You look at the consistent drop in velocity starting in 2012 and one assumes that Jonathan Papelbon is in a downward spiral. But closers lose it, regain it, and lose it again. There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it.
It could be that almost eight years after Papelbon had a subluxation of his right shoulder while with the Red Sox that something is happening that may soon need attention.
What we do know is the closer position already has been a wild ride this season. Papelbon blew a save Wednesday night against the Rangers when he and the Phillies took a 3-1 lead into the ninth but lost, 4-3, on a bases-loaded walk. He never used to do that.
That confidence and swagger that Papelbon used to have are gone. You can tell he knows that something is missing because he seems unsure with every pitch he throws. And now with a fastball that barely hits 90, that’s 4-5 miles per hour gone. So, he needs to make major adjustments. He needs to pitch inside more.
All of the things that vanishing velocity bring are catching up to him, including the separation in velocity from fastball to a secondary pitch. Not as severe, therefore not as effective.
Also remember that the Red Sox had Papelbon on a strict shoulder program during his tenure. Who knows if that’s been tinkered with since he got to Philadelphia.
But Papelbon, who recovered Saturday with a save vs. the Cubs, hasn’t been alone. The Athletics acquired a closer from Baltimore, Jim Johnson, who had at least 50 saves two years in a row. The Orioles were lamenting the loss, but Johnson started the season with two losses. In Minnesota, the Twins re-upped Glen Perkins for four years. And what did he do? Blow his first save.
Jason Grilli also blew his first chance for Pittsburgh, and Mark Melancon, the setup man who filled in well for Grilli for a stretch last season, blew a lead as well.
Joe Nathan, 39, was supposed to solidify the Tigers’ bullpen, but in his first save chance he couldn’t preserve Max Scherzer’s 1-0 gem on Wednesday in a game Detroit came back to win.
Jose Veras, the Cubs’ new closer, blew a save opportunity that led to a 16-inning game Chicago lost.
On the flip side, Tommy Hunter closed the door on the Red Sox to preserve a 2-1 Opening Day win, hitting 99 m.p.h. He’s a guy a lot of people have been skeptical about, yet he was successful, while his predecessor, Johnson, was not.
It makes you appreciate Koji Uehara. But really, don’t give the Red Sox a lot of credit except for the fact they signed him as a setup man. General manager Ben Cherington traded for Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan, both of whom got hurt before Uehara wowed the world. It took parts of two seasons to properly replace Papelbon.
The Red Sox never made Papelbon an offer on an extension, figuring he wanted a big contract and that they weren’t going to meet those demands. The Phillies stormed in.
It looks now like the Sox made the right decision, but when Bailey was injured in 2012, and Hanrahan got hurt in 2013, there was more than a little angst. If Uehara hadn’t done it, then what?
It brings us to the fact that Mariano Rivera’s loss to baseball is extreme. Rivera holds the record for most saves at the age of 39 or older. He had 44 saves when he was 39, 41, and 43. Uehara turned 39 on Thursday and is aiming to be the first to record his first 25-plus-save season at age 39 or older.
Maybe teams don’t spend a lot of money on closers because they’ll break their hearts and pocketbooks. And maybe teams can find these guys buried within their staffs and organizations. The Red Sox may be trying to find Uehara’s replacement in Andrew Miller or Junichi Tazawa, or Rubby De La Rosa or Alex Wilson, or who knows, Brandon Workman.
The Tigers opted for Nathan, who has had a great career despite two Tommy John surgeries, but he was a risk considering his age.
Until Papelbon’s downfall, he was a consistent, go-to closer. But now, that’s gone. He’s been replaced by Atlanta’s Craig Kimbrel as the most consistent, shutdown closer in the game. Kimbrel is scheduled to earn $53 million between now and 2018. Given that he’s 25, the Braves are confident Kimbrel will still be a top dog in four more years. But who knows?
Closers, like the amateur draft, have become a crapshoot.
Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, who knows as much about pitching as anyone, believes closers need to be more accomplished pitchers and not just flame-throwers because once the flame goes, then what?
“Who has the second-most saves ever?” Palmer asked. “[Trevor] Hoffman. He had a pitch. He trusted himself. Trevor was a starting pitcher at one time. I think when you start, you learn more about pitching.”
Palmer said of Papelbon, “He didn’t pitch with his slider. His stuff had enough movement, but when you lose a little bit . . . [The Orioles have] got this kid, [Kevin] Gausman, who no doubt in my mind can close, but he can also be a No. 1 starter.”
It’s come down to teams needing to reinvent themselves every couple of years with closers. Uehara is 39, so the Red Sox will likely be looking for someone else soon.
Tampa Bay continually turns them over. The Yankees had the same one for 17 years, but now you wonder how long David Robertson will last.
It may the most volatile position in baseball. And that’s why rehab types such as Brian Wilson (recently back on the disabled list with the Dodgers), Bailey, and Hanrahan (who will soon work out for teams), are trying to get back as quickly as possible. Because there’s always opportunity.
Pierzynski is looking for some fast learners
A.J. Pierzynski is quickly making his mark with the Red Sox’ pitching staff. He’s been credited with helping the pace at which pitchers work, and he also recently weighed in on former teammate Bobby Jenks, who is considering a comeback.
“I want to get the games over with as quickly as possible,” Pierzynski said. “I think we all want to.”
The White Sox’ staff was known for pitching quickly, led by Mark Buehrle, who worked faster than any pitcher in baseball. But Chicago isn’t where Pierzynski learned it.
“I think it was more coming up with the Twins,” he said. “They were all about, get the ball and throw it. From Tom Kelly to Gardy [Ron Gardenhire], even now, their pitchers get the ball and throw. I always believed that when a pitcher gets into a good rhythm and they’re not waiting on the catcher to get ready, that it helps. I think the pitcher gains some energy from a quicker pace. It’s like, ‘Let’s go.’ It makes the batter uncomfortable to see Mark Buehrle get ready to throw the next pitch so fast.”
So what came first, did Pierzynski make the staff speed up or were the pitchers speedy?
“[Buehrle] always had that, but he and I worked really well together,’’ said Pierzynski. “I’d just tell him, ‘Throw it, I’ll just catch it.’ I’m always trying to get guys to speed up because it helps them find what they’re looking for. [John] Danks was fast, [Chris] Sale was fast, [Jon] Garland was fast. The only one we had to get on a little bit was Gavin Floyd. He was a little bit more methodical, but even then he was always good. With Jake [Peavy], sometimes you have to slow him down.”
Regarding Jenks, Pierzynski said, “I haven’t talked to Bobby personally, but people told me he was at White Sox fest and looked good, sober. I heard he was living in California. Bobby is Bobby. He’s a great guy, but we all have our things. Unfortunately for him, stuff caught up to him. Bobby is one of the best relief pitchers I’ve ever seen.
“Bobby is a good guy. I know there’s a lot of bad stories out there, but Bobby always meant well. He didn’t always do the right thing, but I wish him nothing but the best. I heard he’s got things straightened out and I hope that’s true and I hope he has a great life.”
Jenks’s career ended badly with the Red Sox, a life-threatening pulmonary embolism that resulted in a medical settlement before the 2011 season. He hadn’t been heard from since until his recent appearance in Chicago.
Apropos of nothing
1. Bay Area writer Bill Arnold notes the two largest baseball media guides are those of the A’s (652 pages) and Red Sox (612).
2. Cubs left fielder Junior Lake wore the wrong jersey in a game during the recently concluded series with the Pirates. The rest of the team was wearing gray road jerseys with “Cubs’’ on the front. Lake wore one with “Chicago.” After the first inning, Lake was made aware of his boo-boo and changed.
3. Pirate Tony Sanchez’s walkoff single in the 16th inning Wednesday night to beat the Cubs was no biggie for the former Boston College catcher. On May 30, 2009, Sanchez was involved in the longest game in NCAA history, a loss to Texas. In that game, Sanchez drove in the tying run in the bottom of the sixth inning, which stood up until the 25th. He also caught all 25 innings that night.
4. The oldest players to start the season on major league rosters were Raul Ibanez (Angels) and LaTroy Hawkins (Rockies), both 41. The youngest? Bryce Harper of the Nationals at 21 years, 166 days, which is 15 days younger than Xander Bogaerts.
5. I spot a trend. Teams employed 2,358 defensive shifts in 2011 and 8,134 in 2013.
6. The Royals were 0 for 2 in their first two replay challenges.
7. Progressive Field has turned 20 years old. If you were a player or a media member with the Red Sox at the time, it’s where you saw both the white Ford Bronco chase (June 17, 1994) and the O.J. Simpson verdict (Oct. 3, 1995).
8. The Orioles need Manny Machado back, offensively and defensively.
9. The Red Sox need Stephen Drew to sign with another team before the amateur draft June 5 to get a draft pick as compensation.
10. Third basemen comparison, Aramis Ramirez and Adrian Beltre (17 years each). Ramirez, .286, 354 home runs, 1,280 RBIs, .846 OPS; Beltre, .282, 376, 1,309, .812.
11. For those of you obsessed with my Scott Boras references in this space, here’s why they appear. Boras will have a big effect on the Red Sox for years to come. He represents Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Noe Ramirez, Deven Marrero, Mario Martinez, Tzu-Wei Lin, and Pat Light.
Updates on nine
1. Lonnie Chisenhall, 3B, Indians — The Indians have been frustrated by Chisenhall’s lack of development. Once believed to be the organization’s great hope at third, he lost his job to ex-catcher Carlos Santana, who took a back seat to Yan Gomes behind the dish. While Chisenhall made the Opening Day roster, he’s likely to head to Triple A Columbus when Michael Bourn and Jason Giambi come off the disabled list.
2. Ryne Sandberg, manager, Phillies — Give Sandberg credit for doing it his way. We saw that in spring training when he benched Jimmy Rollins, and then in the second game of the season he dropped Ryan Howard to fifth in the order, breaking a streak of 665 regular-season games in which Howard batted cleanup. Sandberg made the move because Texas was starting lefthander Martin Perez and Howard had batted .173 (31 for 179) against lefties the last two seasons.
3. Dan Uggla, 2B, Braves — Agent Terry Boss said it’s as simple as Uggla “going back to his old stance and working his butt off.” While it’s early, with six weeks of spring training and the first week of the season, Uggla looks to be capable of returning to his 30-homer, 90-RBI form while with the Marlins. Uggla hit .179 last season, the lowest average for a qualified batter since Rob Deer hit .179 for the 1991 Detroit Tigers.
4. Shin-Soo Choo, RF, Rangers — The big issue with Choo always has been his poor batting average against lefthanded pitching. We’ve seen David Ortiz’s remarkable turnaround in that area, but lefthanded hitters such as Howard and Choo continue to struggle against lefties. Some of Choo’s troubles go back to July 24, 2011, when he fractured his left thumb when he was hit by a pitch from Giants lefthander Jonathan Sanchez. Since then, he’s hit .216 with a .336 on-base percentage against lefties.
5. Yordano Ventura, RHP, Royals — We’re eager to see his major league debut, which now will be Tuesday against the Rays after Thursday’s rainout against the Tigers. Ventura’s fastball has been clocked at 102 miles per hour. He could be the guy who gives that rotation quality depth.
6. Emilio Bonifacio, INF, Cubs — Bonifacio started his Cubs career 11 for 16 over three games. The 28-year-old speedster was let go by the Marlins. His fast start is 180 degrees different than with the Blue Jays last season. In his fourth game (which happened to be against the Red Sox), Bonifacio had one of the worst games of any player in 2013 when he struck out four times and made three errors at second base.
7. Hanley Ramirez, SS, Dodgers — The Dodgers have ceased speaking publicly about contract talks, a sign the sides are trying to hammer out a long-term deal that would keep Ramirez a Dodger for a long time and keep him off the market, where the Yankees could be interested post-Derek Jeter. The Dodgers have given out big deals and this one should also be a whopper. Ramirez is likely to move to third base at some point during the next contract.
8. Jose Reyes, SS, Blue Jays — There’s growing sentiment around baseball that as good and talented as Reyes is, the constant injuries simply don’t warrant the outlay of money or commitment to him. Not his fault. He plays the game hard and is very exciting when healthy, but as one National League GM put it, “You can’t build a team around a guy like that. He just doesn’t play enough.” There’s a growing list of players like this. Carlos Quentin is certainly one of them, and Jacoby Ellsbury is another lengthy injury away from being another.
9. Kendrys Morales, 1B/DH, free agent — ESPN’s Eric Wedge, who managed Morales in Seattle, is shocked he’s still on the market. “He’s an impact, middle-of-the-order bat from both sides of the plate, a great teammate,” Wedge said. “Anyone would love to have him on their team and in their clubhouse. I understand the issues involved, but it makes no sense to me that he’s not with a team. There are a lot of teams who could use that quality bat.”
From the Bill Chuck files — “Since 2004, CC Sabathia leads the majors with 207 quality starts, followed by Mark Buehrle and Bronson Arroyo with 199 each.” Also, “Justin Smoak leads active players with 1,956 plate appearances without a triple. Smoak is second all time to Johnny Estrada, who finished his career with 2,244 triple-less plate appearances . . . Happy birthday, Lou Merloni (43) and Marty Pattin (71).Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.