Jonathan Papelbon, other big-money relievers having early hiccups
Unless it's your team immolating, everybody loves a good ninth-inning bullpen fire, if only because the flipside is generally a come-from-behind victory in the late innings. This young season has already seen a whole lot of them. On Wednesday alone, six pitchers blew saves in the ninth inning, something that hasn't happened since 2001. With the season only a few days old, it's far too early to draw firm conclusions, but such conflagrations nonetheless present a great opportunity to roast marshmallows and wonder about the longer-term fates of various arson-minded closers.
Take Jonathan Papelbon, who on Wednesday night retired just one of seven Rangers he faced, turning a 3-1 Phillies lead into a 4-3 defeat. The 33-year-old closer surrendered hits to the less-than-fearsome trio of Mitch Moreland, Jim Adducci and Leonys Martin — admittedly, his defense didn't help on the last of those — then wound up walking Donnie Murphy to load the bases before issuing the inevitable walkoff walk to Shin-Soo Choo.
Papelbon is coming off a superficially solid season with a 2.92 ERA and 29 saves, but dig a little deeper and the trends are unsettling. He blew seven saves last year, his highest total since 2010, when he blew eight en route to a gaudy 3.90 ERA. His strikeout rate, which had been in the double digits in each of the previous six seasons (11.2 per nine combined) and even better than that in 2012 (11.8 per nine) dipped to 8.3 per nine; as a percentage of batters faced, it plunged from 32.4 percent in 2012 to 22.4 percent in 2013, a precipitous drop. Via BrooksBaseball.net, his average fastball velocity fell off by nearly two miles per hour from the year before, from 94.5 mph to 92.7; the fall is even further when measured against 2011's 95.8 mph. The velocities of his splitter and slider, which together have accounted for around 30 percent of his arsenal since 2010, have both dropped dramatically as well. The splitter eroded from 90.6 mph in 2010 to 87.1 mph last year, the slider from 83.2 to 76.4 in that same timespan. All of his readings have been down even further in his two 2014 appearances thus far.
As with so many pitchers, changed mechanics likely have something to do with Papelbon's dissipated heat. Using the PITCHf/x data at BrooksBaseball.net, Philly.com's David Murphy (not the outfielder) noted that the pitcher's horizontal release point has tended to drift wider and wider as the months have progressed, dragging his velocity down in a more-or-less linear pattern dating back to 2010. Why he hasn't been able to arrest that decline is unknown; neither the pitcher nor his teams have reported any problems with his arm or back that would explain things. After Wednesday's game, Papelbon admitted that he was "flying open," which is to say that he's rotating too early, costing himself crucial velocity.
For the Phillies, all of this is exacerbated by the fact that Papeblon is only halfway into a four-year, $50 million contract that looked ridiculous the moment it was signed and hasn't improved with age. Making things even worse, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. passed up chances to trade him last year once the Phillies' chances headed south, likely because he didn't want to eat very much of the remaining salary. Papelbon's $12.5 million average annual value is the second-highest in the game behind only Rafael Soriano's $14 million, but as noted previously in this space, such salaries for closers are few and far between. Craig Kimbrel ($10.5 million per year) is the only other one averaging more than $10 million per year, with Joe Nathan, Jim Johnson and Brian Wilson (a setup man, not a closer) right at $10 million.
Speaking of that last trio, Wednesday was an eventful day for all three, and not in a good way. Called on to protect Oakland's 4-3 lead over Cleveland in the nightcap of Wednesday's doubleheader, Johnson gave up three hits and two walks (one intentional), retiring just two hitters; by the time the smoke had cleared, he had allowed three runs. He was hung with the loss, just as he was on Opening Day, when he retired only one of five hitters he faced in allowing the only two runs of the game. He's now carrying a 45.00 ERA.
Johnson is coming off back-to-back seasons of leading the AL in saves, with 51 in 2012 and 50 in 2013, but his total of blown saves tripled from three to nine; a stretch of three three blown saves in a row in August more or less coincided with the Orioles' plunge from the playoff picture, though it's unfair to lay all of that at his feet. Even so, his relative inability to miss bats — 7.2 strikeouts per nine in 2013, up from 5.4 the year before, or 19.2 percent in 2013 compared to 15.2 percent in 2012, if you prefer your data that way — has always suggested he's on shakier ground than most closers. Note that his batting average on balls in play shot from .252 in 2012 to .330 in 2013. Any pitcher can fall victim to such variance in a small sample of innings, but it's more costly for one who puts the ball in play more often.
Back in December, when the Orioles dealt Johnson to Oakland and signed ex-A's closer Grant Balfour, I lauded the move from Baltimore's end because the latter has far more consistently missed bats, and the best indicator of a pitcher's future success is his strikeout rate. The O's voided Balfour's deal on medical grounds, but that doesn't make Oakland's decision to go with Johnson at nearly twice the price — Balfour signed for two years and $12 million with the Rays — any less puzzling. In Luke Gregerson, Sean Doolittle and the currently injured Ryan Cook, Oakland does have some less expensive alternatives, and it's not like Billy Beane will dare make Johnson a $14 million qualifying offer once he reaches free agency in the fall. If his struggles persist, he won't be long for the ninth-inning role.
As for Nathan, in his second appearance for the Tigers, he gave up the tying run in the ninth against the Royals thanks to a single, a pair of walks, a steal, a balk and a sacrifice fly. Of his 22 pitches, just 12 were strikes. Aided by an overturned call in the top of the 10th inning, the Tigers came back to win in the bottom of the frame on Ian Kinsler's walkoff single, but Nathan's hiccup was an unsettling reminder of Detroit's seemingly constant bullpen woes last year. Given the strength of his own recent performance (1.39 ERA, 43 saves and 10.2 strikeouts per nine for the Rangers last year), the team doesn't have much to worry about beyond a bit of regression from a 39-year-old, but even with a change in managers from Jim Leyland to Brad Ausmus, bullpen ghosts aren't chased away so easily.
Meanwhile, Wilson, who surrendered all three runs in the Dodgers' Sunday night loss to the Padres in failing to retire any of the five hitters he faced, was placed on the disabled list retroactive to Sunday due to nerve irritation — in his elbow, not among the general population. He downplayed the injury as nothing serious, and an MRI confirmed that his twice-TJed elbow had no further structural damage, but did draw a connection between the Dodgers' compressed spring schedule and his woes, conceding that he didn't report discomfort after a March 15 outing because he wanted to be ready for the Dodgers' trip to Australia. All of which is to say... "Relievers, right? Can't live with 'em, can't exile 'em to Siberia under the Collective Bargaining Agreement." Early season hiccups aside, the likelihood is that contrary to half a week's worth of data, all of the aforementioned hurlers will right their individual ships and pitch at levels that more closely resemble their larger bodies of work. Even so, the multitude of relievers who prove capable of stepping into larger late-inning roles means that the margins for error of these guys are finite. We'll be able to roast only so many marshmallows before somebody douses the fire — or is consumed by it.