Inside the Phillies: Location, not velocity, is Papelbon's focus

Jonathan Papelbon says, "I could go out there and throw [hard], but there's no need for me to do that."
Jonathan Papelbon says, "I could go out there and throw [hard], but there's no need for me to do that." (RON CORTES)
Posted: May 22, 2013

Jonathan Papelbon is in the century club.

According to baseball-almanac.com, there is video evidence of his fastball being clocked at 100 m.p.h. during an April 22, 2008 game at Fenway Park. It's a cool accomplishment because there are so few people on this planet who can generate that kind of arm speed.

But velocity is like good looks. Eventually, unless you're a super freak like Nolan Ryan, the speed of a pitcher's fastball is going to decline.

Papelbon, in his second season with the Phillies, decided last year to take that matter into his own hands in an effort to prolong his career.

"I don't think my focus is on velocity anymore," he said. "It's on location. I could go out there and throw [hard], but there's no need for me to do that. There really isn't. There is no reason to put wear and tear on your arm, your back or your legs . . . when it's not really needed."

According to FanGraphs.com, Papelbon's four-seam fastball averaged 92.3 m.p.h. through his first 16 appearances of the season. His two-seam fastball averaged 92.6 m.p.h. In his final season with the Red Sox, his four-seam fastball averaged 94.8 m.p.h. and his two-seamer averaged 95.3.

What's interesting is that Papelbon believes he can still throw consistently at 95 m.p.h.

"I throw it when I need it," he said.

He needed it to pitch out of a ninth-inning jam during his five-out save in Arizona last weekend and that's when he pulled it out.

Papelbon believes he has been a better pitcher with the Phillies than he was during his six seasons as the Boston Red Sox closer, which is saying something because he was brilliant in Beantown.

"I throw more pitches, I throw with better location," Papelbon said. "Last year I had a career high in strikeouts. I had more strikeouts and I wasn't throwing as hard, so you tell me, what would you do? I throw my slider a lot more, I throw my two-seamer a lot more and I mix up my pitches a lot more."

Terry Francona, who managed Papelbon with the Red Sox, believes the pitcher was more than a Velo Monster during his days in Boston.

"When he was a young kid he'd rear back and throw, but I thought when he was really good, the command of his fastball is what made him so good," Francona said during his visit with Cleveland to Citizens Bank Park last week. "I think that got overlooked.

"He could hit all the quadrants of the plate and when he had his split going, that's when he carved people up. When he didn't have it, he competed so well that more often than not he'd get it done, but he had to work really hard."

Papelbon, 32, said he isn't sure exactly when the velocity light bulb went on in his head, but the one person who has noticed he is more pitcher than ever before is his father John.

"He just noticed I've become more of a pitcher than a thrower," Papelbon said. "He said that to me about two weeks ago."

Pitching coach Rich Dubee said he still believes we'll see more velocity from Papelbon as the season progresses because that is what happened a year ago.

"Check his numbers last April and then again in July," Dubee said.

According to Major League Baseball's game charts, Papelbon was indeed throwing harder last July through September than he did in April through June. It will be interesting to see if that's the case again in 2013.

What matters most, of course, is how he's pitching and through his first 16 appearances this season he has been almost as brilliant as he was in his 2006 rookie season with the Red Sox when he posted a 0.92 ERA. Since giving up two runs in a non-save situation during his seasonal debut in Atlanta, he has pitched 152/3 scoreless innings while converting all seven of his save opportunities.

He'd have more saves, but the one time the Phillies always seem to score is when he's warming up in the bullpen with a save situation still intact. There have been five occasions that has happened this season, including four this month.

Some would argue that having Papelbon is an expensive luxury for a Phillies team in need of more offense. Regardless, there's no arguing that he has lived up to his contract so far.

"I don't know if he's been better than I expected," Dubee said. "I expected him to be good and I think he's been exceptional. He's wired like a closer, he acts like a closer and he wants the ball in the ninth inning like a closer."


Contact Bob Brookover at bbrookover@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @brookob.

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