Friday, May 15, 2009

Papelbon's walks coming when he shelves the heater

A year ago, Jonathan Papelbon walked eight hitters in 69 1/3 innings.

So far this year, he's walked nine hitters in 16 innings.

He's walked at least one hitter in four of his last six outings; he's walked seven hitters in his last 9 2/3 innings.

"It's not an issue," said Terry Francona, a manager who would rather plead the fifth than blast his players in public, said this week on WEEI. "It's a little bit more than he has in the past. I think when you look up at the end of the year, I don't think there are going to be a whole heck of a lot more than they were the year before.

"At times, he's been up in the strike zone, and the thing he hasn't gotten yet is his split. He's bounced his split, and when he's ahead in the count, that's good, because he'll probably get a swing, but he hasn't gotten that split yet where he can get a strike called, which really makes him nasty. As you see, he's still got that unbelievable fastball, he's getting the strikeouts, he's competing and he's getting all his saves, he's just really having to work hard. When he starts commanding the split and everything falls into sync, you'll see him take off."

But is it his split?

Papelbon has never been a pitcher who relied primarily on his split -- and his percentage of splitfingers thrown actually has dropped dramatically since he became the Red Sox closer. In 2006, he threw splits 19.7 percent of the time. In 2008, it was 12.6 percent of the time. So far this year, it's 11.2 percent of the time.

What he's done so far this season, according to Fangraphs, is mix in more sliders. He's actually backed off a little on the fastball -- his percentage of fastballs thrown had jumped from 73.5 percent in 2006 to 81.2 percent in 2008, but it's back down to 79.7 percent so far this season. He's throwing more sliders this season, though, than he has since he was a starting pitcher.

It's even more extreme when you look at his walks. Of the 55 pitches he's thrown in his nine walks, 41 have been fastballs -- just 74.5 percent, well below his range of a year ago.

Observers all winter remarked upon Papelbon's rising percentage of fastballs and wondered if there was any correlation between that and his rising ERA (from 0.92 in 2006 to 2.34 in 2008). Papelbon might have wondered the same thing -- and that might be why he added the slider to his repetoire.

"There's so many situations (in 2008) where I'm out there and I'm saying, 'God, if I had the slider, he'd be done,'" he told reporters in spring training.

The slider is all well and good. Command of the splitfinger, the culprit to which Francona pointed, is great, too.

But when you can throw heat the way Papelbon throws heat, it's possible to overanalyze what you're doing. His tremendous success in his first two seasons can be attributed, in part, to an opponents' BAPIP of .226 in 2006 and .216 in 2007; opponents' BAPIP jumped to .300 in 2008.

Maybe the fastball wasn't the issue a year ago. Maybe he just ran into some bad luck. And maybe, to stop giving away free passes, he needs to stop messing around and throw more fastballs.

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