With regard to Jonathan Papelbon, the ultimate question is this: after three years of absolute dominance, was the 2009 season at all a warning of things to come?
"Absolutely not,’’ Red Sox pitching John Farrell said yesterday. "He set a standard for himself. There’s a guy about four hours south of us that he might be in the same area with."
Five days have passed since the closer's improbable implosion ended the Red Sox season last Sunday, but this is not about the final appearance of Papelbon’s 2009 campaign so much as it is the entire body of work. For the first time in Papelbon’s career, there existed cracks. In the much bigger picture, those imperfections were nothing more than hairlines on what his been an extraordinary major league career to date, and yet enough questions surfaced about Papelbon -- particularly amid the emergence of heir apparent Daniel Bard -- that one cannot help but wonder if the Red Sox have at least begun contemplating a changing of the guard.
In Sunday’s outing against the Angels, Papelbon threw 32 pitches, four of which came during the intentional walk to Torii Hunter that led to Vladimir Guerrero’s game-winning single. Of Papelbon’s remaining 28 offerings, according to the game log on mlb.com, all 28 were fastballs. Further examination revealed that Papelbon actually threw one off-speed pitch, a split-fingered offering that was called a ball on his first delivery to Bobby Abreu, but the general point was unchanged.
In 2009, at the most pivotal time of the year, the horse who has served as the Red Sox closer became a one-trick pony.
Farrell, for his part, focused on execution rather than selection, which is to say that he places the root of Papelbon’s difficulties Sunday on where the righthander threw his pitches instead of what he chose to throw. Regardless, during a season in which he paced himself after feeling worn down late last season, Papelbon did not consistently pitch with the same velocity, which seemed to result in a convergence of elements that ultimately made him more vulnerable.
On the one hand, to avoid the late-season fatigue, Papelbon was wise to back off. On the other, in the absence of a reliable second pitch, his fastball became more hittable on those days when Papelbon was not operating with peak precision.
In the bigger picture, it is interesting to note the difference in Papelbon’s performance from 2007 to 2008. During the 2007 season, operating with a delivery that gave him more power but less command, Papelbon pitched 58.1 innings. He struck out batters at the rate of 13.0 per nine innings but he also issued walks at the rate of 2.3 per nine. In 2008, operating with a delivery that allowed him better command of his fastball, his workload increased to 69.1 innings. Papelbon’s strikeouts (10.0 per nine) and walks (1.0) both went down, his ERA creeping up from 1.85 to 2.34.
The simplest explanation is that Papelbon sacrificed some velocity for command with the hope that he would be more durable. Along the way, he became slightly more hittable, too.
This year, upon reporting to spring training, Papelbon and the Red Sox examined the pluses and minuses of '07 and '08, coming to the following conclusion: he would go back to his '07 delivery. The result was a first half of the season during which Papelbon’s walk rate more than quadrupled (to 4.15 per nine) from his pinpoint 2008 campaign, which led to longer outings and more vulnerability. The Red Sox responded by doing the logical thing. They shifted back to the delivery Papelbon used last year, a change that produced dramatic results over the final six weeks of this season.
In his final 14 outings of the regular season covering 15 innings, Papelbon struck out 18 and did not walk a single batter. He allowed just nine hits, only two of which (both doubles) went for extra bases. His ERA was 1.20. Opponents batted .170 against with a microscopic .404 OPS. Papelbon threw nearly 70 percent of his pitches for strikes, an increase of roughly five percent compared with his performance before the All-Star break.
"His walk totals dropped and his overall command improved,’’ said Farrell. Added the pitching coach, "We were deeper into the season [then] and in a better place from a physical standpoint."
The Red Sox, it seemed, had the best of both worlds for their previously impenetrable closer, who was peaking at the right time.
So what happened Sunday? Be it the result of adrenaline or just dumb luck, Papelbon’s delivery got out of whack. The fastball command he demonstrated during the final six weeks deserted him, leaving an aggressive and talented Angels lineup with far too many opportunities. On an 0-2 count to Erick Aybar, Papelbon was supposed to come up and in; he missed belt high and away. On a 1-2 offering to Abreu, Papelbon again was supposed to come in; Abreu hit a fastball away off the left field wall for a double.
In that inning, Papelbon allowed nearly half as many hits (four) as he did during the final six weeks of the regular season (nine); walked two more batters (two) than he had since Aug. 24 (none); issued as many intentional walks as he had in the last three regular seasons (one); and gave up three more earned runs (three) than he had in his entire postseason career to that point (zero).
Maybe that is why Farrell is not worried about the bigger picture with his closer, who could nonetheless benefit from refining a second pitch to go along with a fastball upon which he has become far too reliant. After all, when he sensed that opponents were starting to solve his devastating, trademark cutter, even Mariano Rivera began refining a two-seam fastball that turned in the opposite direction, solely to keep hitters honest.
Following Sunday’s defeat, Papelbon said he would use his Game 3 outing as "motivation" for next season. Given the fact that Papelbon is two seasons from free agency and without a long-term deal -- and given, too, the presence of Bard -- logic suggests the Red Sox would be wise to explore all options involving Papelbon, including trade. The great likelihood is that Papelbon will be back with the Sox in 2010, when the Sox currently project to be even more reliant on their pitching staff.
And the hope, of course, is that he is able to glean something valuable from the entire 2009 campaign, no matter how improbable the events of Sunday, Oct. 11.
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