There weren't too many people around the country who were too upset that Jonathan Papelbon had a down year last year. The erstwhile closer just seems to be the most hated closer since John Rocker. Paps may have been right about Manny Ramirez when that trade went down a few years ago, but he broke etiquette by blasting his former teammate. He famously was upset at his own manager for choosing Mariano Rivera as the All Star closer a couple of seasons ago. His demeanor on the field and after games just seem to lead to loathing. And that's all fine and good if he is blowing saves and rocking a 3.90 ERA. But even the hoariest of haters have to admit that Papelbon has been the bomb this year.
Papelbon is currently rated by Fangraphs as the second best reliever in baseball, just slightly ahead of Mariano Rivera after Rivera blew the save on Wednesday, and just behind Craig Kimbrel and his 14.57 strikeouts per nine innings. Papelbon's ERA of 2.41 is certainly better than last year, but it's not a true indicator of how well he is pitching. His FIP is 1.02 and leads all relief pitchers and his xFIP is 2.06. A high BABIP is all that stands in the way of Papelbon's overall ERA. He's been a bit unlucky.
There are three stats that stand out for Jonathan Papelbon this year. His strikeouts per nine have jumped back to his highest level since 2007 and stands at 12.05. His walk rate is the lowest it's been since 2008 and sits at 1.45 and he's given up no homers, something he had a little trouble with last year. His 8.33 K/BB ratio is outstanding and the second best of his career. The up-tick in numbers lead to the question of what he is doing differently this year than last year.
The one thing noticeable is that he's throwing more sliders this year. After throwing that pitch a little over nine percent of the time the last two years, he's thrown the slider 12.1 percent of the time this year. And his slider seems to have more vertical and horizontal movement than a year ago when it was a lot flatter a pitch for him. His split-fingered pitch is still devastating. Few people can throw that pitch with an average speed of 89 miles per hour like he can. It's his top rated pitch and is rated even higher than his 94 MPH fastball.
One of the knocks on Papelbon last year was that he relied too heavily on the fastball and stubbornly stuck to that pitch. The numbers don't bear that out. His percentage of fastballs relative to all his pitches was at the lowest percentage in his career last year. The real difference it seems was that his fastball was flat and had little movement (only -0.5). This year, his fastball has more movement (-2.0) vertically and along with his slider and split, has led batters to swing at pitches out of the strike zone at the highest rate (39 percent) of his career.
Few people who follow baseball root for Jonathan Papelbon. Even his own fans in Boston are split on whether they want him or Daniel Bard to close games for the Red Sox. But last year notwithstanding, Jonathan Papelbon is an elite closer with few peers in baseball. His success will be a big key to how far the Red Sox go this season. And so far, so good.