Though Jonathan Papelbon survived Tuesday night's ninth inning unscathed, he again looked eminently beatable -- exactly the opposite impression a closer is trying to cultivate.
After the Tigers loaded the bases thanks to a couple of cheap hits, Papelbon needed 11 pitches to strike out Josh Anderson with the bases loaded. The light-hitting outfielder, the type of hitter Papelbon probably should dispose of without breaking a sweat, got a bat on nine of the first 10 pitches he saw before swinging and missing at a fastball up around his eyes.
That's been Papelbon's issue all season: He's just not getting hitters to swing and miss at his best stuff. He's either allowing hitters to make contact, or he's missing the strike zone badly enough that hitters aren't chasing. In his last three outings, in fact, he's thrown 68 pitches and gotten just eight swings and misses. (Detroit's Ramon Santiago had two of those by himself in making the final out of the ninth inning on Tuesday.)
Check out some of the data on Papelbon and the hitters facing him through the years -- all data is coming from FanGraphs:
Percentage of pitches swung at:
Percentage of pitches swung at in the strike zone:
Percentage of pitches swung at out of the strike zone:
Percentage of times a hitter makes contact on a swing at a pitch outside the strike zone:
Percentage of pitches in the strike zone:
1. Papelbon is throwing fewer strikes than ever.
2. Hitters are chasing fewer pitches out of the zone than ever.
3. When hitters are chasing, they're still making contact.
4. Papelbon's best stuff isn't as sharp as it used to be.
Small wonder his strikeout-to-walk ratio has gone from 9.63 a year ago to 2.27 this year and his WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) is up above 1.00 for the first time in his career.
Papelbon shouldn't be battling with hitters like Josh Anderson. He should be blowing them away. One misplaced fastball -- the type of fastball he threw to Omir Santos a week or so ago -- could have turned a scoreless ninth inning into another blown save.
With every pitch a less-than-sharp Papelbon let Anderson foul off, he gave himself one more opportunity to throw that misplaced fastball.
In the end, Papelbon did work a scoreless inning. His ERA dropped to a respectable 2.35. But the more he has to labor the way he labored on Tuesday, the more uneasy Red Sox fans should be about his ability to dominate in key spots down the stretch.