 11.3% 14.1%
2009: First Pitch Hitter’s Count Pitcher’s Count Two Strikes All Counts
Fastball 84.1% 76.5% 77.6% 82.5% 77.8%
Splitter 0.8% 1.0% 3.7% 2.1% 2.4%
Slider 15.2% 22.5% 18.6% 15.4% 19.8%
2010: First Pitch Hitter’s Count Pitcher’s Count Two Strikes All Counts
Fastball 74.4% 72.1% 62.7% 66.5% 65.9%
Splitter 14.7% 15.1% 19.5% 18.8% 18.7%
Slider 10.9% 12.8% 17.8% 14.7% 15.4%

Against left-handed batters:

2008: First Pitch Hitter’s Count Pitcher’s Count Two Strikes All Counts
Fastball 94.2% 88.7% 74.9% 77.1% 81.0%
Splitter 5.0% 10.3% 23.7% 21.4% 17.8%
Slider 0.7% 1.0% 1.4% 1.5% 1.2%
2009: First Pitch Hitter’s Count Pitcher’s Count Two Strikes All Counts
Fastball 86.8% 89.9% 72.8% 84.8% 83.1%
Splitter 10.5% 8.8% 24.6% 14.3% 14.6%
Slider 2.6% 1.4% 2.6% 0.9% 2.3%
2010: First Pitch Hitter’s Count Pitcher’s Count Two Strikes All Counts
Fastball 74.7% 64.0% 60.0% 67.9% 64.7%
Splitter 19.5% 27.2% 33.0% 26.8% 28.7%
Slider 5.8% 8.8% 7.0% 5.3% 6.6%

Papelbon consistently uses his fastball the most in first pitch situations, but has increasingly used his secondary pitches instead of his fastball — mostly increasing his slider usage against right-handed batters and his splitter usage against left-handed batters. Across the board, Papelbon uses his slider against righties as it cuts away from the batter while using the splitter against lefties. However, Papelbon was much more confident in 2010 in using his splitter against righties in all counts. In situations that favor the pitcher, Papelbon has relied less on his fastball and more on his secondary pitches, dropping his fastball usage against all batters from about 80% in 2008-2009 down to 65% in 2010. Two-strike counts, in particular, have seen dramatically more of his splitter against both batters.

Has Papelbon’s increased secondary pitch usage last season hurt his performance? Can we make that inference if we look at his pitch results? Here’s a look at the pitch outcomes of each of his pitches the last three years:

Against right-handed batters:

2008: Ball% Called Strike% Foul% In Play% Swinging Strike% Total Pitches
Fastball 27.8% 16.3% 24.6% 21.5% 9.7% 349
Splitter 50.0% 6.7% 6.7% 20.0% 16.7% 30
Slider 40.3% 14.5% 9.7% 9.7% 25.8% 62
2009: Ball% Called Strike% Foul% In Play% Swinging Strike% Total Pitches
Fastball 30.4% 13.4% 28.0% 18.6% 9.7% 382
Splitter 50.0% 8.3% 0.0% 0.0% 41.7% 12
Slider 36.1% 23.7% 9.3% 18.6% 12.4% 97
2010: Ball% Called Strike% Foul% In Play% Swinging Strike% Total Pitches
Fastball 29.0% 17.0% 27.8% 16.1% 10.1% 335
Splitter 38.9% 4.2% 16.8% 11.6% 28.4% 95
Slider 35.9% 16.7% 7.7% 25.6% 14.1% 78

Against left-handed batters:

2008: Ball% Called Strike% Foul% In Play% Swinging Strike% Total Pitches
Fastball 27.8% 15.7% 30.2% 14.2% 12.1% 464
Splitter 37.3% 2.9% 20.6% 26.5% 12.7% 102
Slider 28.6% 14.3% 42.9% 0.0% 14.3% 7
2009: Ball% Called Strike% Foul% In Play% Swinging Strike% Total Pitches
Fastball 32.4% 17.3% 25.2% 14.0% 11.0% 571
Splitter 63.0% 4.0% 14.0% 11.0% 8.0% 100
Slider 62.5% 0.0% 25.0% 6.3% 6.3% 16
2010: Ball% Called Strike% Foul% In Play% Swinging Strike% Total Pitches
Fastball 31.0% 20.2% 25.0% 14.8% 9.0% 420
Splitter 40.3% 3.8% 18.8% 16.1% 21.0% 186
Slider 67.4% 11.6% 9.3% 4.7% 7.0% 43

Lots of numbers here but here’s the Cliff Notes version. Against righties, Papelbon is drawing less swinging strikes on his slider while the ball is being put in play more and more. Against lefties, it seems like batters are leaving their bats on their shoulders while Papelbon is missing the plate with his slider. Papelbon has used his splitter against righties much more in 2010 than in the previous two seasons, and it looks like he has been getting decent whiffing rates with the splitter. The splitter has also been more effective against lefties in 2010 vs. previous seasons if you look at the swinging strike numbers.

It’s usually good for a power relief pitcher to gain confidence in his secondary stuff so that his pitch distribution isn’t so predictably one-dimensional (unless you’re Mariano Rivera). Papelbon’s splitter seems to be mixed in well — increased usage against lefties also caused more missing bats. However, the results from his slider are a bit concerning. A pitch that used to miss bats against righties in 2008 has appeared to lose its magic in 2010, as more of the slider is being put in play. Indeed, Papelbon has lost stuff on his slider, losing ticks off its speed each year from 86.2 mph to 84.4 mph to 82.8 mph. To be fair, Papelbon has made adjustments to his slider while tinkering with his delivery, which could also explain his fastball dropping from the upper-90s down to the mid 94-95 mph range.

To rebound from a career-worst ERA and WHIP season along with the worst FIP, walk rate, and home run rate since his rookie year in 2005, Papelbon will have to regain some of his stuff back. The hope is out there that his slutter has been revamped and it will be interesting to see how he mixes in the pitch alongside his splitter in 2011 as he heads into a contract year.


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