The Washington Nationals took a two-run lead into the ninth inning against the defending World Series champion Kansas City Royals on Tuesday night. Unfortunately, Jonathan Papelbon experienced his second big meltdown of the season and the Royals came back to knock off the Nats 7-6 at Kaufmann Stadium.
The Nats' closer (for now) gave up three earned runs on five hits, striking out one, in two-thirds of an inning, suffering his second blown save of the season.
After the game, Papelbon tried to explain it to the gathered media: "Execution. Execution. I didn't execute some pitches. That's what it boils down to. Execution."
Let me supply an alternative theory: Papelbon's fastball, which has always been flat but now it's slow too, can't blow anyone away and on nights where his slider isn't effective he's going to get hit...hard.
Here's a look at his career swing-and-miss rate (last column on right):
That's simply not Major League caliber. No big league pitcher can live with a swinging strike rate of 6.6 percent. No amount of experience or moxie or intangibles can make up for that jarring lack of skill.
The other big thing to look at in that chart is the contact rate. Contact rate inside the strike zone (z-contact) is up 3.2 percent, but contact on balls not in the zone (o-contact) is up an astronomical 17.7 percent. Also, the overall swing rate is down almost nine percentage points. What does all that mean? Batters are swinging at fewer pitches but making more contact when they do.
Simply, he ain't fooling anyone.
Percentage math making your head hurt? You want boxcar stats? Fine. He's given up six earned runs on 16 hits and a walk in just 12 innings (4.50 ERA) this season. He has never -- ever -- given up more hits than innings pitched in his career. You want to wait this out, thinking it's a slump? The Nats have to continue to give Papelbon opportunities to prove it's not a slump, but if we know, they know.
Look, I get that no one is perfect, and even the best closers are going to blow a game here or there. And so far, Papelbon's been lucky enough (despite the contact and runs allowed) to save 9 of 11 opportunities.
But I can't stress enough that his underlying skills are not requisite to perform successfully at the Major League level. Either he's injured or fallen off the edge of the table and there will be more lumps to take until the Nats make a change at the position.
Anyway, here's the link to us talking about it: