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Whither, Papel-power?

04.28.09 at 5:32 pm ET

It’s hard to find too much fault with a pitcher whose ERA still tilts the skills below 2.00, but the last few outings by Jonathan Papelbon (1.93 ERA this year) have been, well, somewhat un-Papel-ish.

First, all the disclaimers:

1) Papelbon has converted all five of his save opportunities.

2) Though he’s given up eight hits in 9.1 innings, each of the last six have been singles, including several groundballs that found holes.

3) Last September, there were questions about whether Papelbon was mortal when he allowed a 5.56 ERA that month. He responded with 10.1 shutout innings in the postseason.

All of that is to say that one probably shouldn’t read too much into Papelbon’s performance through the first three weeks of the season. Nonetheless, it is also clear that he has not quite been up to the standards of his historic career start.

He came into this year with roughly 17 percent more strikeouts (270) than hits allowed (230). This year, he’s allowed an identical number of hits and strikeouts. In past years, he was at times unhittable. Through his first 9.1 innings of this year, not so much.

FanGraphs (hat tip: Sons of Sam Horn) notes that opponents are making contact with Papelbon’s pitches roughly 80 percent of the time that they swing. That’s the highest mark of his career. The result is a) more pitches, since opponents are fouling pitches rather than swinging through two-strike offerings; b) fewer strikeouts and c) more hits and walks.

In the past, Papelbon has produced strikeouts at obscenely high rates. In 2007, for instance, he struck out one out of every 2.67 batters who stepped into the box against him. This year, that rate is almost double that. Here are Papelbon’s year-by-year batters-per-strikeout rates since he entered the league in 2005:

2005: struck out 1 of every 4.35 batters
2006: 1 / 3.43
2007: 1 / 2.67
2008: 1 / 3.55
2009: 1 / 5.25

His velocity has been solid if not outrageous. Papelbon has regularly been working at 94-96 mph with his fastball. He also said last week that the development of his slider has been “huge – I view it as a third out-pitch.”

Indeed, as Rob Bradford noted in today’s edition of Five Things, Papelbon used the pitch to significant effect when the Indians were tagging his fastball last night. Even so, he has appeared less invincible this year than in past seasons, especially given his usual April dominance. Entering this year, his 0.74 April ERA was his best of any month.

Struggles, of course, are relative. Perhaps it is unfair to measure Papelbon or anyone else by the absurd precedent of the beginning of his major-league career. Certainly, any sense of alarm is quite premature.

Even so, the mere fact that he has allowed five walks in a single month (tied for the most he has ever permitted in a single month since becoming closer; he also allowed five in April of 2007) and that his command within the strike zone has been somewhat less precise than in the past bears some notice.

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