The Split Personality: Jonathan Papelbon and the Red Sox

Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon has reported that while he is content with one-year deals through 2011, he would like to sign a multi-year deal with the Red Sox soon. He also has stated that he got away from his split-finger fastball last season and will work on reincorporating it into his pitching repertoire for future seasons. The questions are: should the Sox keep Papelbon, and will his splitter help him as a pitcher?

The answers to both are a resounding yes. Jonathan Papelbon is the first real closer the Red Sox have had in quite some time. Up until 2006, no closer with the Red Sox lasted more than a year (or at least was effective for more than a year), and the team went through numerous players who were just not good enough to close with any real consistency. Papelbon brings consistency and stability to the back of the bullpen, and you need a solid closer to win games in the MLB. This will be even more important with the Red Sox this season, as their lack of power suggests many low-scoring and close games. Add to that his popularity among Red Sox nation and you have an essential member of the Red Sox going forward. He is young, pretty healthy (with the exception of his shoulder injury at the end of 2006), and still throwing heat. He has the potential to actually IMPROVE for upcoming seasons, and that’s a scary thought.

As for his split-finger, we need only look at his statistics to see that he was a better pitcher with it than without it. Let’s evaluate two seasons: 2007 and 2009. In 2007 he threw for fewer innings, true, but he had his highest strikeout total of any year (84). Compare that with his last season, 2009, and we see that he was a stronger pitcher when he could throw his splitter as well as his fastball. Not only that, but his walks and hits allowed were also lower in 2007 (15/30 vs 24/54) than in 2009. He also had fewer blown saves if we include the postseason (3 vs 4, the last of which cost the Sox the ALDS). If we simplify 2007 as a year in which he used the splitter and 2009 as the year in which he didn’t, we come to a clear conclusion.

Most relief pitchers cannot survive on just one pitch. Papelbon is certainly one of them. His fastball is great, yes, but his accuracy with it is not perfect. He is not a control pitcher, he is a power pitcher. But as a closer he doesn’t have the opportunities a starting power pitcher does to establish his fastball. He has to do it in just a couple of pitches or he will wear himself out to the point that the next hitter will crush him. And when that pitcher has only one pitch, it’s easy to sit on and wait for. That’s why Papelbon gave up the most home runs he’s ever given up in 2009 (5, although he also gave up 5 in 2007): people were waiting for his fastball.

The splitter has the advantage of looking hittable but rarely actually BEING hittable. It comes in straight than quickly falls out of the strike zone. And it’s thrown with similar speed to the fastball. Papelbon’s splitter gives him two advantages:

1) It keeps hitters off of his fastball, making them more likely to swing and miss or foul it off, rather than sit on it and crush it.

2) It allows Papelbon to have an out-pitch in counts where the batter is unlikely to swing at balls, such as 0-2. The ball looks like a strike until it drops, so even patient hitters will take a shot at it. This is why Papelbon recorded so many more strikeouts using it.

Papelbon should be with the Red Sox for a long time to come. He is an excellent pitcher that the fans love. He needs to reincorporate his splitter into his pitching so that he can get easier outs, and he needs to finally decide if he wants to develop a slider or not. If he can do those things, I see him remaining an elite (and highly-paid) pitcher in the game for many years to come.

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