How bad has Jonathan Papelbon been for the Washington Nationals this season? Short answer: not very good. The arrogant closer’s latest meltdown comes on the heels of a walk-off loss to the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on Tuesday night. Pap took the mound with a 6-4 lead in the ninth, but surrendered a leadoff walk, RBI double, sacrifice bunt, intentional walk, and a bases-loading hit with just 15 pitches. Given the Nationals looked defensively challenged in the ninth, there’s plenty of blame to go around in the Washington clubhouse. Papelbon tallied his third blown save in the effort.
Let’s take a deeper look at the source of the 35-year old righty’s issues this season.
Papelbon is relying on his fastball less in 2016, throwing the heater just 65.9% of the time, lower than his career average of 73.4%. Why? Well, the velocity of his four seam fastball is registering at a career-low of 90.9 mph (average), down from his career average of 93.6 mph. It’s likely he knows his effectiveness has diminished, taking his confidence down with it.
Pitchers getaway with low velocity everyday and are still successful (see Bartolo Colon). What is more concerning for the Nationals is that Papelbon has lost his command. Pap is throwing first-pitch strikes just 57.9% of the time, well below his career average of 63.7%. Working behind hitters (especially with men on base) in high-leverage situations is not conducive to closing out games.
How can Pap reverse the trend and pitch better? My suggestion: sloooooow it down! He’s taking significantly less time between pitches than he has at any other point in his career. He’s averaging 23.8 seconds between pitches. From 2008-2012 (arguably his best seasons) Papelbon averaged 29.6, 31.6. 31.6, 31.9, and 30.3 seconds between pitches, respectively.
While he’s gradually increased his pace over the years, that is still a HUGE difference for a pitcher. Maybe the pressure to meet pace-of-play rules has led to decreased performance from a historically reliable closer.Perhaps the decreased recovery time between pitches has lead to more rapid fatigue and decreased velocity for Papelbon. Papelbon’s changes further prove that MLB should kill the pitch clock.
While the Nationals still boast 58 wins and a 4-game lead over the Miami Marlins in the NL East, Papelbon’s struggles may foreshadow problems through the rest of summer and into the playoffs. Pap is set to be a free agent after the 2016 season, forcing the Nationals to scour the trade market in search of a closer for the future. After losing the Aroldis Chapman sweepstakes to the Chicago Cubs, the need to improve is becoming more critical – and more expensive – as the August 1st trade deadline looms. Despite the relationship Nationals’ manager Dusty Baker has with Aroldis Chapman, there’s no guarantee the flame-throwing lefty would be willing to sign with Washington this offseason. There are questions whether or not Papelbon would be OK with pitching the 8th inning, but his leverage in that conversation would be null if the club could acquire the Yankees’ Andrew Miller or the Royals’ Wade Davis. Whatever their course of action is, the Nats need to move now to replace a pitcher ready to implode.
Stats courtesy of fangraphs.com