Player Preview: Jonathan Papelbon
Well here we are less than a week from Opening Day and Jonathan Papelbon is still a National. Back at the end of September I'd guess few would expect that to be the case, however we had a good idea after the Drew Storen trade in January that he would be sticking around for another year.
And with those sentences let's move on from the already well-discussed topic of Papelbon's transgressions last season and on to a proper preview of what we can expect from him on the mound this year. Papelbon is the only member of the Nationals bullpen besides Yusmeiro Petit who has a role we can all easily define today. He's their closer as Matt Williams once said in his de facto exit interview.
One thing Papelbon should bring to the Nationals that they haven't had in a closer since maybe Chad Cordero is consistency in high pressure situations. Fangraphs has a stat for pitchers called meltdowns which is when a reliever’s win probability added (WPA) is less than or equal to -0.06 in any individual game. Since 2011 Papelbon has had just 31 meltdowns in 319 appearances, his predecessor Drew Storen has had 39 in 301 appearances and his predecessor Rafael Soriano had 32 in 249. So you don't have to worry about Papelbon blowing up when the heat is on.
Of course, Papelbon is 35 years old now and with that increased age comes decreased ability. His average fastball velocity sat at 91 miles per hour for the second consecutive season, down from its heights at 94 earlier in his career. His strikeout rate took another dip from 24.3 percent last season to 21.5 percent this year, putting him just below the league average strikeout rate for relievers last season of 22.1 percent.
However, these aren't suddenly new problems and he's adjusted well as he's lost the zip on his fastball. His partial season ERA with the Nats of 3.04 was third best among Nats relievers with at least 20 innings pitched and his full season ERA of 2.13 would have ranked him first. His full-season win probability added of 2.05 would also rank first among Nats relievers, a full win ahead of the next best reliever, Drew Storen (1.03 wins).
As the velocity has decreased Papelbon has learned to emphasize the fastball less (from 74.6 percent in 2011 to 68 percent in 2015) and use his slider more (9.7 percent to 17.4 percent). That's allowed him to lower his BABIP against and keep runners off the bases (his WHIP of 1.03 last season was almost exactly his career 1.02) and stranded when they do reach (80.4% LOB% 2015, 80.1% career).
If the Nationals had just signed Papelbon to a long term contract of three to four years then I would be much more concerned about his age and the decline in fastball velocity and strikeouts. However, they only have him signed for one more year and he's already shown an ability to adjust. At some point those adjustments won't be enough to stay effective, but I doubt that he'll still be on the Nationals payroll when that time comes. For this year Nats fans should hope to enjoy watching a closer for whom blowing a save in a pressure situation isn't a foregone conclusion.