Fastball, Fastball, Fastball

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Papelbon Pitches, originally uploaded by waldoj.

Let’s get a couple of things out of the way. Papelbon is absolutely correct: this game is not the end of the world. Red is right that “that shit’s just gonna happen.” John Farrell obviously has forgotten more about pitching than I ever will. And Cafardo, as he is wont to do, is clearly blowing things way out of proportion.

My problem is far more prosaic: what gives with the fastball heavy approach? As noted yesterday, as the fastball percentage has gone up, the numbers have gone down. From inhuman levels, true, but it’s still worth noting.

As many have noted, over the past two games, Pap threw 30 fastballs in one stretch. That’s a problem. Or two problems, actually. As Keith Law puts it:

Relying exclusively on a fastball — even a good one like Papelbon’s — poses two problems. First, the hitter can mostly look at one level within the zone for a pitch to hit. Pitchers use off-speed pitches to change hitters’ eye levels, forcing them to consider that the pitch might finish up in the zone, down in the zone or below the zone. Secondly, hitters can “cheat” and start their bats a little earlier when they know — or can reasonably guess — that a fastball is coming. Johnson absolutely was doing it Tuesday, as was Aybar, although he does that all the time anyway. Papelbon has to start mixing in a second pitch, preferably the splitter, or hitters will keep timing his fastball and driving it to the outfield or out of the park.

What about Papelbon’s defense, you ask? “I don’t feel there’s a reason for me going to my second-best pitch when I’m effective with my No. 1.” With all due respect to the best closer we’ve had in my lifetime, that strikes me as absurd.

The same kind of absurd that saw Beckett throw little but fastballs in his first trip around the AL. The trip that saw his ERA jump to north of 5 and his home runs allowed to 36. Even pitchers with dominant fastballs – pitchers like Beckett or Papelbon – need something else. In shelving his secondary pitches, Pap is doing the hitters a major favor, and, one has to think, himself a disservice. Becaause there will come a time where he doesn’t have the good fastball. A time where he needs the split, the slider, maybe even both. And if he’s not throwing them, the confidence in them must suffer.

My hope, actually, is that Pap is just being stubborn. Stubborn like Beckett. Because that’s correctable. Potentially easily, after a lesson like last night.

My fear, however, is that he’s not throwing his secondary pitches because he can’t, because it hurts. Both the split and the slider torque the arm to a greater degree than the fastball, and I’m worried that may be playing its part. It’s, sadly, the most plausible explanation

Because as much as Farrell talks about how locating the fastball to four different quadrants can make it “like four different pitches,” it is not four different pitches.

Just ask Dan Johnson.