Don't Give Him the Heater, Pap

Breaking Balls Are for Rhodes Scholars, by J. Papelbon” – Keith Law

If it’s any consolation, watching Game 3 was just as brutal in person. Maybe more. The first two games weren’t any picnic, of course, but losing Game 3 that way was a serious kick to the crotch.

But we’ll have time to get into all of that later. What I’m going to try here is a new strategy heading into the offseason. One of the obstacles to more recent posts around these parts is the sheer size of some of the posts, and by extension, the time spent collecting the numbers. The thinking is that by tackling just one question at a time, it’ll be easier to crank out (slightly) more frequent posts. We’ll see if it works, of course, but that’s the plan.

So no detailed postmortem for now, no long analysis of the plans for 2010, no funeral dirge for the season now expired. Instead, I’m going to take a brief look at one simple issue: Papelbon’s pitch selection.

Before I continue, let me be clear: this is not an attempt to pin the series loss on Papelbon – if there’s any single culprit, it was the offense – or to turn him into a scapegoat for the team’s problems. Nor is it a recommendation that he be traded, as was a common reaction in the minutes after the game. It’s simply a look at one obvious elephant in the room.

The short version is probably known to most of you: Pap has, in recent years, been relying more and more heavily on his fastball. Here’s a piece from last September looking at just this subject. Why bring it up again now? Because out of 28 pitches thrown on Sunday, 27 were four seam fastballs. The 28th? Two seam fastball. The velocity histogram says that he threw a few offspeed offerings, late, but by then it was too little, too late.

But that’s a small sample size, you might argue. Too true. So here are a few more numbers for you. His percentage of fastballs thrown, by year, since 2006: 73.5%, 78.1%, 81.2%, 81.5%. Now, his percentages of split-fingered fastballs thrown, same years: 19.7%, 15.7%, 12.6%, 9.3%. While it’s true that he used his slider a bit more this year, at 9.2% compared to last season’s 6.1%, it’s clearly not at the expense of the fastball. That pitch being thrown, according to the data we have, better than eight times out of ten these days.

Why? That, to me, is a question that needs to be asked. Maybe you get a substantive answer, and maybe you don’t, but I would love to see someone get both Papelbon and Farrell on the record on the subject. Not because of what happened Sunday – because of what might happen going forward.

It’s demonstrably true that Papelbon has an excellent fastball. It’s got good velocity, better movemement, and he generally commands the pitch well. Or at least he did until this season, when he reportedly had altered his delivery to minimize the stress on his shoulder and arm. The early season returns on this mechanical shift were not promising, but it must be said that his walks and batting average were both significantly improved in the second half (18 BB 1st half / 6 2nd – .230 BAA / .189).

But it is also true that – with the possible exception of Mariano Rivera – no one’s fastball is good enough to be relied on exclusively. And yet that is essentially what Pap is doing, a little bit more each season.

Is it that he wants to emulate Rivera? Is it an injury or the fear of one? Is it a lack of confidence in his secondary offerings? Is it Varitek’s fastball bias? Who knows.

Whatever the reason, the strategy needs to be reevaluated. Not because of the outcome-based analysis that is inevitable in the wake of such a crushing defeat, but because we have a set of statistically significant data that says he’s getting worse. His walks per nine were the highest since 2005, and since he began relying more heavily on the fastball last year, his batting average, on base and slugging percentages allowed are up significantly.

Again, Papelbon was not the reason we lost to the Angels. But he was a big part of the reason we’ve won the last few years, and on his current trajectory, it’s not clear that he’ll be as significant an asset going forward. For his sake and for ours, he needs to think carefully about his pitch selection.

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