clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Leftovers: Jonathan Papelbon's diminished skills jeopardize Nats' reconstructed bullpen

New, 19 comments

The morning after every Washington Nationals game this season we'll revisit the previous day's buffet to over-analyze a morsel of information, nugget from the box score, or tasty treat from the post-game quotes.

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Let's get one thing out of the way before I get jumped on -- yes, Sunday's blown save was Jonathan Papelbon's first of the season, so admittedly it may seem a little early to be writing his baseball obituary. And yes, my opinion is biased by his persona.

Considering all that's been written not only about Papelbon and his relationship with his teammates, but how he's perceived by the fan base, it's fitting that we examine his actual skill level on the baseball field.

Papelbon's fastball has been steadily diminishing the past several seasons.

As far back as 2010 analytical writers discussed Paps' deteriorating fastball.

According to Fangraphs.com, he averaged 94-95 mph in 2007-11, but dropped to 93.8 in '12, 92.0 in '13, 91.2 in '14, 91.4 in '15 and down to 90.3 this season. Here it is in graph form:

And from BrooksBaseball.com, it looks even more extreme:

His fastball has always been "flat" but he relied on the gas to blow people away and pinpoint control and a good slider to compensate for the lack of movement on the heater.

Now, "the oomph is gone", as Fangraphs' Jeff Sullivan wrote in January -- of 2015.

As the charts in that piece clearly illustrated, with the vastly diminished velocity, Papelbon had been going to the slider more and more often to try to put away hitters. This year so far though, he's only thrown 12 sliders and 11 splitters, relying heavily on the fastball, to wildly differing results.

On the days like Sunday when he doesn't have his tight control with the fastball and the slider isn't moving, he's more likely to get into trouble.

He got Carlos Ruiz, who'd homered earlier, on an 0-2 93 mph four-seam. He got the next batter, Peter Bourjos, 0-2, wasted a slider, then came back with another that didn't move and Bourjos doubled to left. Pinch-hitter Cedric Hunter flied to center on a 1-0 fastball and Paps looked like he might sneak out of it.

After a visit to the mound, Papelbon faced veteran Andres Blanco, who dumped a 1-1 slider into left that plated Bourjos.

Then he gave Freddie Galvis a steady diet of fastballs, and the adrenaline really got him going at 94, 95, 95 and 95, but Galvis finally timed them out and smacked the last one (on a 1-2 pitch) to left to win the game.

Manager Dusty Baker defended his closer, to a point, because he has to.

"I didn't think he was off," Baker said. "He was actually throwing harder than he had been any other time, and it was tough to see at the end there with the shadows, but they saw some pitches pretty good, did get some pitches up, a little bit and they hit it in the right spot."

Baker mentioned the velocity uptick, but looking at evidence it's pretty easily explained by adrenaline pitching in Philadelphia again.

When his slider is flat, Papelbon's going to struggle to get good hitters out. Twice on Sunday he tried to put guys away from the slider and he paid for it with well-hit base hits. Forced to rely on the fastball with lack of movement, a weak-hitting middle infielder controlled the at bat despite being down in the count and he got a good pitch to hit -- 95 mph and center cut.

Papelbon might hang on this season trying to trick Major League hitters, but the writing is written large on the wall, and it wouldn't shock me in the slightest if a) he isn't closing for this team by the All-Star break and b) when he's a free agent after the season he doesn't get a big league offer.