Fluke Watch, Closer Edition: Jonathan Papelbon

When it comes to closers in fantasy, you want to talk about saves. Unfortunately, it’s hard to predict which closers will end up getting the most saves in an upcoming season; there are too many other variables that come into play (save opportunities, the presence of other “closers” on the roster, etc.). However, using PITCHf/x (and of course other statistics), we can at least determine which closers are likely to maintain their good performance or improve and thus are likely to continue getting save opportunities in the next year. In this article, we take a look at Jonathan Papelbon, a pitcher whose status as the closer of the Boston Red Sox may be in jeopardy. Will Papelbon improve enough so as to keep his job in Boston? If he’s traded, will he be good enough to take on the role of his new team’s closer? These are the questions I’ll try to answer.

Jonathan Papelbon

After four years of being a solid closer for the Boston Red Sox, questions arose about Jonathan Papelbon this season. He blew eight saves, by far the most in his career, and had a career high 3.90 ERA. Delving slightly deeper into the numbers, we can see that his walk rate (3.76BB/9) was the highest it’s been since he became a closer full time and that his FIP rose to 3.51, the highest in his career. Papelbon’s worst walk rate and FIP before this year was last season (2009), which poses to us the question: Is he losing his value as a closer? Making things even more complicated is the presence of a “closer-in-waiting” in Daniel Bard on the Red Sox roster. This has naturally resulted in speculation of him being traded during the offseason. But wherever Papelbon ends up next year, the question is: can he pitch well enough to keep a job as a closer and continue to accumulate enough saves to remain relevant as a fantasy player?

Papelbon’s pitch mix includes three pitches: a two-seam fastball, a splitter (split-finger fastball), and a slider. The Fastball on average comes in at a speed of 94.8 miles per hour and tails 7.84 inches in on right-handed batters with 8.95 inches of “rise.” (By “rise,” I mean that the spin of the pitch causes it to fall 8.95 inches less than it should due to the force of gravity alone.) The splitter comes in at an average of 89.9 miles per hour, with 9.25 inches of tail in on right-handed batters and only 3.32 inches of “rise.” This low “rise” on the splitter means that the pitch appears to drop or sink, especially in comparison with the fastball. Finally, he also has a slider that comes in at an average of 82.4 miles per hour, moves 1.49 inches AWAY from right-handed batters and drops .45 inches more than we would expect from gravity alone.

Interestingly, the movement and speed of Papelbon’s fastball and splitter have not changed really since 2008 (when Papelbon was still extremely effective as a closer). In Contrast, the velocity on Papelbon’s slider has decreased over four miles per hour since 2008. This may be a concern for the effectiveness of that pitch.

The usage of these pitches by Papelbon HAS changed this year. In 2008, against both right-handed batters and left-handed batters, Papelbon would use his fastball roughly 80 percent of the time, and then would use the splitter the other 20 percent or so of the time against left-handed batters (like a change-up) and would use the slider the other 20 percent of the time against right-handed batters. In 2009, he followed the same rough pattern, although he used the fastball against right-handed batters a little less frequently (only 77.5 percent of the time) in favor of the slider. This year, the change in his pitch usage is more dramatic. Against left-handed batters in 2010, the fastball was only used 68 percent of the time, with the splitter being used 27 percent of the time (and the slider the other 5 percent of the time). Against right-handed batters, the fastball was used only 69 percent of the time, with the slider being used 15 percent of the time and the SPLITTER being used the remaining 16 percent of the time. The end result was that Papelbon’s use of the fastball decreased dramatically this year against both sides of the plate and that he began to use the splitter against batters on both sides of the plate.

Now I should note that the biggest changes in how he used his pitches came in August and September, after Papelbon had struggled earlier in the season. That has quite a bit of bearing on the results of his pitches this year. Still, even earlier on in the season, Papelbon seemed to be using the fastball slightly less frequently than usual, though the extra usage of the splitter didn’t really take off until August.

The Tables below shows the results of Papelbon’s three pitches over the last three years.

Year Pitch Type # Thrown Whiff Rate Swing Rate Swinging Strike Rate GB% In-Wide-Zone %
2008 Fastball 822 (81.5%) 19.18% 56.44% 10.82% 41.91% 77.98%
2009 Fastball 905 (80.6%) 19.91% 51.60% 10.27% 25.54% 71.71%
2010 Fastball 784 (68.5%) 18.70% 51.14% 9.56% 28.82% 71.43%

Table 1: The results of Papelbon’s fastball over the last three years.

Year Pitch Type # Thrown Whiff Rate Swing Rate Swinging Strike Rate GB% In-Wide-Zone %
2008 Splitter 108 (10.7%) 26.22% 56.48% 14.81% 85.71% 34.26%
2009 Splitter 111 (9.88%) 34.14% 36.93% 12.61% 41.66% 20.72%
2010 Splitter 254 (22.2%) 43.44% 57.08% 24.80% 57.14% 35.83%

Table 2: The results of Papelbon’s splitter over the last three years.

Year Pitch Type # Thrown Whiff Rate Swing Rate Swinging Strike Rate GB% In-Wide-Zone %
2008 Slider 78 (7.7%) 51.42% 44.87% 23.07% 33.33% 52.56%
2009 Slider 107 (9.5%) 30.23% 40.18% 12.14% 37.5% 67.29%
2010 Slider 107 (9.3%) 31.11% 42.05% 13.08% 50.00% 60.75%

Table 3: The results of Papelbon’s slider over the last three years.

Legend for Reading the Tables Above
Whiff Rate: (# of swinging strikes)/(# of pitches swung at by batters)
Swing Rate: (# of pitches swung at by batters)/(total pitches thrown)
Swinging Strike Rate: (# of swinging strikes)/(total pitches thrown) %
GB %: % of balls hit into play by batters that result in ground balls.
In-Wide-Zone: % of pitches in a wide (two feet wide) strike zone.

A few things I want to point out on these tables. First, Papelbon’s fastball was in the zone in 2008 a really good 77.98 percent of the time. Over the last two years, the pitch has been in the zone roughly 71-72 percent of the time. Now this is still fine (that’s not a bad percentage) but none of the other results of the fastball has increased to compensate for this decrease in accuracy. In fact, the swinging strike rate of the fastball has gone down a tiny bit, mainly because batters are swinging less often (presumably because the pitch is less often in the strike zone). This decrease in fastball accuracy is partially to blame for Papelbon’s increase in his walk rate since 2008. That said, the zone percentage did not decrease again this year for the fastball, while Papelbon’s walk rate per nine innings did increase this year over 2009. So this would hint that this is not the total reason for why Papelbon has higher walk rate.

Secondly, Papelbon’s slider has seemingly lost something since 2008: the pitch’s ability to get whiffs (Whiff Rate) has dropped dramatically (by over 20 percent), resulting in a lower swinging strike rate. Perhaps this is partially caused by the fact that since 2008, the slider has been in the strike zone more frequently than it was before.

Finally, Papelbon’s splitter has done the opposite of the slider and increased its ability to get whiffs in 2010 dramatically from what it had been able to do beforehand. A good reason for this is that a lot of these extra whiffs are coming from right-handed batters who are facing the splitter really for the first time. (As previously stated, right-handed batters previously only saw fastballs and sliders from Papelbon.) This pitch also has a good groundball rate on balls that are put into play, especially as compared to the rate on his fastball.

The Results of the Change in Papelbon’s Pitch Use in August and September

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As I alluded to above, a major shift this year occurred in August and September. Despite the fact that Papelbon had actually had a pretty good July (10.1IP, 9K, 3BB, 0ER), he greatly reduced his fastball use to both types of batters and increased the use of his split-finger fastball in its place, even against right-handed batters. Before August, right-handed batters faced 76 percent fastballs; after August, they faced only 58 percent fastballs, with the entire 18 percent decrease basically going to increased use of the splitter. Similarly, left-handed batters saw 73.5 percent fastballs before August; after August they only saw 60.7 percent fastballs, with the result being that both the splitter and slider saw increased use.

So what was the result of this? Well for all intents and purposes, the pitches themselves had the same results. However, because Papelbon’s most accurate pitch (the fastball) had its usage reduced greatly in favor of pitches that tended not to hit the zone as often (particularly the splitter), his zone percentage dropped from 65 percent (in line with his 2009 performance) to 59 percent. This resulted in an increase in Papelbon’s walk rate. (Fangraphs has his BB/9 in August as 5.11 and in September/October as 4.76.) However, the increase in off-speed pitches had another effect: drastically increasing the swinging strike rate during these last two months on one- and two-strike counts. (On zero-strike counts, batters seemed to swing less, as the pitches were out of the zone, during these months, negating the effect.) The end result was a Carlos Marmol-like strikeout rate per nine innings of 13.14 in August and 16.68 in September/October.

Papelbon’s performance in the latter two months of the season was very worthy of the person in the closer position. (It was very Marmol-like to be sure.) It wasn’t noticed because in September/October Papelbon had a BABIP of .608! This was some monumentally bad luck right there, so don’t be discouraged by his September results.

Conclusion: Where does Papelbon go from here and where does he fit in one’s fantasy plans?

It’s my guess (and this is totally a guess here) that Papelbon ends up in a closing job to start the season, whether it be at Boston or elsewhere. That said, he’ll most certainly have a shorter leash than he did previously and may be in danger of losing his job (and thus his chance at saves on a fantasy roster) if he performs poorly.

Unfortunately, Papelbon’s ultimate success next year should clearly depend upon what pitching style he carries over to next year. Does he keep up with the tactics he used in August and September of 2010 and rely on the splitter so much at the expense of the fastball? If he does, his walk and strikeout rates will both be up. This is likely to be somewhat successful over a longer term, but it could make him very volatile, which is something that could cost him his closing job if the walks come back to hurt him in a few consecutive save opportunities. On the other hand, this strategy, if given a chance long-term, should result in him returning to a greater level of dominance. In addition, this pitching style will help those fantasy players in leagues where K/9 is a relevant statistic (and strikeouts in general, especially if walks aren’t an independent category).

Of course, there’s also the chance that Papelbon goes back to what he’s comfortable with and relies on his fastball. I’m not so confident in this being a great idea due to the decrease in accuracy of the fastball since 2008 as well as the decrease in velocity on at least one of his pitches (the slider). In the long run, I’d suspect that this pitching style will lead to him losing his closer job for sure, unless he can regain some of his accuracy on the fastball (and perhaps some velocity). Thus if this pitching style is what he chooses, he probably won’t be a great closer option for your fantasy team unless he’s on another team which has no other viable options at closer.

So in conclusion: There are an awful lot of factors that will affect whether Papelbon is a worthy addition to your fantasy team next year.
First there’s whether he’s still with Boston (bad for fantasy) or has been traded (possibly better).
Second, what style of pitching does he choose to use?

The first question should be easily answered before it’s time for your next fantasy draft. The second question, probably not (unless he talks about it in interviews, but I’d doubt it). All of which makes Papelbon a riskier option at closer for next year, at least until the season begins and we learn how he’s pitching in 2011. Keep an eye out in April for how he’s pitching; if he’s using the off-speed stuff more as he did during late in 2010, then he’s almost certainly going to be worth a pickup.

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Nuke Laloosh
Nuke Laloosh

Excellent analysis in this article.  Regarding the second question in the conclusion, this is something we should be able to see in spring training as Papelbon tinkers with which style is more effective, no?

Josh Smolow
Josh Smolow

PitchFX data isn’t available in spring training (I’m pretty sure of this, I could be wrong or they might add it) so it would be hard to know really in spring training.

Also in Spring Training he could try out one style…and then in April not use that style.  I’m not convinced that Spring Training will tell us anything even if we know his pitch breakdown. 

Thus I don’t think we’ll know until April really, which is unfortunate.

Len  Vincent
Len Vincent

Excellent analysis.  Fantasy relevance depends on a 3rd factor:  what round/auction price is necessary for his services?  If he drops significantly in rankings of closers, then he is well worth taking at that relative cost.  If not, I will pass.  In general the philosophy of don’t pay for saves would have been wise in ‘10 based on his overall performance.  In those leagues where Pap was dropped by his disappointed fantasy owner, he would have provided excellent value in August/Sept.  I assume that is what was meant by “picked up”.  There is no way Pap is undrafted.

Billy Butler
Billy Butler

Great article, thanks Josh.

What did you use to come up with the break movement?

(I don’t understand texasleaguers graphs, really different from yours, and I know from watching Papelbon that you’re the one with the correct breaks! you have a formula or something?)

Josh Smolow
Josh Smolow

Billy, The movement is from the pfx_x and pfx_z parameters in the PitchFX data.  Texasleaguers’ numbers are probably incorrect because they rely upon MLB Advanced Media’s Pitch Classifications.  (I make my own classifications)

That said their movement #s for Papelbon look pretty similar to mine…when looking on them though, you need to make sure that you have selected the entire year.  By Default, TexasLeaguers’ graphs only show the latest month, so in this case it only shows october.

Billy Butler
Billy Butler

Thanks for your quick answer, I didn’t realize the vertical/horizontal numbers were in another order, indeed very similar lol!

minus = for a rhp, moves in on rh batter!!
You’ve helped me a lot, these graphs and info are very useful but they do need practice/directions!

Papelbon might call it or grip it as a splitter, but this is an uncommon break (=impossible) for a splitter. It acts like a circle change, or a 2seamer/sinker.
You’ll notice tl.com registers such pitches (with pretty close breaks), I came to the conclusion that they are all the same pitch:


Josh Smolow
Josh Smolow
TL, as i said before, comes from the MLBAM classification system, which is okay but always has issues with different fastballs or change-ups and splitters.  MLBAM has issues with Papelbon because his splitter velocity is where other pitchers would have their 2 or 4 seam fastball velocities, as well as due to the fact that the speed of his pitches varies per start fairly frequently.  That said, this is not an uncommon break for a splitter….a splitter and a change-up are very very similar pitches in terms of movement.  I’ve used the word “spliter” here because that’s what he calls… Read more »