Jonathan Papelbon made a subtle but important change to the mechanics of his delivery midway through last season, allowing his hands to fall to his belt buckle when he came set rather than holding them rigidly at his chest the way he had the first half of the season.
Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell said Thursday before the annual awards dinner hosted by the Boston chapter of the BBWAA that Papelbon will start next season with the same mechanics with which he finished last season.
"At this point, he'll stay with what he did in the second half," Farrell said. "The adjustment made in spring training was to help get his legs a little bit more actively involved in his delivery and to take some of the stress off his shoulder. As he made the switch with his hands, the starting point of his hands and how that movement works in his delivery, we saw him regain the well-above-average fastball command that he needs."
It paid dividends. Check out his numbers up until July 28, the day of the implosion against the Oakland Athletics that seemed to prompt the change, and after July 28:
April 7-July 28: 2.09 ERA, 1.372 WHIP, .670 OPS against
July 29-Oct. 4: 1.44 ERA, 0.920 WHIP, .466 OPS against
(This again is where it's important not to make too much out of the Game 3 disaster against the Los Angeles Angels. A 25-inning sample is far more telling than a 25-pitch sample.)
Compare that to the seasons past in which Papelbon had pitched
2008: 2.34 ERA, 0.952 WHIP, .561 OPS against
2007: 1.85 ERA, 0.771 WHIP, .463 OPS against
2006: 0.92 ERA, 0.776 WHIP, .465 OPS against
Suffice to say, Papelbon looked far more like himself in the final two months of last season than he did before he made the mechanical change.
The change in mechanics raises eyebrows, of course, in that the Red Sox have consistently made an effort to protect the shoulder of their All-Star closer. Papelbon almost abandoned closing three years ago for the starting rotation because the once-a-week routine of starting would put less stress on his shoulder than pitching on back-to-back days out of the bullpen.
The Red Sox still are trying to find the best way to minimize wear on the shoulder of Papelbon while, of course, maximizing effectiveness. That process goes back to the start of his major-league career and has had several permutations over the years -- the most recent being the decision last spring to put his hands at his chest when coming set.
"With that change came a little more inconsistency with location," Farrell said, "but we saw the life of the fastball pick up. To counteract and find that balance again of command plus life, he went back to what he did at the end of '08 -- and the numbers directly show that, as well."
That doesn't mean, Farrell insisted, that Papelbon will be more at risk for a trip to the disabled list this spring than he was last spring.
"By using this year what he finished the year with last year, we don't think it's going to be cause for a red flag: 'This is going to put more stress on your shoulder, and we've got to be careful,'" Farrell said. "There's not that involved."