Jonathan Papelbon: Buy, Sell or Hold?

By Tommy Rancel //

Despite being one of the majors’ hottest teams, the Boston Red Sox have some concerns. With Josh Beckett and Jacoby Ellsbury already on the shelf, Boston recently lost former American League MVP Dustin Pedroia and star catcher Victor Martinez to the disabled list. In addition to those players, Clay Buchholz is also nursing an injury.

There is plenty to worry about in Boston with that group of players. But any potential concerns about the performance of closer Jonathan Papelbon are premature.

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Anytime a player struggles in a major media market his troubles become magnified. In two straight appearances in Colorado last week, the 29-year-old right-hander allowed five runs on six hits, yielded two three home runs, and blew two straight saves.

The Red Sox closer currently owns a 3.82 ERA in 31 appearances. Papelbon hasn’t posted an ERA over 2.65 in any of his previous five seasons. Outside of the expanded ERA, Papelbon is striking out fewer batters (7.64 strikeouts per nine innings) and walking more batters (3.31 walks per nine innings) than he ever has in a full season. To complete the trifecta, he is allowing home runs to leave the ballpark at a rate more than double his career level.

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It might seem like it’s time to explore moving Papelbon off your fantasy team. But that’s probably a bad move, especially while he’s at his lowest perceived value. Besides, a number of advanced metrics suggest he will rebound quite favorably.

As mentioned Papelbon’s K/9 has fallen from a career mark of 10.17 per 9 IP to 7.64 in 2010. This is odd for a few reasons. His velocity of 94.6 mph on his fastball is nearly identical to his 94.5 mph career number. In addition to the velocity, Papelbon is still getting a lot of swinging strikeouts. His swinging strike percentage of 11.5% is actually higher than his 11.0% from a season ago.

Papelbon is also getting hitters to chase out of the zone (35.6% O-Swing) more than he has in previous seasons (30.4% O-Swing career). He’s throwing more first-pitch strikes (67.2%) which means he is not falling behind hitters. All signs point to Papelbon’s strikeout rate increasing, if his core skills remain steady.

Papelbon’s biggest problem has been the long ball. He has surrendered more home runs this season (6) than in any other season in his career, and we haven’t even reached the All-Star break. We mentioned that his HR/9 of 1.64 was more than twice his career number (0.73). A big reason for that is his elevated home run-to-flyball rate of 12.2%. For his career, 7.1% of the flyballs hit against him have left the yard. In four of his five previous seasons, he maintained a HR/FB% of 7.5% or less.

More likely than not, Papelbon’s problems are related to pitch location issues. We may also be seeing some outliers due to small sample sizes. With the potential for positive regression in terms of strikeouts, and a correction in the disproportionate rate of home runs allowed, Papelbon should maintain plenty of value. If you own him, remain patient. If you don’t, this may be a good time to trade for Papelbon at a discount.

For more on Jonathan Papelbon and other Boston Red Sox, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Tools

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