Analysis

The Decline of Jonathan Papelbon

PHOTO: AP / Jim Cowsert

Last night, Jonathan Papelbon blew his first save opportunity of the season, surrendering three runs in the bottom of the ninth inning in Texas. This has been somewhat of a theme for Papelbon recently. As Todd Zolecki noted last night, Paps has pitched poorly over his last 39 appearances–4.46 ERA, and eight blown saves. His infamous “I didn’t come here for this.” quote also came during that span.

Another thing to note, though, is over that same period of time, his fastball velocity has decreased. Last night, his fastball averaged 91.62 MPH. On June 24 of last year–the date that Zolecki used–his fastball averaged 93.44 MPH. In 2012, he was in the 93-96 range all year, and in 2011 he was up near 95-97.

Of course, a decline in velocity for a 33 year-old isn’t unexpected–but another thing to consider is his arm slot, which has steadily decreased (Credit to Bill Baer and John Stolnis for that find).

The question is–will this continue? Or is Papelbon simply in a pitching slump? The answer isn’t simple. It’s easy to expect more of the same old “Papelblown”, especially from a guy that seems to be extremely easy to hate by Phillies fans. But he’s gone through slumps like this before, too. In 2009, he had a 1.85 ERA with 3 blown saves–followed by a 2010 season where he had a 3.90 ERA with eight blown saves. He knows adversity.

However, if his dropping arm slot and velocity are effects of an injury, that’s a different story. We’ve seen this kind of reduction in velocity and effectiveness before. See: Roy Halladay. Halladay didn’t drop his arm slot like Paps is doing, but the drop in velocity and decrease in effectiveness is similar. Halladay labored a lot more than Papelbon is now, as well. So I’m not saying that Jonathan Papelbon has a bum shoulder, or that he’ll retire next year, but it is definitely something to watch. 33 is not terribly old for a closer–but Jonathan Papelbon is a crazy man. Not an ordinary closer. Still, there’s always a chance he gets past this.

And for our sake, I hope he bounces back.

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